My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Family life is beautiful and important. It is in a family that a child comes to know that he or she is loved and first learns to love others. It is in the family where a child first recognizes the gift of faith and the obligations of charity. While beautiful and important, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, also reminds us that no family is perfect.
As you know, Pope Francis convened the Synod of Bishops to discuss the theme of “The Vocation and Mission of The Family in The Church and in The Contemporary World.” Much of the conversation centered on the many challenges that face the family and how we as a Church might support those in distress. In his closing Mass for the Synod, the Holy Father reminded us “Jesus shows that he wants to hear our needs. He wants to talk with each of us about our lives, our real situations, so that nothing is kept from him.”
The bishops participating in the Synod were chosen by their brothers in each region of the world. A smaller number of bishops were invited to participate personally by the Holy Father. Also participating were representatives of the Orthodox Church and the leadership of our separated brethren in the Protestant community. Lastly, certain laymen and women who have particular expertise were invited to give voice to the many complex issues we face in our modern world.
The Synod lasted three weeks, and the blueprint for the discussion was called the Instrumentum Laboris. This document prepared for the issues to be discussed by the Synod members. You may recall that last year we in Brooklyn and Queens conducted a survey pertaining to the family. Together with dioceses and countries throughout the world, the material gathered from this survey became the basis for the Synod discussions.
There were fewer than 300 voting participants in the Synod. In order to facilitate a meaningful discussion, the participants were broken down into 13 small groups according to language, each with about 30 people. These small groups issued reports at the end of the session and these were integrated in what was called the “final relatio” which was voted on paragraph by paragraph. This document will form the basis of an Apostolic Exhortation to be published by the Holy Father in the coming months.
I read the final Synod document in Italian, since no English translation was immediately available. If I could summarize the document, I might say that, in many ways, it was more important for what it “does not say” than for what it “does say.” Certainly, in no way, is it condemning anyone. Rather, the document is more encouraging in accepting people the way that they are and finding ways that we can help people move forward. In effect, the Synod changed no doctrine. However, it has come to a better understanding of how mercy and justice are related, and how they can better be applied to the daily lives that we live in our families.
As is the case in most things, all the Synod Fathers agreed on 80 percent of the issues. The problem of war, a world economy that shatters families, the problem of domestic violence, sexual exploitation in families, and the failures of catechesis and the ramifications that this has upon the views of those who enter into married life are real issues that deserve our attention and our efforts.
Nevertheless, the difficult issue at the Synod was the question of the reception of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried. The unfortunate reality in some parts of the world is that a husband might abandon his family leaving the wife with no choice but to marry another man for the sake of survival. This raises a real pastoral challenge in many parts of Latin America. In some cases it seems an annulment is a very great obstacle and the Synod Fathers asked the question as to what we must do to accompany people in these difficult circumstances.
Married life when lived well is beautiful. This is what we strive to help people attain. Yet, the truth is that marriage can also be extremely difficult and challenging when it is void of love, affection and kindness. The words of Our Lord on the matter of divorce are explicit when He spoke of the covenant that Moses made. Indeed, we face similar challenges as the people of the Old Testament and the early Church.
My hope is that we in Brooklyn and Queens can maintain a prophetic voice on marriage. In a practical sense, that means I would like us to do a far better job in preparing couples for marriage. To that end, I am mandating as a component of marriage preparation a survey tool – Focus – that will help the engaged surface issues that might impact the union. My hope is that our parishes will also develop strategies to play a more active role in supporting couples as they journey towards the Sacrament of Marriage. It is easy to simply allow the Diocese to take care of Pre-Cana classes. My challenge to our pastors and administrators is to ensure marriage preparation is not simply a few interviews with a priest and/or deacon, together with a day or two of Pre-Cana class, but rather a robust process that recognizes the seriousness of this beautiful vocation. The only way this can be accomplished is by asking the laity to take a greater responsibility in marriage preparation and follow-up after marriage.
I also think we need to be proactive and devote significant resources to couples in distress. We need to provide opportunities for retreats and enrichment of those who are recently married. Marriage Encounter is a wonderful model that we might consider expanding. Also, Retrouvaille, a program for troubled marriages, needs to be encouraged.
Our diocese expends significant resources to administer the Marriage Tribunal, which is the court that determines annulments. Perhaps, we should make an equal investment in providing services for those couples who are in distress. So often, a priest knows that a family is having a hard time but says nothing because the issues are beyond his competence. How can we do a better job as a resource to help keep families together in difficult moments? I will be asking Catholic Charities to facilitate referrals for some type of assistance.
I know first-hand the impact of divorce in my own family. I have seen the pain it can cause. Increasingly, many of our younger clergy are coming from divorced families. I see the challenges that these deep wounds pose to them as individuals and even to those they serve.
Our Holy Father, by calling the Synod on the Family, has put out into the deep. In his homily for the opening of the Synod, Pope Francis reminds us “for a Church with closed doors betrays herself and her mission, and, instead of being a bridge, becomes a roadblock: ‘For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren’ (Heb 2:11).”