The 2015 Synod on the Family formally opened on Sunday morning, October 4, with the celebration of Holy Mass at the Altar of the Confession in the Papal Basilica of St Peter’s, with the Holy Father presiding and the Synod fathers concelebrating.
In his homily, Pope Francis described the Synod as a “moment of grace,” and began his reflections on the day’s Scripture with images reminiscent of Pope St John Paul II. Thus the Pope spoke of the “original loneliness,” or solitude, of Adam before the creation of Eve, a loneliness repaired by the presence to Adam of one who was flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone – the one whose creation completed the humanum by establishing, “in the beginning,” a community of persons who find their fulfilment making gifts of themselves to one another.
The Holy Father regretted that today’s world is replete with “so much loneliness and vulnerability,” and noted that one prominent example of this is the contemporary crisis of the family: “People are less and less serious about building a solid and fruitful relationship of love – in sickness and in health, for better and for worse, in good times and bad. Love which is lasting, faithful, conscientious, stable, and fruitful in increasingly looked down upon, viewed as a quaint relic of the past…[Indeed] the most advanced societies are the very ones which have the lowest birth-rates…”
Pope Francis then spoke of the divine pain at Adam’s loneliness and the divine remedy that he created. For in creating woman to be for man one with “a heart like his own,” the Creator revealed that he did not create us to live in sorrow or isolation. “He made man and woman for happiness, to share their journey with someone who complements them, to live the wondrous experience of love: to love and to be loved, and to see their love bear fruit in children….This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union of a man and a woman, rejoining in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self.”
The truth of marriage, a divine gift in creation marked by complementarity, fruitfulness, and permanence, is further clarified by the redemption. For, as the Holy Father put it, it is “in the light of the folly of the gratuitousness of Jesus’s paschal love [that] the folly of the gratuitousness of an exclusive and life-long conjugal love make[s] sense” – especially in times like our own which, while marked by a lot of talk about love, are also marked by the radical individualism and self-centeredness that makes authentic love impossible.
In the closing section of his homily, the Pope, while recognising that the Church’s teaching on marriage is a hard saying for many, nonetheless called the Church to “carry out her mission in fidelity, truth, and love.”
Fidelity, by “defending faithful love;” by “defending the sacredness of life, of every life;” and by “defending the unity and indissolubility of the conjugal bond as a sign of God’s grace and of the human person’s ability to love seriously.”
Truth, by resisting the temptations posed by “passing fads or popular opinions,” so that humanity is drawn away from the temptation to turn “fruitful love into sterile selfishness, faithful union into temporary bonds.”
Love, by exercising her pastoral responsibility “to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a ‘field hospital’ with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; even more, to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation.”
Pope Francis concluded by commending the work of the Synod to the Lord, “through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, her most chaste spouse.”
We continue our series of “model interventions” at the Synod with a bracing statement that reflects, in contemporary terms, the challenges that bishops used to pose to each other in the great era of the Church Fathers. That epoch saw not-infrequent exercises in fraternal correction among bishops, in aid of greater episcopal solidarity in the exercise of the shepherd’s office according to the truth of Christ. The Fathers’ willingness to confront what was deemed, in conscience and before the Lord, to be an error on the part of a brother bishop or group of bishops was reclaimed by the bishops of the Second Vatican Council. That dynamic might be usefully recovered at Synod-2015. XR2
Model Intervention#5: An Episcopal Examination of Conscience
Brothers, we are bishops of the holy Catholic Church. What is our task? Our task is what it has always been: to bear witness to Jesus Christ and to proclaim his Gospel. It is not a gospel of the family, but rather a gospel for the family, that we must deliver. And not just any gospel but the Gospel.
The “present weakness of the family” does not provide us with our starting point, nor does it tell us what our gospel should be. Jesus Christ, in the context of the Holy Family, provides us with our starting point. It is from him that we have the Gospel we must preach.
We do well to recall what he said on that occasion when he was informed that Mary and other family members were waiting to speak with him: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” he asked. “And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.’”
Let us be clear: We have no good news to offer anyone except the good news that they may become members of the family of Jesus himself, if they do the will of his Father in heaven. And that with his help, and the help of the Holy Spirit who enabled Mary to bring him into the world – and who also helped Joseph to take a path he had not foreseen – they can indeed learn to do the will of his Father in heaven.
