Archbishop John Dew
The Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome convened by Pope Francis on marriage and family, has been a triumph for openness and discussion in the Church. Over 200 bishops spent two weeks at the Vatican during October discussing issues around marriage and family life. Archbishop John reports on what he considers to have been one of the most interesting and open Synods he has attended.
As I return from the Synod on Marriage and the Family I’m aware that the gathering, the discussion and the topics have caught the attention of the secular media and that Catholic media have followed it closely. I understand many New Zealanders have followed the discussion with hopefulness and enthusiasm.
Shortly after Pope Francis announced in 2013 he would be calling for a Synod on marriage and the family, the preparatory document was released to Bishops Conferences around the world. The document contained a set of questions about the wide range of topics that would fall under the Synod’s heading. The questions were for Bishops Conferences from each country to respond to in their submissions and to form the working document for the Synod. The New Zealand Bishops made these questions available online to ensure wider consultation than is usually able to be conducted.
It gave people from all walks of life, from different vocations and backgrounds, the opportunity to anonymously, and in their own words, share their insights on these topics, which are important to all of us. Here in New Zealand more than 2000 people responded. Many shared deeply personal experiences, stories of joy, of love and care, of judgement and exclusion, and feelings of hope for our Church. We were moved and sincerely grateful for these insights.
The response themes formed the New Zealand Bishops submission and, as the New Zealand representative, I carried them with me to the Synod gathering in Rome.
Over the days before leaving for Rome I was astounded at the emails, letters and messages sent to me, offering prayerful support to me and the Synod participants and expressing hope and enthusiasm this discussion was taking place. This hasn’t happened with previous Synods. But because it is about the family and issues people are deeply concerned about it was clear to me how important this was for people.
To open the Synod Pope Francis called on all of us present not to be afraid, to speak boldly and honestly, to listen with open hearts, not to leave things unsaid, to speak with peace and calm and to trust always that the Spirit of God is with us and that it is the Church of Jesus Christ, not ours.
Every day began with a time for prayer and reflection. The discussion would begin with a presentation from a married couple who were participants in the Synod. From there Cardinals and Bishops took turns to give their ‘interventions’. My own intervention on behalf of the New Zealand Church focussed on the need for Church language to be changed so it gives people hope and encouragement – to find a language that speaks the truth of the Gospel and in a way that isn’t simply as sanctions but draws people to God. Terms like ‘intrinsically evil’, or ‘irregular situations’ don’t encourage people to see God present in their lives. We can then propose what we believe the Gospel and the Church is calling us to as an invitation; and as a calling not an imposition.
There was quite a lot of discussion on ‘graduality’. At times this was misunderstood with some bishops thinking others were speaking about ‘graduality of doctrine of faith and morals’. What they were speaking about was that we grow gradually; we go through stages of moral growth. Graduality recognises that none of us is perfect but that we’re all on a journey. So what are we doing to help – or hinder – others on that journey who are often in very difficult and complex family situations?
The other interventions talked about Communion for the divorced and remarried, and the impact severe poverty has on families; particularly those parents who need to go abroad to be able to provide for their family, which separates them. Many bishops spoke at length about homosexuality. The very fact this topic was being discussed so openly is a change from previous discussions. They were genuinely trying to find a way to recognise those who live a homosexual lifestyle, but were in no way comparing such a union to Christian marriage.
While there was a sense of hope and excitement and positivity in the Synod Hall, and probably by those following the discussions from a distance, this is only the beginning of the process. We’re not sure yet what will happen. This time we’re not asked to vote on propositions and we need to remember things will not change overnight. However, Pope Francis has announced a commission to look at simplifying the annulment process and there may be other areas that will need to be looked at as well over the next year before the Synod reconvenes.
Change in the Church can seem slow at times but what has been clear is this discussion is about people’s lives and that people are hurting. And if the Church is to be a mother that consoles, encourages reaches out, and supports it must listen to what is emerging from the discussion.
We can all have hope in that questions have been raised and talked about in depth and at length with openness and readiness.
The very last presentation in the Synod Hall, before the closing Mass on the Sunday morning, 19 October, was Pope Francis speaking. His words were welcomed with a five-minute standing ovation and all – almost all – were saying his words were the highlight of the Synod. I highly recommend people to read his speech given at the end of the Synod. It is available online and I know I will be meditating on it for a long time to come.
My experience of the Synod is one of active collegiality. At the closing Mass Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul VI. Fifty years ago Pope Paul VI talked about the need for collegiality in the Church at a time of great hope and change in the Church. And when Pope Francis was elected, some of his first words to the world were that the Cardinals had gone to the ends of the earth to elect a bishop of Rome. He has shown us this during this Synod by being a bishop among brothers.
Fifty years on, we as a Church have a lot to thank Pope Paul VI for.