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​Challenges, vocation and mission of the family

· ​The ‘Instrumentum Laboris’ of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops is presented ·

The Instrumentum Laboris is not a definitive document, but a working tool; not a list of answers, but a summary of the perceptions and expectations of the Church as a whole on the crucial theme of the family. It will provide the framework for the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops which will be held from 4 to 25 October 2015.

With regard to the discussions and decisions of the Synod Fathers, media focus during recent months has been on several sensitive topics, such as communion for those who are divorced and remarried, same-sex unions, as well as contraception. However, the Synod objective which emerges even from this preparatory document is much broader and even surprising for some: to let the closeness and mercy of God be experienced by all, to identify ways to accompany families and individuals in their roles within the Christian community. The Instrumentum Laboris was presented on Tuesday, 23 June, in the Holy See Press Office during a conference held by the director, Fr Federico Lombardi, and which included presentations by General Secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri; General Rapporteur, Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest; and Special Secretary, Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto.

While, in the autumn of 2014, the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops helped the Church to focus on “The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelisation”, the upcoming Ordinary Assembly will reflect on “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and contemporary world”. The Synod Fathers will discuss and decide on the contents of this Instrumentum Laboris, which is a text that includes the Relatio Synodi that originated from the last Extraordinary Assembly, and a synthesis of the answers to a series of questions proposed during the year by the Secretariat of the Synod to all the Churches in the world. In other words, this process was established to involve the entire Christian community, and has received support from Pope Francis’ weekly catecheses dedicated to the family. According to details offered by Cardinal Baldisseri, there has been remarkable interest: thus far, 99 responses have been received from competent bodies, 359 observations have been sent freely from dioceses, parishes, ecclesial associations and individual faithful; at the same time, over the course of recent months contributions from symposia, conferences, and publications on the theme have multiplied.

The result of all of this is the 78-page document, which is divided into three parts: “Listening to the challenges of the family”, “Discernment of the family vocation”, and “The mission of the family today”. A portion of the upcoming Synod Assembly will be dedicated to each part. Thus, the bishops will not be starting from scratch, but will be considering the proposals that have emerged during this period between Assemblies. There are also certain novelties, as Cardinal Baldisseri highlighted, referring to “anthropological-cultural, socio-economic and ecological contexts” in which challenges have emerged, such as “poverty and social exclusion, old age, widowhood, bereavement in the family, disability, migration, the role of women, emotional life and education in sexuality, and bioethics”.

Cardinal Erdő explained in depth the first part of the Instrumentum Laboris, emphasizing how the bishops will examine the expectations of a society experiencing profound anthropological and social changes, where the number of marriages, both religious and civil, is in decline, while the rate of separation and divorce climbs alongside a dropping birth rate. In the face of a fragmented society which is wounded by an economic crisis and and a crisis of values, and for which the family is one of the first casualties, the document accentuates the family as an instrument of inclusion, as a “school of humanity”, said the Cardinal, in the words of the Gaudium et Spes.

The bishops will identify pastoral directions to support families challenged by problems such as poverty, inequality, discrimination, as well as disability and illness. Cardinal Erdő indicated that a key chapter will examine the role of the family in “affective formation”. We need to be attentive to the marriage formation of young people, he explained, and to supporting couples in their life together. In addition to this, other challenges to be confronted include the pastoral care of those in civil marriages and who cohabit.

Archbishop Bruno Forte covered the theological and pastoral aspects of the document, especially with respect to the second and third parts. He detailed the framework of the working instrument is not meant to “respond to individual challenges in a moralistic or polemic manner, but rather to affirmatively propose the beauty and importance of the family in the light of revelation”. The family based on the nuptial sacrament is the “Good News” for the world. For this reason, the bishops will strive to consider the family not only “as the object of pastoral ministry, but also as a subject and protagonist”. Therefore, formation will be a fundamental aspect, both the marriage formation for prospective spouses and also the formation of future priests who will need to be steadfast and sure leaders.

“Accompaniment and integration” are the two words which best characterized the thoughts of the Archbishop, who explained in response to journalists’ questions: “It seems that everything has been reduced to the decision of whether or not to give communion” to those who have divorced and remarried. However, it needs to be clear that the Christian community welcomes and accompanies everyone, also those in difficult, controversial or painful situations. And this accompaniment, he emphasized, cannot be characterized by responses that are sharp and decisive on single problems. Instead, it must entail a process of clarification which in which attention is given to the individual’s conscious honesty before God, and which points to a journey.

On all of the topics, including the most sensitive, the Special Secretary explained, no definitive position has yet emerged. The bishops will also consider and discuss requests from among the numerous requests arriving from the People of God in these months. They will be guided by one certainty: the life of the family must be able to unfold under the guiding light of mercy.

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