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Synod on the family

Last Sunday, Pope Francis opened the Synod on the Family at Vatican City with more than 350 bishops, priests, religious and Catholic lay persons from all over the world participating. The three-week assembly has for its theme: “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world.” Last year’s synod had a similar theme: “Pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization” but with less participants and for a shorter period of two weeks.

For the 2015 synod, participants include 18 married couples (up from 14 last year), 32 women, 166 bishops representing national bishops’ conferences, 22 heads of Eastern Catholic churches,  25 leaders of Vatican congregations and councils, and 10 heads of men’s religious orders.  Fourteen “fraternal delegates” from the Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant communities will also be attending. Among non-voting 51 observers and 23 experts appointed by Pope Francis, the majority are laymen and laywomen, 42 men and 32 women in total, from all regions of the world. Pope Francis will be the president of the Synod, assisted by several cardinals, including our very own Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle.

John Allen, the veteran Vatican journalist, suggests that Pope Francis would like to achieve two things from the synod: “First, he wants a balanced approach to hot-button issues such as homosexuality and Communion for the divorced and remarried, blending defense of tradition with new language and a new pastoral approach that emphasizes inclusion. Second, he doesn’t want Synod debates to be consumed by those issues.” According to Allen, when Pope Francis talks about challenge to the family, he is more holistic, emphasizing also unemployment, war, environmental calamities, a culture of exaggerated individualism and consumerism, neglect of both children and the elderly, and so on as threats to the family. Allen believes that the Pope would consider the synod a failure if those topics are not addressed.

Pope Francis himself made it clear, in his homily during the opening mass of the synod, what he thought were the contemporary challenges to the family: “Today we experience the paradox of a globalized world filled with luxurious mansions and skyscrapers, but a lessening of the warmth of homes and families; many ambitious plans and projects, but little time to enjoy them; many sophisticated means of entertainment, but a deep and growing interior emptiness; many pleasures, but few loves; many liberties, but little freedom… The number of people who feel lonely keeps growing, as does the number of those who are caught up in selfishness, gloominess, destructive violence and slavery to pleasure and money.”

Cardinal Tagle, speaking in Philadelphia last month during World Meeting of Families, also reflected on the many wounds that affect families today. His examples included: financial constraints;  unemployment;  destitution; lack of access to basic human needs;  lack of education; economic and political policies that do not support the families; failed relationships, infidelity, sickness, disabilities; social, cultural, even religious exclusion or discrimination; human trafficking, child abuse, domestic violence, abuse of women, prostitution, new forms of human slavery; wars, ethnic conflicts; climatic calamities; and forced migration, displacement of peoples.

The Cardinal from Manila did point his audience to the obvious: that Jesus Christ heals our wounds:  “In his Incarnation, he embraced a wounded world. He experienced being hunted down by an ambitious politician. He experienced being a refugee in Egypt. He experienced being lost as a teenager. He experienced being branded as crazy. He experienced not having a home. He experienced the taunt, the ridicule, even of religious leaders. He experienced betrayal of a friend. He experienced the humiliating death on the cross, given only to criminals. And he was buried in a borrowed tomb.”

That is why it made sense for Pope Francis to encourage the synod participants to emulate Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Blessed Charles entered “into the mystery of the family of Nazareth, into its quiet daily life, not unlike that of most families, with their problems and their simple joys, a life marked by serene patience amid adversity, respect for others, a humility which is freeing and which flowers in service, a life of fraternity rooted in the sense that we are all members of one body.”

Citing the example of the Holy Family, the Pope said: “The family is a place where evangelical holiness is lived out in the most ordinary conditions. There we are formed by the memory of past generations and we put down roots which enable us to go far. The family is a place of discernment, where we learn to recognize God’s plan for our lives and to embrace it with trust. It is a place of gratuitousness, of discreet fraternal presence and solidarity, a place where we learn to step out of ourselves and accept others, to forgive and to feel forgiven.”

Following the synod’s opening mass, during the Angelus, the Pope described the mission of the Synod as reflecting on the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in society. According to him: “We’ll keep our eyes fixed on Jesus to find, on the basis of His teaching of truth and mercy, the most appropriate ways for adequate commitment of the Church with families and for families, so that  the Creator’s original plan for  man and woman be implemented  and may operate in today’s world, in  all its beauty and its strength.”

He asked for prayers for the Synod: “So let us pray that the Synod which opens tomorrow will show how the experience of marriage and family is rich and humanly fulfilling. May the Synod acknowledge, esteem, and proclaim all that is beautiful, good and holy about that experience. May it embrace situations of vulnerability and hardship: war, illness, grief, wounded relationships and brokenness, which create distress, resentment and separation. May it remind these families, and every family, that the Gospel is always “good news” which once again enables us to start over.”


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