After reading various commentaries on the recent Synod on the Family, mainly those on the conservative spectrum, I am left with one memorable image. It is not from the Pope’s own rich storehouse of metaphors or from anything said by any cardinal. It is the image of two young people in love and hoping to marry – and then cruelly separated. But the story doesn’t end on a note of pessimism; for seventeen years, while the man was imprisoned by an unjust regime and his fiancée did not know whether he was alive or dead, she kept faithful to their mutual promise of a life together until, miraculously, they were reunited and could get married as they had hoped.
Who was telling this story? Their daughter, Dr Anca-Maria Cernea, President of the Association of Catholic Doctors of Bucharest, Romania who addressed the Synod on 16th October in an impassioned speech that was more inspiring for me than all the official reports put together. A member of the Romania Greek Catholic Church, Dr Cernea told the assembly that her father “was a Christian political leader who was imprisoned by the Communists for 17 years. My parents were engaged to marry – but their wedding took place 17 years later. My mother waited all those years for my father, though she didn’t even know if he was still alive. They have been heroically faithful to God and to their engagement.”
It is the witness of couples such as this that is often lost in discussions about the Synod and marriage. In this respect Dr Cernea’s parents strike me as every bit as holy in their example of fidelity to their engagement, as the parents of St Therese of Lisieux, whom I recently blogged about and who were canonised during the Synod. So often we are tempted to settle for less, to try for the minimum amount of virtue necessary to be considered a “good” person. Essentially, self-denial is hard and we instinctively flee from it.
But it is the self-sacrifice of couples like Louis and Zelie Martin of Lisieux, or of Dr Cernea’s parents in Bucharest, that are the lifeblood of the Church, as well as providing a wonderful example of a lived faith to their own children.
People might point out that as Dr Cernea’s parents were only engaged, they were not bound by marriage vows and were therefore free to separate. That may be true; but Dr Cernea wanted to present this dramatic image of faithful love between a man and a woman in order to remind the Synod Fathers of the high seriousness of this self-giving commitment.
As Dr Cernea went on to say, her parents’ example “shows that God’s grace can overcome terrible social circumstances and material poverty.” It simply has to do with trusting in God and not in oneself. I rather wish the Pope could have emphasised this more in his concluding speech, rather than seeming to obliquely criticise the conservative cardinals.
Again, instead of hearing press reports filtered down with all the possible spin that could be put on them both by the media and certain mischievous clerics, why could we not have heard from the Synod Fathers that, as Dr Cernea could see so clearly, the Church is engaged in a spiritual battle in defence of life and families?
Perhaps, in the consumer-happy, comfortable western world, we get easily distracted from this abiding truth. But coming from Romania, which was run for decades by an evil regime that tried to degrade its population both spiritually and materially, Dr Cernea knows what is really important. As she reminded the cardinals, “the Church’s mission is to save souls” and that “evil in this world comes from sin. Not from income disparity or “climate change”. The solution, she told them is simple: “Evangelisation. Conversion.”
She spoke movingly of the Romanian bishops, none of whom, despite the suppression of the Church in their country, betrayed their “communion with the Holy Father. “Our bishops asked the community not to follow the world; not to cooperate with the Communists.” Dr Cernea concluded this hard-hitting address with the plea to her listeners: “Now we need Rome to tell the world: “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”
Who do these words remind me of? Oh yes – the words of Jesus himself. Please could we have the kind of teaching on marriage that laypeople such as Dr Cernea understand so clearly and which seems to have been lost during the recent press conferences given by some of the Synod members?