The Roman Catholic Church is shifting – moving toward change. If you listen you can hear the sounds. It is like watching a beloved (if, at times, stubborn) child grow and learn to form new words in her or his mouth. Parents, with their proclivity for seeing every great possibility in their children know this. They know how small, sometimes partial words and incomplete gestures cause the heart to leap with joy for what just happened, but also for what is to come.
That is the spirit here at the synod as the first week comes to a close. As FutureChurch heads back home, we know that the Holy Spirit is alive and well here in the synod hall. Even the proclamations of things unalterable are slowly being drowned out in this new life-giving wind of change.
While all the bishops and cardinals more or less assent to the daily mantra, “doctrine cannot be changed,” more and more are proposing creative pathways around that obstacle as they feel a new openness to speak freely under Francis.
Archbishop John Dew of Wellington of New Zealand, aveteran who has attended five synods,attests to the difference Pope Francis is making at the synod. He said Pope Francis, “is just there wondering around and talking to people. He’s very serious about collegiality. People feel freer and you can sense that in the atmosphere.”
On Thursday, the head of the Canadian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Paul-André Durocher spoke of a major shift, a new starting place for theological reflection by bishops at the synod; the same starting place espoused for decades by mujerista, womanist, feminist and liberation theologians around the world.
“What’s happening within the Synod is we are seeing a more inductive way of reflecting; starting from the true situation of people and trying to figure out, ‘what is going on here?'”, said Durocher. “We are finding that the lived experience of people is also a theological source…a place for theological reflection.”
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster said at the Tuesday Press Briefing that the experience of married couples is being heard first, before prelates speak. And this is new according to Nichols. He noted that many “positive suggestions being put forward,” and that “we have to approach the social reality of marriage in a friendly dialogue.” Nichols asserted that equality, rejection of violence and the dignity of children were strands found in western culture that “we can befriend.”
What couples had to say this week
If experience is central to this synod of bishops and the experience of people is a starting place for theological reflection, what are married couples who get the floor at the synod saying? It’s a mix, but below are some of the salient points they made.
Ron and Mavis Pirola of Australia shared a story offriends who have a gay son who wanted to bring his partner home for Christmas. The couple’s love for their son took paramount importance over Church teaching saying, “he is our son.” Using this example, the Pirolas explained how the Church might benefit.
“In our experience, families, the domestic churches, are often the natural models of the open doors for churches of which “Evangelii Gaudium” speaks” While acknowledging families could benefit from better teaching and programs, the stressed that “more than anything, they [those who are seen as outside orthodoxy] need to be accompanied on their journey, welcomed, have their stories listened to, and above all, affirmed.”
Even more pointed, they said that the clergy could become better prepared in presenting Church teachings by “learning from the domestic church.” The Pirolas believe that this demands a new mindset for lay people. “They must no longer be viewed as collaborators of the clergy, but truly recognized as co-responsible for the Church’s being and action.”
George and Cynthia Campos of the Philippines told the story of failure in reaching out to Catholics living in “irregular situations.” Reflecting on why their ministry failed, they suggested that “an enlightened pastoral charity inaugurating innovative forms of ‘accompaniment’ of conjugal spirituality formation and of inclusionary participation in church life leading to full communion needs promotion and enactment by our ordained ministers.”
Jeffrey and Alice Heinzen of the USA framed the crisis in the Church as the result of “the age of the diminished family structure.” Upholding a more orthodox framework for analyzing the problems facing families, they asked how Catholics can, “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 life-long marriages and build homes that reflect the domestic Church?”
Stephen and Sandra Conway of South Africa shared their experience and work in a program for couples whose marriages are in crisis as a way of proposing greater openness by the Church. Citing the story of a couple who had joined the RCIA program but who could not get a first marriage annulled, the Conways called for more openness on the part of the Church. They said, “If God is the ultimate forgiver and full of compassion then these couples should be forgiven for previous mistakes, how ever, they believe that they are constantly reminded and guilty of these past relationships or mistakes by not being able to partake in communion.”
Arturo and Hermelinda Zamberline of Brazil wereinspired by the leadership of Fr. Henri Caffarel who taught that couples should not deliberately close themselves off from having children. They asked the synod leaders to quickly make clear the teaching of Humanae Vitae so Catholics could more readily comply.
Promoting the natural family planning method they also admitted that “many Catholic couples, even those seriously seeking to live their marriage, do not feel obligated to use only natural methods.”
They go on to say that although natural methods for planning the family are good, they may not be practical for many. Citing the pace of life for many young Catholics and the learning curve for success using natural family planning, “the majority of Catholic couples” are not using natural methods.
Olivier and Xristilla Roussy of France told the story of wanting a big family, learning the methods of natural family planning, deciding to try birth control pills, and, even though it meant an unplanned pregnancy, their returned to natural family planning as the best path toward holiness.
They also stated that mercy was central, not just to others, but for the life of the Church. “We are called to love people and walk with them rather than judge their actions; to be witnesses to mercy not ignoring the realities they face. Only this attitude of the heart can prevent us from becoming small communities; narrow, controlled and ultimately dying.”
Even the most orthodox couples, expressed the need for better pastoral care this week. Some of them reflected what Fr. Thomas Rosica heard synod leaders say, “The Eucharist is a sacrament that supersedes all sacraments. Jesus is present in the Eucharist and we must allow Jesus to do his work in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is left for us sinners and we should not portray a church mentality which places limits on God’s love.”
Archbishop Durocher on Thursday sums up the best how the diverse hopes expressed by the synod couples can come together when he said the Church must strive for “a marriage of justice and mercy.”
To read the couples testimonies go to the Vatican Press office website
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