This is the good news: that members of the human family can become members of the Holy Family, being joined to Jesus and Mary and Joseph in doing the will of God; that they can be succored and sustained by that Family, though their own individual families may be riven by persecution or poverty or enmity or unfaithfulness.
But I wonder, brothers, whether we can preach this gospel with a clear conscience. Have we ourselves not hesitated to do the will of the Father? Is our present disunity not a sign of that? Is the present weakness of the family in our own churches not a sign of that? Is today’s confusion about what a family is – even about what sex is and what the sexes are – not a sign of that? Is uncertainty about the responsibilities of spouses and children, and the steady encroachment of the state into the sacred sphere of the family, not a sign of that?
Blessed Paul VI spoke to us thus in Humanae Vitae: “Nor will it escape you that if men’s peace of soul and the unity of the Christian people are to be preserved, then it is of the utmost importance that in moral as well as dogmatic theology all should obey the magisterium of the Church and should speak as with one voice. Therefore We make Our own the anxious words of the great Apostle Paul: ‘I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment’ (#28).”
Yet we have not been united, have we? We have not insisted, with one voice, that “man cannot attain that true happiness for which he yearns with all the strength of his spirit, unless he keeps the laws which the Most High God has engraved in his very nature” (#31). In many cases, particularly in the churches of the West, we have stood by and watched the contraceptive mentality take hold even among our own people. We have not taught them to do the will of God in the matter of sexual relations, and we have witnessed in consequence the steady decline of marriage and the family, and the advance of many evils that rush in to fill the void left by the family.
In Matthew 12, just before the question is put, “Who are my mother and by brothers?”, Jesus speaks of a house “swept and put in order,” after the demon has gone out of it, only to be left empty until it is repossessed with ‘seven spirits more evil than himself.” The West today looks a lot like that house. And some of the responsibility is ours.
I say to you, brothers, if we are unwilling to repent and put our own house in order, and to fill it with the courageous preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and with faithful instruction how to live chaste and godly lives among the gentiles, even and especially in the matter of sexual relations, and if we are unwilling to exercise sacramental discipline to that end, we will have nothing to offer the family but empty platitudes and vain promises. Nor will we rise above the pagan obsession with sex to address the pressing needs of the family, whether in the West or anywhere else in the world. We will not do our duty to the family, because we will not have done our duty to our Lord, nor bowed our knees before “the Father from whom every family in heaven or on earth is named.”
Four days before Synod-2015 began its work, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York ordained 39 transitional deacons, seminarians preparing for the priesthood at the Pontifical North American College, in a festive Mass on the feast of St Therese of Lisieux (patron of the College’s Class of 2016). The Mass was celebrated at the Altar of the Chair in the Papal Basilica of St. Peter’s; the liturgy, the ordinands, the venue, and the cardinal’s homily provided food for thought on the cusp of the Synod on the Family.
After the laying on of hands and the prayer of ordination – the essential “matter” of the sacrament in the ordaining of deacons, as it is of the ordination of priests and bishops – the new deacons were presented with the Book of the Gospels and commissioned as ministers of the Word by Cardinal Dolan, who said to each ordinand, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
Simple words, which could of course be said to any Christian who rightly understands that Baptism confers a vocation to be a missionary disciple; yet words full of meaning for both the new deacons – called to conform their lives ever more closely to the Incarnate Word whom they will announce in the Word of God – and for the Synod. For reduced to essentials, the 2015 Synod on the Family is a great Catholic examination of conscience as to whether we truly believe what we read in the gospels about Jesus’s teaching on marriage; whether we effectively teach what we believe; and whether the pastors of the Church encourage the people of the Church to practice, or live out, what they have been taught is the truth of marriage as given us by Christ.
It’s all truth, all the way down.
Then there were those 39 ordinands, four of whom I had the privilege of teaching during their years of vocational discernment and seminary formation. These men answered a call to the priesthood in the midst of the greatest crisis in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States: a crisis caused by the crimes of priests and the malfeasance of bishops in dealing with wicked priests who had done grave harm to others. Given that timing, it’s not unlikely that at least some of these 39 new deacons met considerable opposition from friends and family when they first mentioned their intuition of a divine call to serve in the ordained ministry.
