VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Francis opened the first working session of an extraordinary Synod of Bishops Oct. 6, urging participants to speak fearlessly and listen humbly during two weeks of discussion of the “pastoral challenges of the family.”
Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest then outlined some of the major challenges the bishops would discuss, including such controversial topics as cohabitation, divorce, birth control and the impact of social and economic pressures.
“Let nobody say: ‘I can’t say this; they’ll think such-and-such about me,’” Pope Francis told more than 180 bishops and more than 60 other synod participants. “Everyone needs to say what one feels duty-bound in the Lord to say: without respect for human considerations, without fear. And, at the same time, one must listen with humility and welcome with an open heart what the brothers say.”
His exhortation seemed to have worked. A Wisconsin couple told the Synod that existing diocesan programs and Catholic organizations aimed at helping Catholic families fulfill their vocation clearly are not strong enough to meet modern needs.
“We must develop more robust and creative methods to share the fundamental truth that marriage is a divine gift from God, rather than merely a man-made institution,” Alice Heinzen told the synod, reading a speech she and her husband, Jeff, wrote.
The Heinzens, from the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., were named synod auditors by Pope Francis and were chosen to introduce the work of the synod’s afternoon discussion on pastoral programs designed to meet the challenges facing families. Alice is director of the diocesan Office for Marriage and Family Life; Jeff is president of McDonell Catholic Schools in Chippewa Falls, Wis.
The Catholic Church, its parishes and organization need to review “the methods by which we teach our children about the nature of human sexuality and the vocation of marriage,” Heinzen said. In addition, when Catholics talk about vocations and God’s call to each of the baptized to serve the Church and humanity, they cannot speak only of priesthood and religious life. “Marriage should be included in all programs designed to explore vocations.”
The Heinzens said they recognize that their parents’ example and their family life growing up were major factors in their continuing to be active today; Alice said she remembers seeing her father leave early to go to Mass before work, praying the rosary together during the month of May and attending Sunday Mass as a family.
“To all this we can add our mothers who reminded us to always love our siblings, to use our best manners with others, and to save our pennies to help those less fortunate,” she said. “Our homes were schools of love and virtue and our parents were the primary educators.”
But many young people today have no similar experiences and instead, suffer the pain of seeing their parents divorce or are raised by a single parent who was never married.
Through their ministry, she said, “we know countless divorced adults who have joined other faith communities because they do not feel welcomed in the Catholic Church. And, our hearts ache for single parents who struggle to care for their children. Like you, we strive to find simpler, more effective ways to better share the blessings of God’s plan for marriage and family.”
The Church is not confused or in a state of crisis about its teaching on marriage and family life, she said. But there is “a crisis of methodology. How do we as a church effectively share what we know to be true in practical, simple and convincing ways, so that all men and women are challenged and supported to live lifelong marriages and build homes that reflect the domestic church?”
Another married couple told the pope and the Synod that Catholic parishes should welcome same-sex couples, following the example of parents who invite their son and his male partner to their home for Christmas.
“The church constantly faces the tension of upholding the truth while expressing compassion and mercy. Families face this tension all the time,” Ron and Mavis Pirola of Sydney said.
“Take homosexuality as an example. Friends of ours were planning their Christmas family gathering when their gay son said he wanted to bring his partner home too. They fully believed in the church’s teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family. Their response could be summed up in three (sic) words, ‘He is our son.’”
“What a model of evangelization for parishes as they respond to similar situations in their neighborhood,” the Pirolas said.
While Catholic teaching insists homosexual people should not be discriminated against, it holds that homosexual acts are always immoral and that marriage can only be a union between one man and one woman.
The Pirolas also spoke of a divorced friend who “doesn’t feel fully accepted in her parish” yet “turns up to Mass regularly and uncomplainingly with her children. For the rest of her parish, she should be a model of courage and commitment in the face of adversity.”
The couple called for emphasizing the positive dimension of Catholic teaching on sexuality.
“Marriage is a sexual sacrament with its fullest expression in sexual intercourse. We believe that until married couples come to reverence sexual union as an essential part of their spirituality it is extremely hard to appreciate the beauty of teachings such as those of ‘Humanae Vitae,’” they said in reference to the 1968 encyclical by Pope Paul VI that reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on contraception.
“We need new ways and relatable language to touch people’s hearts,” the Pirolas said.
In their discussions of sexual and medical ethics, participants are giving emphasis to the concept of “graduality,” as a way of thinking about morality that allows for human imperfection without compromising ideals.
Cardinal Erdo said that “Humanae Vitae,” the 1968 encyclical by Pope Paul VI that reaffirmed prohibition of artificial birth control, “needs to be considered in light of the law of graduality.” He suggested that it was unrealistic to expect immediate acceptance of the widely flouted teaching.
The cardinal quoted “Familiaris Consortio,” a 1981 apostolic exhortation by St. John Paul II on the role of the Christian family in the world that was inspired by the last synod on the family in 1980. According to St. John Paul, each person is a historical being who “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good in stages of growth.”
Several bishops referred to graduality in their remarks during an afternoon session dedicated to the theme of “God’s plan for marriage and the family.”