The XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops held in Rome during October this year considered ‘The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World’. The three-week-long Synod, brought together Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Sisters and Brothers, together with lay couples and individuals from around the world. They came to discuss challenges facing families today, in a free and frank way, in the light of the Gospel and Church teachings. Bishop Charles Drennan of Palmerston North represented New Zealand Bishops and spoke to Wel-Com on his return.
Q1. There was a lot of media coverage, both Catholic and mainstream, about Catholics feeling disenfranchised, access to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, as well as issues of homosexuality, including same-sex marriage. Can you explain the wider context of the Synod and where these issues fitted in?
It is true that the media picked up on the so called hot topics. But this gave a distorted image. The bulk of our time was spent discussing the vital role of marriage and family life in society and also on ‘in house’ matters of marriage preparation courses and the accompaniment of newly-weds and young families etc. Considerable time was also devoted to the plight of refugee families and trafficked women and children.
But sure the questions around the divorced and remarried, and homosexuality, received intense consideration. And rightly so. Among these groupings are thousands and thousands of Catholics on the edge (or given their statistical significance we might better say, at a centre) and so if we are to take seriously Christ’s mandate to spread the kingdom, then it is imperative we ask why so many feel they do not measure up or fit a certain ‘necessary’ pattern to belong to the Church.
Q2. What were some of the notable cultural differences and priorities experienced among the participants? How did the Synod reconcile or harmonise these to ‘be on the same page’?
Globalisation for the Church is currently meaning not so much a convergence of experience but a realisation of differences. Of course universal teaching transcends or breaks through cultural differences, but only to a degree. Our shared faith does mean that we sing from the same score but that does not necessarily mean we are in harmony! I think the Synod experience was one of clunky collegiality but collegial it was, with an enthusiastic sense of unity of mission gathered around Pope Francis.
Q3. Pope Francis called for free and frank discussions through widespread consultation prior to the Synod. How free and frank were the discussions ‘behind closed doors’?
The discussions were free and frank on both sides of the doors: in the small groups and in the synod hall itself. That is possibly what rattled some figures (a small minority) used to seeing things go ‘their way’. They panicked at the frankness of some interventions, they panicked that their tired formulaic responses to complexities of family life were being questioned by speaker after speaker. The need to evolve our theological and ecclesial language was understood by some as a screen behind which the real push was to change doctrine. Understandably that stirred the waters. But Francis had the last word: ‘the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would “indoctrinate” it in dead stones to be hurled at others’.
Q4.There has been comment about the ‘qualifications’ of bishops to know family life well enough to guide, comment and teach. What is your response to this?
The question is an understandable one. Firstly I think it needs to be recalled that all clergy come from a family, continue to be members of a family, have friends who are spouses or partners, sons and daughters. The telling question is how well do some Bishops (and priests) actually know, visit, sit with, listen to families including those who do not fall within the Church’s sometimes too neat presumptions about the ‘ideal’ family. The Holy Spirit is hard at work in the struggles and grey areas of life. If pastors who cannot recognise this they should keep silent.
Q5.The Pope called for a more decentralised Church during the Synod – what does this actually mean?
I’m not sure. My personal view is that there can be a tendency to overemphasis, or better put, over imagine centrality within the Church. It is doctrinal unity not local administration that weaves us together. The Church in fact is already highly decentralised. No Bishop micro manages parishes or schools, no Principal micro manages RE [religious education] lessons. Our vitality and dynamism comes about because each one of us has a common faith and responsibility born of Baptism. That’s exactly the same for a Vatican official as it is for a first generation Catholic in the PNG Highlands. I think we just need to get on with evangelisation and service rather than imagine we are somehow being blocked.
Sure, there are helpful ways that Francis has further decentralised processes, for example, that regarding the annulment of some marriages. But when some claim the local Church should be more responsible, for example, for the appointment of Bishops I think – really?! The Nuncio’s role is vital. It protects Dioceses from potential woes of tribalism, nepotism, episcopal cloning and a whole lot of other isms! Individual views are tempered with a wider view, a different angle, a bigger picture. That is precisely what the Nuncio facilitates, including of course listening carefully to the local Bishops themselves.
Q6. What do you bring back to the Catholic Church in Aotearoa New Zealand from this Synod and what might be some practical measures and steps parishes can take to support families?
Already much is happening in New Zealand but there is much for us to learn from others too. I learnt at the Synod that Dubai has two parishes and one of the parishes has 8,000 children and teenagers in its education in faith (CCD) programme! I’m not saying we should copy them but it speaks volumes about the priority those parents make of their children’s faith development.
One area I think we need to revisit is the integration of Marriage preparation programmes within the life of our parishes. Marriage preparation is fundamentally about faith development; only in this way can the sacrament and vocation of marriage be understood. We also need to address the fact that the RE topic in our high schools entitled Marriage and Commitment (Yr 12) is one of the least taught. Our young people want and deserve to learn about marriage in a positive light, including those students who come from families where Mum and Dad are no longer together. That’s a couple of starting points but yes there’s lots more too.
Bishop Charles Drennan wrote a blog during his time at the Synod. You are welcome to visit: www.pn.catholic.org.nz and learn of his experience.