But whatever the reaction of family and friends, these young men were certainly and deliberately making a countercultural vocational choice. When the paths diverged in the wood, they had chosen the harder way. That example ought to inspire the bishops of Synod-2015, who will face choices among diverging paths. And the lesson is not to shy away from opting for the harder path, if that be the path of truth, rather than following the easier, more convenient path of cultural acquiescence and appeasement.
Cardinal Dolan’s homily, given prior to the singing of the Litany of the Saints and the laying on of hands, picked up this theme of countercultural choice. Here we were, he said, a few dozen yards from the tomb of a man crucified upside down – a man whose entire life had been turned upside down by his friendship with the one he first knew as the young Rabbi Jesus from Nazareth and later as the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Peter’s call – indeed the call of that entire first apostolic band – had cut against what Cardinal Dolan called “the logic of the world.” The first apostles were not exactly the men a 21st-century personnel consultant would advise someone contemplating an ambitious start-up to hire. Yet that unlikely company of men the world disdained began the process by which the world was turned upside down – which, in its conversion to Christ, meant being turned right-side up. (Read the Acts of the Apostles with the help of Duke Divinity School’s C. Kavin Rowe, and you’ll discover that this business of turning-everything-upside-down is the entire leitmotif of the only inspired book of Christian history: for Acts is nothing less than the story of the primitive Church’s wrestling with the inversion of worldly realities and pretensions by the Resurrection, which, by revealing Jesus as Lord and Savior, radically changed both history and the cosmos. Professor Rowe’s book is titled, appropriately enough, World Upside Down.)
And hearing Cardinal Dolan preach about the upside-downness of Peter, which was really the best way to see the world with clarity, one could not help think of the bishops of Synod-2015, and pray that they will have the faith and the courage to go against the grain of 21st-century Western culture when necessary: not to be different for difference’s sake, but to be different in order to rescue the contemporary West from its delusions about men and women, chastity and happiness, marriage and the family, delusions that are eroding the fabric of society and accelerating the rise of what Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism.”
That reflection on bishops led naturally to a reflection on what the Synod might learn from Gianlorenzo Bernini’s “homily in bronze,” the colossal Altar of the Chair in the apse of St Peter’s.
In essence, the Altar of the Chair (which took nine years to sculpt, cast, and install) is a gigantic reliquary, for its centerpiece, the “Chair” of the composition’s title, is a twenty-foot tall repository for what remains of a chair thought to have been once used by Peter himself. As Bernini designed the piece, the Chair/reliquary (which reminds us of the locus of teaching authority in the Church) is supported by four patristic Doctors of the Church from West and East: Ambrose and Athanasius, John Chrysostom and Augustine. I say “supported,” yet the doctor’s “hold” the Chair up with the lightest of fingertip touches – Bernini’s suggestion that doctrine, far from being heavy and oppressive, is a light and liberating yoke.
And that, too, is another expression of the intrinsically countercultural nature of the Church. The world thinks of Catholic doctrine as “policy,” and often oppressive policy at that. The Church thinks of doctrine as truth, the knowledge of which sets us free in the deepest meaning of human freedom.
The world perceives the Church’s teaching on chastity, marriage, and the family as archaic, repressive, and burdensome; and it’s not hard to form the impression that some bishops, especially in the northern European countries, share that perception. One hopes that those Synod fathers tempted to take the road of cultural accommodation – for reasons of intellectual conviction, a certain notion of compassion, or both – pay a visit to the Altar of the Chair, and learn a different, albeit countercultural, lesson about what makes for human happiness and flourishing.
It is frequently (indeed, almost obsessively) written in some quarters that Pope Francis is unhappy with “culture-warrior” bishops who are too “judgmental.” How that claim squares with a pope who speaks of avarice and greed as the “devil’s dung,” who deplores the planet being turned into a pile of garbage, who castigates the “ideological colonisation” of the Third World by Western population controllers wielding development dollars, and who regularly criticises what he terms a “throwaway culture” is another question for another day. (Hint at short answer: it doesn’t square.).
The immediate point for the Synod – a point to be taken from pondering Peter’s fate (memorialised above the Altar of the Chair in a gold medallion), praying at Peter’s tomb, thinking through the theology of Bernini’s homily-in-bronze, and gratefully acknowledging the self-sacrifice of thirty-nine young men giving their lives to Christ and the Church – is this: the Church is always countercultural, because the beliefs on which Catholicism rests turn the world upside down. In doing so, however, those truths, and especially the truth of the Resurrection and its revelation of our true destiny, help us see the world with greater clarity, and thereby get a firmer grip on our responsibilities in and for the world.
