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With a mother’s gaze

· Fraternal delegates, listeners and auditors speak at the Synod ·

With the tender gaze of mothers, the Synod embraced the testimonies of many families on Friday morning, 16 October, especially through the voices of 23 women auditors, highly accomplished in the field to whom, it was stated, one can always turn in order to understand what to do, even and especially when in the midst of problems. Therefore, the 12th general congregation, which took up the entire morning, focused on women and brought real stories of families to the meeting hall. The discussions, in the presence of Pope Francis, were directed by Delegate President Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis.

The session, which involved 262 Synod Fathers, began with a gesture of ecumenism, as 12 fraternal delegates were the first to speak. All Christians — the underlying theme of the interventions — should finally, with a clear and common language, speak for and about the family, because the family might prove to be the preferred path to unity. In this perspective, a key role is that of mixed marriages which, as reiterated not only by Catholics, are never a problem because they are an opportunity for dialogue and mutual understanding.

In expressing their point of view, particularly regarding issues closely related to families, the delegates did not hide their common commitment towards the full unity of all Christians. Certain delegates, such as Robert K. Welsh, expressed this specifically. Welsh, a representative of the Disciples of Christ, recounted his personal story in this regard: his wife is Catholic, as well as his daughter and grandchildren. The eldest of them, Trace, is 14 years old and a well-trained altar boy. Welsh shared that he suffers greatly at not being able share in the partaking of the Eucharist together. Hence he made a real appeal to achieve full unity.

From the Orthodox, the cornerstones of the truth about Christian marriage as a sacrament were proposed. The representative of the Patriarchate of Constantinople noted that the Church does not intend to impose laws as a pressure group: instead she wants to make mankind feel they are not orphaned but loved by God even in this new social environment that is constantly changing. This continuous evolution was also indicated by the Anglicans, however with the hope that we never lose sight of the joy that comes precisely from being Christians. Without this joy one runs the risk of boredom and therefore feeling completely irrelevant. Also highlighted was the importance of finding the right words so as to be understood by the family, especially by young people who would like to get married but are often confused in a world ever more secularized.

Methodists stressed the commitment to accommodate couples who do not have children, with special mention of the courage to choose adoption. The contribution of the Baptist Alliance focused on the centrality of Scripture, along with the suggestion to clarify that, as stated in their hymn, Jesus is really a friend to all and especially to those in need. Strong encouragement to continue on this well-established path of dialogue was offered by Lutherans.

For his part, the representative of the Syrian Orthodox faith pointed out that the Eucharist is not a reward nor a compensation nor part of a punishment. The Coptics emphasized that, while recommending always having an attitude of tenderness and understanding, it is good to reiterate the Church’s teaching regarding homosexuality and divorce.

Ensuring that many people in a non-Catholic environment are closely following the work of the Synod with study and prayer, the delegates brought to Pope Francis and the Synod Fathers the fraternal greetings of the Orthodox Patriarchs Bartholomew, Irenaeus and Daniel, Tawadros, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, among others.

The first link between the 12 speeches of the fraternal delegates, the 27 auditors and listeners was definitely the issue of refugees displaced due to violence in the Middle East. Thomas Schirrmacher, on behalf of World Evangelical Alliance, proposed to the Pope the idea of devising an organization in order to collaborate effectively to ensure acceptance and a future for the many Christian families who have been forced to flee from persecution and are now grappling with new social contexts, in which it is not easy to integrate while maintaining their traditions. This pressing issue was immediately resumed at the beginning of the series the auditor’s discussions. The testimonies of many Christian families were presented in the meeting hall; testimonies of families continuing to live their faith amidst persecution. One issue was that of the many Christian families living in Nigeria under the violent threats of Boko Haram.

The denunciation of all forms of abuse and violence, especially against women, was brought up several times by auditors, and were particularly evoked the voices of families who belong to or share in community and missionary experience. Participants made the proposal for a clear appeal against human trafficking which victimizes first and foremost women with children.

The image of the Inn and the Good Samaritan was again proposed in one of the speeches, and brought back the central issue of true accompaniment for families. It was noted that priests are followed throughout their mission, while married couples, in the final accounting, follow premarital courses which are often fast and end within a couple months. Experience in this field brings forth a reason to hope, as many families who try to live the Christian faith, even in the midst of difficulties, can bring good to our dominant society.

The role and dignity of the elderly was also emphasized, those who, hand in hand with the frankness of children, contribute through their sincerity to an authentic model of family life. The issue of natural methods of birth control were proposed along with the commitment to go against the anti-Christian culture that feeds on a globalized economic and social crisis. The Sampo Generation, a term used in South Korea that refers to giving up courtship, marriage and children, due to social pressure and economic problems, was addressed and defined in the meeting hall. Among the concrete initiatives for reviving the Christian proposal, was also an interdisciplinary team which would have as its protagonists lay people, especially women, who are too seldom spoken of. Their concrete role is often not recognized, be they mothers, daughters, grandmothers and wives.

