By: Dominic Sanfilippo – Staff Writer
Pope Francis convened hundreds of bishops from all around the world in the Vatican for a historic Extraordinary Synod to hear testimonies about the complexities, joys and struggles of Catholics families and discuss church teaching about the family Oct. 5.
Francis opened the synod, which is defined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an assembly “who assist the Holy Father by providing counsel on important questions facing the church,” by exhorting his fellow church leaders to speak “without fear … and, at the same time, [listen] with humility and welcome with an open heart what the brothers say.”
Throughout the past year, speculation has run rampant over whether any changes to church doctrine or practice will emerge on key topics related to the family like homosexuality, divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion, the marriage annulment process and contraception.
However, several participants have told the rumor mill to slow down.
“What’s being discussed at this synod … are not doctrinal issues, but practical ones,” Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary said in his report
to the synod.
One key theme from the first few days has been an increasingly loud chorus from some church leaders for the synod to embrace gradualism.
John L. Allen, the associate editor of the Boston Globe’s Catholic news website Crux, described church gradualism in an article Oct. 8 as “the common sense observation that virtues such as honesty or courage aren’t all-or-nothing propositions and that people move toward them through different stages and different speeds.”
Synod discussion of a more measured, moderate approach to the intersection between church teaching and the complexities of people’s daily lives was referenced by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., who told Crux that “one of the things I’ve seen in the preparation for all of this, and that our Holy Father keeps speaking about, is meeting people where
Several other prominent church leaders are firmly opposed to discussions of change that are swirling around the halls of the Vatican. Cardinal George Pell, who serves as the head of the church’s financial body, said at a Crux panel Oct. 8 that although he was willing to concede that changes in tone might be needed, doctrinal shift was out of the question for him and many others.
“Some may wish Jesus were a bit softer on divorce,” Pell said about the fierce speculation around marriage, divorce and Holy Communion, “but he wasn’t. And I’m sticking by him.”
Bishops are not the only ones taking part in the synod. More than 60 other participants are joining the ordained in Rome, Italy, including a married couple from Australia who, to the surprise of many, centered their opening testimony on the gathering on the emotional and sexual intimacy that has kept their marriage vibrant and strong
for 55 years.
“The little things we did for each other, the way we planned our day around each other…were outward expressions of our longing to be intimate for each other,” Ron and Mavis Pirola said to church leaders. “Gradually we came to see…that marriage is a sexual sacrament with its fullest expression in sexual intercourse.”
The couple also spoke about their hope that the synod participants would address the difficult realities that face many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics and their families. They cited the example of friends of theirs welcoming their gay son and his partner into their home for a family Christmas party as, in their words, “a model for evangelization for parishes as they respond to similar situations in their neighborhood.”
Regardless of the different positions and perspectives that people have brought to the synod, one thing that everyone has agreed on is its personal, informal atmosphere that has become Pope Francis’s signature.
“Francis has brought his pastoral style to the meeting,” the Rev. James Fitz, University of Dayton’s Vice President for Mission and Rector, said. “For example, the opening of the synod was broadcast on Vatican TV.”
“Relationships are central to the Christian faith experience,” Fitz said about the impact of the synod on UD, a Catholic, Marianist institution.
“Most of us learn our first community building skills in the family. So strong families are a great gift and witness to the world…the gift of [UD] is to build on this foundation and make our students and graduates of communities, of a just and united world.”
The synod will close Sunday, and its results will be brought up at a follow-up synod in October 2015, when Pope Francis is expected to release a document reflecting on the outcomes of the two synods.