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.