It would be suitable, finally, for Christian families to be more united in offering their witness, and their fundamental values, beginning with mutual respect, perhaps even using the time of their children’s baptism as a privileged place of catechesis and conversion. Among the participating speakers were: Suhaila Salim Toma; the Marqus Odeeshos, an Iraqi couple; Berta María Porras Fallasa, a Costa Rican sister; María Marcela Mazzini, an Argentine professor; and Lucetta Scaraffia, coordinator of our monthly “Women Church World”.

Previously, the 11th general congregation, which took place on Thursday afternoon, 15 October, had been characterized by reflection on the themes of mercy, formation, the mission of the family, and also of listening to and the reality of certain situations requiring discernment. In the presence Pope Francis, and under the presidency of Cardinal Tagle, it was announced by the General Secretary, Cardinal Baldisseri, that up to that point there had been interventions by 247 Synod Fathers in the various sessions and one had presented his contribution in writing. Among the afternoon’s discussions were those of Cardinal Tettamanzi, Cardinal Filoni, Cardinal Caffara, Cardinal Menichelli, Cardinal Danneels, Archbishop Osoro Sierra and Archbishop Zékiyan. The 249 Synod Fathers were presented with various pastoral experiences and proposals for meeting crises and needs of families. In particular, it was highlighted that despite the critical situations that a family might face, the sacramental grace given in marriage and which accordingly extends to the family itself, is never offered in order to be later withdrawn in certain circumstances. On the contrary, it is man who ignores or does not use this treasure, as was taught by John Paul II. In fact, as it was explained, it is unthinkable that Christ would divorce his Church, and that God would thereby abandon his family. It was pointed out that in marriage the sacrament never dies and grace is never withdrawn, indeed it may be revived if there be a little faith, forgiveness and truth, between spouses and with their children. In this regard, it was explained that the vocation of marriage and family life are not ad tempus and need, every day, to be chosen, renewed and confirmed, as is the case for the priestly vocation and for consecrated life. In the many countries where the Churches are young and evangelization is recent, Church teaching on marriage and the family must be clear and understandable. A suggestion was proposed in this regard: given the diversity of many cultural, social and religious situations, the bishops’ conferences should be given the opportunity to study and make proposals that take into account specific situations pertaining to marriage, which the Holy See would then evaluate.

To truly reach wounded families and to prevent division between spouses, it is necessary that married couples make a sign of fidelity to the gift of God, but there is also need for pastors and communities to become caretakers with tenderness in the face of human weakness and to offer the medicine of grace. It was emphasized that ministry ought to bring astonishment and healing mercy to the patient without betraying the truth. It is necessary, therefore, to offer welcome, understanding, supportive participation, and generous integration that become necessary values in forming disciples who are transformed into obedient and willing Samaritans. Without these attitudes, it was pointed out, one runs the risk of building a divided kingdom: with the righteous on one side and the sinners on the other. An invitation was made to reflect on the case of innocent spouses who have been abandoned. Should the person who has been abandoned, and who had undoubtedly lived the grace of his or her spousal vocation, be — by virtue of the abandonment — compelled to a vocation of full chastity?

In regard to this issue, a Synod Father made reference to an Eastern practice, dating at least to the sixth century. In this practice, in particular cases, the Eastern Church, while reiterating the indissolubility of marriage and with the discernment of the bishop, tolerated a penitential rite for those who experience a failed marriage with no possibility of reconstructing it, allowing them to remarry. There was an invitation to reflect on the issue with a more careful epikèia. Another Synod Father spoke of the home of mercy, understood as the place where God resides in us, where His Spirit dwells within us. The Hebrew word rahumin, which corresponds to the Latin term misericordia, does not contain the word “heart”, but chooses another term: “breast, uterus”. This is because, it was explained, the place of mercy is the space where the tenderness of the heart reigns, an atmosphere that resembles the warmth of the maternal womb. Reference was then made to the thousands of people who sent questions and suggestions for the Synod. All of this, it was pointed out, came from their hearts, because God lives there. They also spoke of the victims of silence, those boys and girls who have been victims of incest by parents or siblings. These people who were abused in their childhood should receive particular attention during the Synod’s discussions. Thursday afternoon was also an opportunity for three auditor couples to speak: the Villafanias, a couple couple employed by the “Evangelium Foundation” in the Philippines; the Witczaks, a couple in charge of the “Worldwide Marriage Encounter International Ecclesial Team” from the United States of America; and Paloni and Calabrese, an Italian married couple engaged in pastoral missionary. 

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St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 16, 2019

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