Taking part in the synod of bishops on the family has been an exhausting and enriching experience. Now is the moment to reflect on it carefully, getting beyond the immediate reactions and dramatised headlines.
On the last evening of the synod, Pope Francis posed this question: what does this synod mean for the life of the Church? His answer was incisive and decisive. I encourage you to read his speech. It sets out his priorities and the temptations we face at this time.
For me, the first answer to his question is this: the synod teaches us to think about the family in new and rich ways. For a start, we are invited to see in the family “an image and likeness of the Blessed Trinity”. This springs from the understanding that at the deepest heart of God are relationships of love and truth between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As one of the bishops at the synod said, when we look at family life we should marvel at its resilience, its beauty, its sheer goodness to which every member has to contribute and from which everyone draws strength and life.
The synod described family life as a blessing for the Church, a place where the Gospel is lived, where forgiveness is offered in love, where prayer is learned, where care for others is born, a care reaching out to others, beyond the family, in their need. Indeed, throughout this synod there was great emphasis on thanking families for the witness they give, for the courage they show and for being living examples, icons, of God’s faithful love for us, His holy people.
For me, then, this synod has opened up a new appreciation of family life in the Church, highlighting the inseparable bond between the Church and the families of which the Church is made. There was one phrase which sums up this fresh insight: families are the flesh of the Church.
It was in this light that I stood in St Peter’s Square on Sunday morning, seeing so many families gathered for the blessing of the Holy Father. Children in prams, in their fathers’ arms, crawling round on the floor; two or three generations together; groups of families on pilgrimage or holiday – the very flesh of the Church, to be treasured, honoured and encouraged.
But we all know that such outward appearances are often not the whole story. Family life can be hard going and during this synod there was keen awareness of the crises and difficulties of family life.
So we pondered on the ways in which poverty, war and migration all have an impact on many families; on families torn by violence, facing the perils of being refugees, separated by the need to find work. We talked about loneliness, about the domestic dramas that demand forgiveness and acceptance, about political pressures that work against the family, about the huge diversity of circumstances of marriage and family life across all five continents. We were intensely aware of the changing patterns of marriage, with many people choosing simply to live together, to marry civilly and not sacramentally, and of the consequences of painful divorce, with many entering a second civil marriage.
The second significant meaning of the synod for the Church is the way in which our response to those situations was fashioned. The key words used by the synod were “accompaniment”, “walking with”, “reverential listening” and “discernment”. These are not new words. They direct us to the rich tradition of the Church in the work of spiritual direction and confessional practice, as found, for example, in the works of St Ignatius and St Alphonsus. These are the treasures we have now to recover and develop anew. The Year of Mercy is surely a providential opportunity for doing so and for putting them into practice.
Last October Pope Francis warned the bishops at the extraordinary synod to avoid two serious temptations: first, of thinking that every problem and situation could find its answer in the letter of the law; and secondly, that quick solutions could be applied without healing the deep wounds in the family, in the flesh of the Church. I believe that these temptations have been avoided.
In the pathway of accompaniment that is being laid out, especially for those in second marriages, there will be a step-by-step journey to be made, seeking God’s mercy for every hurt inflicted and damage done, trying to grow in maturity of conscience in the light of God’s law, and finding proper ways of living in the community of the Church as baptised disciples, truly our sisters and brothers.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis called for the Church “to advance along a path of pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they are”. It is clear that this synod has pointed out the pathway of this conversion. It is up to us to take up this path with fresh hearts and real commitment to the unending mercy of God. Walking this path involves us all, listening humbly and patiently, supporting and encouraging each other within this great family of the Church.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols is the Archbishop of Westminster
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