Up Front and Personal

Synod Wrestles with Church’s Lost and Found

By Msgr. Kieran Harrington

It is a wonderfully frightening time to be a Catholic. These past weeks the Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome is grappling with the difficult questions that touch upon all our lives. What is our cultural understanding of being a family? What are the civil ramifications of being a family? What does it mean to be a Christian family?

Our Holy Father understands the power of symbolic action. He drives around in a little Fiat and lives at the Casa Santa Martha to teach us a lesson. Actions speak louder than words. For me, therefore, the answers to the grappling questions presented by the synod can be found in the lives of Louis and Zelie Martin – the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux – whom the Holy Father canonized on the last week of the synod.

Louis and Zelie lived lives like you and me. The starting point for these two seemingly ordinary people was the desire to be holy, the desire to be a saint. Naturally, they each struggled with disappointment, hardships and loss.

Still, they sought to understand where the Almighty might be leading them amid the ordinariness of their lives.

Those in the media are obsessed about intrigue and conflict. At the synod there is a fair share of such elements. Questions about communion for the divorced and remarried, the pastoral care of those in homosexual unions and the devolution of authority to local bishops’ conferences are controversial.

Still, I suspect that the Holy Father is reminding us of the universal call to holiness. All, despite the conditions in their lives, are called to be saints. Now as a Church, how can we help them along the path? This is the tension between justice and mercy.

We tend to think that our own age is the only age that struggled with questions of marriage and divorce, homosexuality and polygamy. But these have been issues that Christians have struggled with from the time of Christ. The challenge is to find the right language to unlock the hearts of many.

The risks of this discernment are real. In seeking out the lost sheep, do you risk losing the remainder of the flock. Someone suggested to me that this is our living out of the parable of the prodigal son. We never know if the youngest son ever truly repents of his sins. What we do know is that his sin has exacted a price and he desperately desires to return to the house of his father for he has nowhere else to go.

The eldest has kept the faith, perhaps he himself desired to run off and live a life of dissolute living but he did not for love of the father. Does the father’s action weaken the resolve of the older brother? Is the bad behavior incentivized?

The bishops and the entire Church discern these questions with the Holy Father. It is a critical moment and indeed, as some have suggested, the devil is lurking. Still, Papa Francisco is serene in his trust of the Holy Spirit. So am I.


Msgr. Harrington is the diocesan vicar for communications and the rector of St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral, Prospect Heights.

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