It’s about time that our hierarchy listens more intently to the world. It’s about time the hierarchy spends some time listening more carefully to, as lofty Church documents say, the “joys and hopes, the struggles and anxieties” of the people of God before charting a program for the Church. Thank God, this listening seems to be under way. Later this year, in October, our Church will hold a Synod of Bishops on “Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” It might sound as if we’ve heard this all before. Yet this synod promises something dramatically new. Pope Francis is preparing our leaders to meet by starting with a Church-wide poll of sorts, a sounding that is now happening.
Challenges to the Church
When he announced this pastoral synod this past October, Pope Francis acknowledged that families everywhere face challenges that our Church simply isn’t addressing. What are these challenges? Let’s find out, says the pope. Let’s ask people who are facing these challenges day-to-day. It’s a welcome approach. Past synods have more typically involved a large group of bishops, hopefully in touch with their people, gathering for a period of time, speaking to that synod’s topic. A few months later, the pope would issue a document interpreting the learning’s of the synod.
No empty gesture, these synods: the results have almost always touched the entire Church in one way or another. But sometimes their findings could have been broader, or more on target toward the lived experience of the faithful. There were times since Vatican II that a local bishop might seek advice from his people before heading off to discern and debate with his fellow bishops. But this time every one is consulting, at the explicit request of the Holy Father. Pope Francis has given our bishops a set of questions to drive the process. It’s the first time in history the Roman Catholic Church has done anything like this.
Some Starter Questions
The questions are a big clue that this Holy Father understands there is a problem. For example:
· How should a Catholic approach the non-Church wedding of the niece or nephew, brother or sister, who has been living with a partner for years?
· What about divorce, a huge family question?
· How many does each of us know who simply have shaken their heads and walked away from the Church, perhaps at a time when they needed it most? Lots of them never came back.
· What about inter-religious marriages?
· Single-parent households?
· How can the Church be warm and inviting to those living with same-sex partners, some of whom are raising children?
· How do we address the growing trend of less-than-lifetime marriage commitment? Surrogate parenthood?
· What about polygamy?
· Dowries that translate into the purchase of wives?
· Caste systems?
· What does it mean for marriage to be a sacrament?
Those questions are coming from Western culture. Yet it’s a worldwide Church. This is such a spiritual crisis, says the pope, that it will take two synods: one this year, where urgent questions will be named via consultation with the faithful; and a second, in 2015, where some practical approaches and responses are discerned. Hey, Church! Let’s all do our homework. Let’s broaden the nets and listen to all manner of experiences. Let us listen and better understand the challenges of families—all sorts of them—in the modern world.
By John Feister, FranciscanMedia.org, January 2014, Page 15.