For in seeing the world upside down with the eyes of faith, as Peter did in Nero’s circus in the last moment of his life, the kaleidoscope of the human experience resolves itself into the beauty of a great mosaic, at the center of which is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem.
– George Weigel,
Distinguished Senior Fellow
and William E Simon Chair in Catholic Studies,
Ethics and Public Policy Center
The Second Vatican Council began its seminal Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, with this ringing affirmation of the reality, indeed the grittiness, of God’s self-revelation in the People of Israel and in Jesus Christ:
“Hearing the word of God with reverence, and proclaiming it with faith, [this Council] assents to the words of St. John: “We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we announce to you, so that you may have fellowship with us and our common fellowship be with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ” [1 John 1.2-3]. Following, then, in the steps of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I, this [Council] wishes to set forth the true doctrine on divine Revelation and its transmission. For it wants the whole world to hear the summons to salvation, so that through hearing it may believe, through belief it may hope, through hope it may come to love.
“It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will (cf. Ephesians 1.9). His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature (cf. Ephesians 2.18; 2 Peter 1.4). By this revelation, then, the invisible God (cf. Colossians 1.15; 1 Timothy 1.17), from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends (cf. Exodus 33.11; John 15.14-15) and moves among them (cf. Baruch 3.38), in order to invite and receive them into his own company. This economy of revelation is realised by deeds and words, which are intrinsically bound up with each other. As a result, the works performed by God in the history of salvation show forth and bear out the doctrine and realities signified by the words; the words, for their part, proclaim the works, and bring to light the mystery they contain. The most intimate truth which this revelation gives us about God and the salvation of man shines forth in Christ, who is himself both the mediator and the sum total of Revelation.”
Vatican II thereby affirmed that there are “sacred givens” in the Church’s life, truths that make up the constitution of the Church (in the British sense of “constitution”), truths that must be recognized as coming from God himself, either in his self-revelation to the People of Israel or in his final and definitive self-revelation in his Son, Jesus Christ. Thus it was entirely appropriate that the liturgical opening of the XIV Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, called to lift up the dignity and beauty of marriage and the family and to restore their lustre in an often-confused and broken world, should have taken place at Holy Mass for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time in the second year of the lectionary cycle, when the following Gospel is proclaimed:
“The Pharisees approached Jesus and asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ They were testing him. He said to them in reply, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They replied, ‘Moses permitted a husband man to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.” But Jesus told them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” In the house the disciples questioned Jesus about this. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.’ Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them” [Mark 10.2-16].
An important voice, indeed, for the Synod to have heard, as it begins its work. XR2
Yesterday’s Special Edition of Letters from the Synod remarked on some of the procedural innovations that the Synod general secretariat is trying to impose on Synod-2015: innovations that, to more than a few Synod fathers, seem designed to produce a pre-determined result. Among these innovations was the announcement, rather than the election, of a drafting commission to craft the Synod’s final report.
It was pointed out to us today that the drafting committee, composed of ten Synod fathers, includes five Europeans, one Latin American, one Asian, one African, one North American, and one father from Oceania.
At least 50 per cent of the world Catholic population is in North America and Latin America. Perhaps two-thirds of the world Catholic population is in Africa, Asia, North America and Latin America, and, in contrast to Europe, these are more often than not the liveliest, most vital, most evangelically engaged parts of the world Church. Yet there are five Europeans on the final-draft commission, and one each from the other continents.
One Synod father described this mix as “appallingly Eurocentric,” and it would be hard to accuse him of exaggeration. Moreover, it was also pointed out by a Synod father that, by his reckoning, the vast majority of the final-report commission members named by Synod secretary general Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri (without any consultation with the Synod’s general council) either support, or are sympathetic to, the minority position on the question of Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly re-married, usually known as the Kasper proposal.
All of which suggests, as we noted yesterday, that the first two days of Synod-2015 are likely to be its first moment of crisis, as the Synod fathers confront a process, and a stacking of the deck in the final-report commission, that many of them find offensive, and an affront to Pope Francis’s call for open and collegial dialogue. XR2
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund