What I Learned From Observing the Synod on Marriage and Family

Below is a postscript to Bondings 2.0’s reports from the Synod on Marriage and Family in Rome. New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo reported live from the meeting every day for the entire three weeks.  Previous posts can be reached by clicking here.

I’ve had a few days to catch up on some much-missed sleep that went by the wayside during the three weeks of covering the Synod on Marriage and Family in Rome.  And so now I turn to reflecting on the experience of the past month spent in the Eternal City and seeing the workings of the highest levels of the Church’s hierarchy.

I’ve learned more than a few lessons from the experience, and I thought I’d recount some of them for you, in no particular order.

1. Our church is big.  It was not just the variety of clerical dress on display at the synod and in the streets of Rome that made me think this.  It was hearing about how many and varied were the family issues that bishops from around the world are concerned about.  Here’s a small list:  migration, unemployment, physical and sexual abuse, abandoned children, children in war-torn areas growing up with absolutely no experience of family life, families separated because of one spouse needing to travel somewhere else to work, polygamy, lack of basic religious education, sexually transmitted diseases, terrorism, interfaith marriages, and addictions.     These are in addition to the hot button issues like divorce/remarriage and LGBT topics.  Marriage, sexual, and family issues are so different in so many different cultures, it is hard to fathom that the universal Catholic Church can find a “one size fits all” solution to all of them

2.  “Change” is not a dirty word–even for conservatives.  In one of the press briefings at the synod, South African Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier described the place of pre-marital co-habitation in his culture.   Marriages, he explained, are negotiated by families, and a dowry is set for the bride which the groom must pay.  Sometimes, it takes a groom a long time to save the dowry, so, before the wedding service is conducted, the couple will live together as husband and wife while the man saves the money to pay the woman’s family.  Napier saw this as an accepted cultural practice, and he hoped church teaching could be changed to accommodate it.  Time and opportunity did not permit me to ask him why that cultural adaptation could be incorporated into church teaching, while marriage for lesbian and gay couples could not.

3.  Bishops have a lot to learn about marriage and family, and about what Catholics believe.   I was struck constantly by the claim of some bishops that while the Church needs to think about exceptional cases of family, it also needs to concern itself with the “average” Catholic family in which there are no problems.  Huh?  Does such a thing exist?  Every family has struggles.  Families are made up of human beings, so of course there will be struggles.  When bishops would state their thoughts about the average Catholic family, it often sounded like this model family accepted all of the Church’s teachings about marriage and sexuality, which, we know, at least in the U.S., is not true.  Further, when bishops spoke about those who did not accept such teachings were those from “secular society and culture,” which, while partially true, does not acknowledge that many inside the Church have problems with Church teaching because of other Catholic values and principles they hold dear.

4.  Because of point number 3, bishops really do need to listen.  Over and over again, I heard bishops say that they needed to learn from couples and families, that families are a gift to the Church, that families are a basic unit of the Church. But then, I would also hear how the church’s pastoral ministers need to better communicate magisterial ideals about marriage and family.  These two points seem to contradict each other.  If families are so important to the Church, then instead of telling them what to do, perhaps the magisterium could learn from these individuals if they would but listen to them   When discussing marriage preparation, we often heard that bishops were talking about a “novitiate” for couples.  Instead of using the model of religious life to help couples, perhaps if the bishops listened to married people and families, the Church would develop a new model that is better suited for the particular experience of marriage.

5.  Catholic symbolic and analogical language are among its most powerful tools.  At one of the press briefings, where Vatican spokespeople reported on the discussions among the bishops in the synod hall, one of the most powerful images that I heard was a report that one of the bishops described the Eucharist as sexual.  “This is my body, given for you,” Jesus’ words of blessing at the Last Supper, repeated at every Mass since, understood in its most incarnational way, is a statement of sexual love, of total giving, of personal gift.  If understood this way, that statement of Jesus can help the Church to see the goodness in sexuality and sexual expression, and its primacy as a way of understanding how much God loves each of us.

6.  Despite all its failings, the Catholic Church still has no peers when it comes to putting on a spectacle. I mean this seriously, and not facetiously.  While I was in Rome, I was able to get to two Masses at the Vatican:  the canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square and the closing Mass for the synod in St. Peter’s Basilica.  I am not a very liturgically-oriented person, and I am not very “high Church” in my tastes, but I was deeply moved by both experiences.  The power of the symbols, the setting for each liturgy, the beauty of the music, and the faith of the thousands who attended each event nearly moved me to tears.  I never thought I would think that such spectacular liturgies would affect me so deeply, but the reverence with which they were executed and the sheer grandeur of each event were very, very powerful.

7.  Discussion, discussion, discussion.  If the synod proved nothing else, it’s that we need a Church that is willing to discuss the differences that exist among its members, as well as the common values we share.  Pope Francis has opened the doors of conversation which had been firmly shut during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Now the Church needs to move towards wider discussion, hearing from all quarters, including LGBT people.  A church of discussion must also be instituted at all levels:  parish, diocese, national, international.  We cannot discern the voice of the Spirit if we don’t discuss our views with one another and listen, listen, listen, too.

Being at the synod was the experience of a lifetime.  I am humbly grateful to God for having been provided this opportunity. There are even more lessons I learned from those listed above, so I tried to give you the most important ones.  I return home with a much more optimistic outlook on LGBT issues in our Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry.

14 replies
  1. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    Bravo Francis! What an excellent report. You truly are a great communicator and some of your comments even brought a tear to my eye. You are a treasure for all of us! Thank You! Barry Blackburn, Toronto.

    • mauricegmp
      mauricegmp says:

      I second what Barry Blackburn expresses, Francis. Your reports had me feeling like I was right there with you experiencing the Synod. This particular report also gives me greater respect for the magnitude of the task involved. Thank you!

  2. Terence
    Terence says:

    Some sound, pertinent conclusions. As a South African myself, I’d like to pick up on Cardinal Napier’s point about cohabitation, which links to yours about the impossibility of a one size fits all approach to globally diverse solutions.
    When the idea of decentralization was first broached at the synod, Damian Thompson wrote at the Spectator that this was impossible, because “the Africans” would never agree. He was no doubt thinking exclusively in decentralization of responses to same-sex couples, but completely overlooked that it suits the Africans themselves, for their own reasons. In fact, well before Napier said so, it was Cardinal Sarah, from the other end of the continent, who made the same point (by memory, even before the synod opened).
    But neither the idea of cohabitation before marriage, nor the idea of marriage as a bond between families, are specifically African ideas. Both formed part of European practice, long before the modern understanding of Western marriage and family became misidentified as “traditional”.
    Other observers at the synod have spoken of the historical ignorance of many bishops, and that was very much in evidence. For many centuries, for most couples formal,marriage in law and in church was an unnecessary luxury for the rich, with a clear distinction between “marriage” and the “wedding”. Marriage was understood when a couple made a firm, private commitment and moved in together. “Cohabitation before marriage” was thus impossible, a contradiction in terms.The formal wedding was a public celebration of the marriage, which might follow (if at all) only with the onset of pregnancy or childbirth, to protect the legal status and inheritance rights of the offspring.
    Similarly, the formal wedding was seen as conferring legal status, rights and responsibilities not only on the bridal couple, but also on the families, conferring on them legally recognized kinship ties. In his book “The Friend”, the English historian Alan Bray notes that in the same way, the rites for blessing same-sex couples also conferred legally recognized kinship ties between the families. For this reason, these rites could be called “weddings”, and the couple known as “wedded brothers”. Until recently, there had never been gay marriage in Christian churches – but it seems there were indeed “gay weddings”
    On both these counts, the Church should be pondering deeply the lessons of history for its response to same sex couple.

  3. paulaczech@comcast.net
    [email protected] says:

    Frank, I am glad that you are feeling optimistic about LGBT issues with the church. That alone gives me a bit of hope. Otherwise, I feel that the wheels are turning so slowly in the mud that nothing will change in my lifetime. I’m 77. Since the outcome for LGBT issues with this Synod came to naught, it is obvious that the majority simply “don’t get it.” And I believe they don’t want to. Normally, I’m an optimist and I search for the light here. I’m struggling to determine next steps…………….especially since the diocese is pushing for “Courage or Encourage” which preaches conversion. Their minds are slammed shut…………. I need to get my hands on a document I read about within the past week (I’ve had company and am behind) about the subject of conversion.

    Welcome home and thank you so much for your tireless reporting…….in depth and from the heart. Wishing you and Sister Jeannine baskets of gentle joys and blessings. Paula

  4. Gigi
    Gigi says:

    Dear Francis,
    thanks so much for your reports, an impressive, usuful and very professional job. I’m sure it has been fruitful not only for you 🙂 It has created a net among us and given everybody the possibility of reflecting on “our” issues freely and with simplicity.
    A big hug!
    Gigi, Padova

  5. Anton
    Anton says:

    Thanks, Francis. Well-said. I love the sexual allusion to the Eucharist. Actually Jesus is reported as saying: “Come to me all who are burdened. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart.” The word “conjugal” comes from the Latin “con jugum” with the yoke. So we are all invited to a conjugal relationship with Jesus, with God. The Word did become FLESH. As the Te Deum hymn sings: “Non horruit virginis uterum … you did not abhor the Virgin’s womb.” And if we are all children of Mother Church, that makes us ALL “womb-mates,” of God and the Church. There’s something very sensual about that.

