By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
ROME – One of Ireland’s top bishops says that while the upcoming World Meeting of Families this August must offer a “clear and positive vision for family,” rooted in the traditional understanding of marriage, the Church also must not be marred by homophobia.
“This is difficult,” said Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh and primate of all of Ireland in an interview with The Tablet.
“The Catholic Church itself struggles to find a language by which it can relate to people, not just LGBT people but people who feel they have fallen short of the kind of vision or the kind of ideal of what Catholic marriage and family life is about,” Archbishop Martin said.
The prelate, who served as a delegate in the 2014 and 2015 Synods of Bishops on the Family, cited the tensions at the previous synods on how the Church should welcome LGBT members and the extent to which certain relationships could be affirmed.
His comments come after Former President of Ireland Mary McAleese spoke in Rome last month and expressed skepticism about whether the event would truly be welcome to all and on the heels of the announcement that the theme of the 2018 LGBTQ Dublin Pride Festival would be “We are Family.”
At an address on Tuesday at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce’s Professional Seminar for Church Communications Offices, Archbishop Martin defended Catholic teaching on the family as “positive, liberating, and humanizing.”
“Somehow we have to find and propose to all families in all situations, the joy of commitment, fidelity, exclusivity, charity, justice, and care and development for children,” the Archbishop said.
At the same time, he said he doesn’t want to suggest that the Church’s teaching on marriage isn’t valid, and said “in many ways, it’s a message that needs to heard loud and clear.”
The World Meeting of Families was started by Pope John Paul II in 1994 and takes place every three years to promote the pastoral care of families from around the world. This year’s meeting will take place in Dublin Aug. 22-26 and will include a visit from Pope Francis, as is custom for the conclusion of the event.
The selection of Ireland to host this year’s gathering comes just three years after the majority Catholic country voted in May 2015 to legalize gay marriage and at a time when the country continues to reel from the clerical sexual abuse crisis and as the country is set to vote next month on a referendum that would strip away the country’s restrictions on abortion.
Despite such challenges, Archbishop Martin said that Pope Francis remains incredibly popular in the country and that they’re trying to use that good will to extend to other areas of Catholic life in advance of the August meeting.
On the official program of the World Meeting of Families will be a seminar on child protection, which Archbishop Martin says is not just an effort for the Church to regain credibility -“that may happen later, in its own time,” he said – but instead he hopes that the Church’s painful firsthand experience of sexual abuse can offer lessons to the broader world.
“I think it would be a mistake to hold a World Meeting of Families in the year 2018 and not have an opportunity for families to discuss issues of abuse, domestic violence, and the, sadly, the lack of love and the lack of forgiveness and tenderness that can exist in so many families,” he added.
“The Church offers this opportunity … [to] any families that feel betrayed by a breakdown in the sacred trust they gave to the Church in the past,” said Archbishop Martin. “In a way, by facilitating this conversation, we are saying, look, yes, through bitter experience, we have come to recognize the reality of this awful scourge in family life, and we would like to provide opportunities for people to talk about it.”
Archbishop Martin says that Pope Francis’s willingness to meet with victims of the abuse on past papal trips means he would be “surprised” if the pontiff did not meet with victims of clerical sexual abuse on his trip to Ireland – the first time a pope will visit the country in 40 years.
Pope Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” has served as the blueprint for planning the 2018 meeting. While in the United States and some other parts of the world, the document has fueled strong controversy over its cautious opening to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, Archbishop Martin says that those debates “haven’t really impacted Ireland.”
While he acknowledged that there are some who are engaged in online conversations, most Irish Catholics living the daily grind “look more at the bigger picture rather than at the small footnotes.”
Instead, he said the document presents an opportunity to discuss the importance of good catechesis on the sacraments and the indissolubility of marriage.
Yet before Pope Francis reaches the country in August, Ireland’s citizens will head to the polls on May 25 to vote on whether or not to revise the country’s 8th amendment to allow for abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Early polling has suggested a close split on the question of repealing the amendment, with a majority of Irish citizens likely to vote in favor of it.
Archbishop Martin said the bishops are “fully active” on a local level working against the repeal of the amendment, but added, “We are encouraging that debate to be led by our lay faithful.”
According to Archbishop Martin, the country’s Catholic leaders do not want the referendum to be perceived as a debate “between the Catholic Church and the rest of the country,” but instead one in which lay Irish Catholics become “missionaries for life” known for welcoming and supporting unborn children and their mothers.
That theme of being a country of welcome, Archbishop Martin says, is what’s driving both the Church’s approach to the referendum and the World Meeting of Families.
He pointed to the Gaelic phrase Céad Míle Fáilte, which literally means “One hundred thousand welcomes,” as something that characterizes his approach in particular, because he wants to advocate a philosophy that family should be a place of welcome.
“We want to believe that people all over the world will know that this is a country for welcoming,” he said.