Sharron Cole, QSO, MA, DipEd, DipCBEd, CEO of the Midwifery Council and Chair of the Boards of Parents Centres New Zealand and Rethinking Crime and Punishment, was one of New Zealand’s four representatives at the Synod on the Family in Rome last October. Attending as a Lay Auditor, she was invited to add her observations, personal testimony and comments to the discussion, and she brought her own experiences of being a New Zealand Catholic layperson, wife and mother. A strong member of her faith community of Sacred Heart Petone in the Parish of The Holy Spirit Te Wairua Tapu, three months on from the Synod Sharron reports on her ‘opportunity of a lifetime’.
Writing for Wel-Com from the Synod in Rome last October, I described the experience as surreal. That feeling never left me – whether it was having free access to and wandering around the Vatican grounds, being saluted by the Swiss Guards, observing the Holy Father at close quarters most days, participating in the liturgies in the magnificent St Peters, or being part of the discussion on the working document in the small circles.
My briefing from the Nuncio and the Synod Office when I was appointed as a Lay Auditor by the Holy Father is that I would give a three-minute intervention. I had considerable angst on what its content should be. I was mindful of the Pope’s strong plea for participants to be honest and not to be fearful about addressing controversial topics. In fact he welcomed and expected that. I was not appointed to represent New Zealand Catholic laity but I felt the need to be true to our national Catholic culture.
I read the collated New Zealand response to the working document with questions, which was circulated following the 2014 Synod on the Family, and reflected that response in my intervention. It had three main points:
• The Catechism calls for the Church to be merciful and charitable, which requires an understanding of each a person’s reality
• The Church’s vision on conjugal love and responsible parenthood as expressed in Humanae Vitae has great beauty and depth but the widespread ignoring of it by the majority of Catholics as they practise artificial contraception is a dichotomy that cannot continue to be ignored
• The need for clerics and laity together to revisit the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality as the clerical credibility in the matter of sexual ethics has been greatly diminished by the sexual abuse scandal and its handling by bishops in many countries.
- It was rather daunting delivering the intervention to the whole Synod but afterwards, several Bishops thanked me with one in particular saying it was what the Bishops needed to hear.
For me, there were three particular highlights in the last week of the Synod. The first of these was meeting the Holy Father. I had begun to wonder if I would but when Canadian Lay Auditor Moira McQueen and I walked in the Synod hall early one afternoon, we arrived at the same time as Pope Francis. We did not have what might be called a deep and meaningful conversation owing to language limitations but I did convey to him the affection and support of New Zealanders. He does have that gift of being really present when you talk with him and his face lights up in a delightful smile.
The second was the canonisation Mass on the steps of St Peter’s of Vincenzo Grossi, Maria Dell’immacolata Concezione and the parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux, Ludovico Martin and Maria Azelia Guérin. Again Synod delegates were given privileged positions close to the Holy Father and we were part of an exultant, magnificent liturgy. After the Mass, the popemobile was driven up onto the steps where the Pope alighted and was then driven around the cheering, adoring throngs in the piazza.
The third was the surprise and honour at being asked to read the English Prayer of the Faithful at the closing Mass in St Peters – ‘Moved by the nearness of others, may they be consoled in their sufferings and take up their life’s journey with renewed hope’.
I found at the practice the day before every bit of the Mass is organised to its last detail and there is a cast of hundreds. I sat with the other readers behind the altar so had a quite different view of the liturgy down to the smallest details of where they place the Pope’s zucchetto (cap) during the consecration and the server who held the Pope’s crosier not with his bare hands but encased in his cope for nearly two hours. I couldn’t help thinking of the differences between Mass in St Peters and Mass in Sacred Heart Petone. Each of course has its place within our broad church and while that experience in St Peters was special and unforgettable, I love Mass best at home in my own community.
So what do I think was achieved by the Synod? From my own observations but informed by much wider analysis by people with huge knowledge of previous Synods, I believe there is a:
• New synodality – a process of dialogue, discernment, collaboration and collegiality where bishops and others are free to speak their minds. No longer “a rubber stamp”
• Church led by a Pope moving from being judgmental and legalistic to one that is pastoral and considers people first and rules second, and which is characterised by encounter, accompaniment and mercy
• Path to the sacraments for those who are divorced using the ‘internal forum’ of their conscience in consultation with a pastor
• Pope who has made it clear that the Bishops are ‘with Peter and under Peter’. All the paragraphs of the final Synod document achieved consensus – an enormous achievement
• Acceptance that good theology, exegesis of the gospels, and a sound knowledge of Church history are all essential for effective synodality.
The first few days of the Synod were really challenging and I wondered how I would last three weeks in what seemed an alien culture. Looking back, I am so pleased that it was three weeks as my learning, understanding, opportunities, friendships, inculturation and appreciation of the blessings I had been given grew exponentially over that time. It was indeed the opportunity and experience of a lifetime.
Sharron’s Intervention is on the Vatican website.