  6. Ryan Sattler
    Ryan Sattler says:

    Thank you Frank for giving of yourself so we could experience your daily report from Rome. You have played a key role over these past 4 weeks .

    I’m not sure what I am asking but to have an opportunity to meet with you and as you said; listen, listen, listen. You are coming home with a unique story to share. I am sure many would love to spend an evening listening to you and asking our burning questions. I hope this makes sense and you can facilitate this type of gathering!

  7. Richard L Holbrook
    Richard L Holbrook says:

    Thanks Frank. As the father of a gay married son, I am not so optimistic for their interest or welcome in the Catholic church. There are many Christian churches where they are welcome. The church or its bishops don’t seem to get that sexual orientation is not a choice, but who you are, how God made you. Thanks for your great reporting.

  8. saddingo
    saddingo says:

    The picture is telling. I look closely at that image and I cannot make out even one female in the lot. I was told 30 women went but, of course, they had no vote (for good reason – they’re women!)… BUT I sure don’t see any women – but those hundreds of skull caps and their purpleness is rather blinding. So, all these celibate men got together to discuss men’s issues in the church.. OH WAIT! That’s not what they were discussing! They were discussing..um… Oh yes, the family, marriage, divorce, annulments, and (can we say the gay word without being stoned yet? yes? ok) LGBT people and being a more inclusive and kind church… Obviously these are things you wouldn’t want much female feedback on. I mean considering how well marriage has treated women historically. The ladies might feel a little bitter sooo…it’s probably best to keep them shut up. Remember the good old days when women and children were property? Yeah…I miss those times so much. Today they won’t even let men discipline their wife’s properly. One swat and a guy might wind up in jail. In any case, I’m thinking my life in the church is over with forever. LGBT are off the table. Women are treated miserably… Being both pretty much fries me. I remember when Cardinal RATZINGER kicked us out of the church in 86 .. I survived that. I guess I’ll just have to continue on without any of that warm fuzzy “god loves me” feeling. heh. PS just kidding.. 😀 Take care.

  9. Susanne M Cassidy
    Susanne M Cassidy says:

    Thank you Frank for the wonderful work you did in Rome, the blog was a wonderful way to keep up with what was going on.
    As I read this blog in particular when you shared about the African Bishops telling of how the groom has to pay a dowry for his bride, however in the meantime he can have all the benefits of marriage. As a woman I was thinking she is sold for money, and slavery came to my mind. You would think some of the African bishops would give some thought to all the slaves that were sold from their countries, and greatly used and abused. In my mind I guess they are thinking, Oh it’s just a woman, what does it matter. In this day and age, one would think they would be a bit more informed on Women’s dignity and worth, instead of being willfully ignorant. I wish you had been able to ask him about about the the church making cultural adaptations for cohabitation, yet refuses to acknowledge the love that our LBGTQ children have for their spouses which they consider sinful? Go figure!

  10. Friends
    Friends says:

    I’m in total support, and total empathy, for the annoyed and frustrated comments of our readers as expressed above — especially regarding the clueless social attitudes of far too many of these bishops. Very pertinent to those attitudes, as you think about it, is the forthcoming feature film called “Spotlight” — which was extensively covered on NPR’s “Fresh Air” program this week. Here’s a link:


    Back story: a team of ace reporters at the Boston Globe newspaper spent several years trying to track down the horrific sexual abuse crimes against hundreds of children, which were being perpetrated by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston — under the indulgently blind eye of then-Cardinal Bernard Law. When the scandal finally emerged into the glare of national exposure, the disgraced Cardinal Law was quickly packed off to a sinecure post at a Basilica in Rome, and has never been heard from again.

    His successor in Boston, Cardinal O’Malley, has received generally good reviews for his sincere initiatives to compensate the victims of this horrific life-shattering abuse — and in fact, at the most recent Papal election, he came in SECOND to a certain Cardinal from Argentina, whom we now know as Pope Francis. But the whole story is a dire cautionary tale about foul fruits of enforced priestly celibacy and sexual repression within the Catholic Church. The program is worthy of everyone’s attention — as surely the film itself will be, when it’s finally released.


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