Preparing for next month’s synod has been a most challenging experience given the existing demands on my time and attention of the everyday duties and responsibilities of episcopal ministry.
But even more challenging has been the need to keep a healthy balance, not only between justice and mercy, but also between the goals of two distinct groups with the Church. One group at last year’s synod was obviously aiming to achieve a more positive, accepting welcome for people who are in irregular marital and other intimate relationships. Another group (the general public of the Church) wanted the synod to come out with a clear and unambiguous message that the teaching of the Church is being restated, reinforced and applied as faithfully
It is never easy to navigate the shoals when the rocks are not only big and dangerous, but also when they lie under a variety of types of camouflage concealing very cleverly hidden agendas.
I am never at ease where people are busy fitting everyone into one or other pigeonhole, camp or category in order to predetermine what they are going to say even before the debate starts. The more controversial the question, the more rigidly they want to confine you to your box.
In my experience, no human being can possibly be fitted fully into the “conservative” or “liberal” box. Therefore, it is not only unfair but also untruthful to label people in this way. It is equally unfair to the discussion process itself, because the full truth is never allowed to surface.
An example that readily comes to mind is that of my predecessor as Archbishop of Durban, Denis Hurley. He was often conveniently cast as a galloping liberal in matters of moral theology, but in matters liturgical he was as strict as they come.
And, as a fierce opponent of apartheid, he was something else entirely when it came to justice and peace.
For this reason, I long ago decided that for next month’s meeting of bishops I am going to keep the theme of this second leg of family synod firmly fixed before my eyes. It is: “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Contemporary Church and World.”
Secondly, I am going to try to be as practical as possible in addressing the problems identified at last October’s synod. I will do this because I want to ensure that the family – in particular, the Catholic family – will play its full role in building up good and solid Catholic marriages. From these marriages will come equally good and solid Catholic families, especially in Africa.
Specifically, I am going to identify five key areas where the family is challenged to respond to the problems which are besetting marriage in particular today.
The first area is marriage preparation. The second is the need to accompany newlyweds for between five and seven years into their marriage. The third is ministering to marriages that are in trouble. The fourth is applying the annulment process to marriages that have broken down irretrievably. The fifth and final area is caring for families living in particularly difficult circumstances. These include single-parent families, families in which a child is the head of the household,
families led by divorced and civilly married people, families with children who are cohabiting and families with homosexual members.
It seems clear to me that if the breakdown of marriage is the issue, then logic demands that, while we minister to affected couples, we need at the same time to examine the millions of good and healthy marriages. We must do this in order to identify the qualities that give these marriages their goodness and solidity, and so enable them to endure, if not prosper. Guidance on how to develop these qualities must then be introduced into our marriage preparation processes, programmes and courses.
It is my contention that these qualities cannot be taught in the period of immediate marriage preparation, be it six weeks or even six months before the wedding day.
What is needed is something much more radical and far-reaching. That’s what I will now try to describe and explain.
The Church teaches that marriage is a vocation or calling from God given because “before you were formed in the womb I knew you; and before you were born I chose you” (Jeremiah 1:5). If we truly believe and accept those words from the Bible, then we will understand why every way of life which goes in the direction of doing God’s will, in this case “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”, should be regarded as a vocation from God.
The discernment of one’s vocation must be something that begins with first catechesis, starting with preparation for First Confession and Holy Communion and continuing until marriage, entry into religious or consecrated life, or ordination to the priesthood.
We have often heard from Pope Francis that the family has the primary task of forming the young and preparing them well for their future role in society and the Church.
I would like the synod to begin from the basic position of everyone having a God-given vocation from their earliest moments. I would then like to see the synod set out the vocation and mission of the family, in terms of preparation for marriage, as part of the normal formation for a life of faith in the Church and the world today.
This approach would make it possible for experienced married couples to develop and apply a systematic programme for accompanying newlyweds through the crucial early stages of marriage, especially those where they have to learn to adjust. Newly married couples must first of all learn to adjust to each other and then, with the arrival of offspring, to each of their children. They have the delicate task of incorporating each child into the family unit, as well as into the extended family.
For the Church in Africa, marriage, in particular when it is entered into via the Sacrament of Matrimony, poses a special challenge. In Africa, marriage shares the challenges I mentioned earlier, but it faces distinctive problems.
One relates to the traditional custom of ilobolo, the Zulu word for dowry or bride price. Many couples today decide to cohabit even before the ilobolo process is completed. Unlike in the West, where cohabitation can have a very different connotation, this form of cohabitation in Africa is not in any way a sign of rejection of the institution of marriage. Quite the contrary: it is a confirmation of a couple’s intention to seal their marriage once the traditional formalities have been completed to everyone’s satisfaction.
The institution of marriage in Africa has many other characteristics that are unique to it. The Church in Africa needs to do a much more thorough study of how to integrate cultural elements such as ilobolo into its theology and canonical discipline. It can then ensure that marriage reflects, through the Sacrament of Matrimony, the reality of Christ’s relationship to his Church.
At next month’s synod I look forward especially to listening to our fellow Catholics from other rites and traditions, in particular the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. These two traditions have a very different understanding of catechesis and faith formation of the young. I’m told that for them catechesis and faith formation is not primarily aimed at preparation for the sacraments. Rather, it is aimed at preparation for living the faith in whatever vocation one finally finds oneself.
This is an approach that I believe may be valuable for the rest of the Catholic world.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier OFM is the Archbishop of Durban in South Africa. He is one of four delegate presidents of next month’s synod alongside Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle and Cardinal Raymundo Assis
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (25/9/15)
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