Edmund Adamus discusses initial feedback from the recent questionnaire on the family which came from Rome ahead of two Synods on the family called by Pope Francis.
At the conclusion of the recent consultation in the diocese for the forthcoming 2014 Extraordinary Synod, Cardinal Vincent expressed genuine concern, but also a realistic hope that the issues raised by both the questions and responses are, in his words: “A challenging agenda for action.”
The preamble to the now-famous questionnaire stated that: ‘Never before has proclaiming the Gospel on the Family in this context been more urgent and necessary.’
The Crisis of the Family
The list outlining the crises in the family is familiar, from rising levels of co-habitation and divorce, through the cultural and legal normalisation of same-sex unions, to surrogate motherhood.
“The family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another” (Pope Francis)
In the recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis spoke of this profound cultural crisis, which is particularly serious because ‘the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children.’
The power of family ties
This says something extremely profound about the power of family ties and their in-built capacity according to God’s plan for our happiness to overcome all sorts of obstacles, tensions, and be resilient. He goes on to speak of ‘the indispensable contribution of marriage to society.’
Addressing and finding lasting pastoral strategies to the increasing complexities of contemporary family situations is clearly not going to be easy. Thus consideration of these challenges will take place over both the forthcoming Extraordinary Synod and the Ordinary Synod in October 2015.
The result will be working guidelines in the pastoral care of the person and the family. It is a long process for the Church as a whole community to have a more accurate picture of the situation, so that eventually we can devise a more credible proclamation of the Gospel of the Family.
Despite the challenging nature of the questionnaire, 16,500 submissions were recorded nationally and of these well over 1,600 were handled by the Westminster Marriage and Family Life office. What we can share now is an initial response; a sort of barometer as to the scale of the challenges we face in addressing the depth of feeling expressed in the responses. We suggest that these fall into the following broad categories:
Clearly there is a great deal of confusion over what is meant by conscience. There is an urgent need to help people revisit what it means according to the Catechism, especially in the light of simple rules, such as ‘One may never do evil so that good may result from it’ (CCC 1789). Matters of conscience centre upon the issues of responsible parenthood and the regulation of fertility. Formation of the moral conscience, therefore, demands fresh efforts on many levels.
“Maximum pastoral attention must be given to marriage preparation.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
Preparing for Marriage
Marriage as social institution and Sacrament of the Church is universally accepted as an irreplaceable good. There is sincere appreciation for efforts to provide marriage preparation but the fact remains there are considerable gaps and variety in what people experience. In 2007, Pope Benedict insisted that ‘maximum pastoral attention’ be given to marriage preparation (Sacramentum Caritatis n29). It must therefore become more widely available, excellent in content and adequate in length.
The whole of the parish community, including schools, in partnership with parents, must be actively involved in seeking to inspire the young from an early age to aspire to lifelong matrimonial commitment in a loving and stable union open to life.
Transmitting the Faith
There is both deep heartache and joy in families’ experience at the perceived levels of failure and success at passing on the faith to the next generation. No-one doubts the enormous scale of the challenge facing parents and grandparents in this task against the backdrop of aggressive secularism and the IT revolution. We need to explore ways of making the partnership between home, school and parish better in this shared task as a top priority; within which the truth of the parent as the primary educator must have pride of place. Blessed John Paul II said that loving the family means giving it back reasons for confidence in itself. Confidence-building measures must begin with parents.
“Be protectors of God’s gifts!” (Pope Francis)
A Culture of Life
The authentic dignity of every person from the moment of conception to natural death is a radical teaching in our modern ‘throwaway culture.’
However, responses show a considerable imbalance in peoples’ views about a life ethic and the social ethic. Our cue from Pope Francis is: “Be protectors of God’s gifts!”, calling us to see the whole of creation, including the integrity of our families, as precious.
The imagination has to be captured to deepen the understanding of human ecology. To this end, anything and everything that can be done to raise awareness of and deepen the lived understanding of the goodness and truth of the body is both timely and vital as a pastoral response to many painful situations.
A Pastor’s Vision
Speaking of the parish in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us that much depends upon the ‘openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community’ if it is to be the Church ‘living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.’ There is deep appreciation of the support and Christian compassion experienced in parish life but, as the Pope says, parishes have to prove themselves ‘capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity.’ They will do this by recognising it is ‘certainly not the only institution which evangelises.’ The Christian household, just by being a loving and forgiving place, lies at the heart of the mission of the Church and spouses are the primary agents of the mission.
The Church yearns to reach out
Such a depth of awareness presumes that the parish, as the Pope describes it, ‘really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people.’ Yet in order to raise our game in this way the diocese will need a fresh focus of thinking and energy on family life ministry at the parish level to prevent it being ‘a useless structure out of touch with people.’
Sadly, as we know, the vast majority of baptised Catholics do not frequent the Sacraments, not so much out of a wilful rejection of the Lord but more often because they incorrectly view themselves as beyond the reach of the Church. Holding views fuelled by biased media and exposure to a popular culture purveying the ‘banalisation of sex,’ they believe that the Church is irrelevant. Among many of these are sincere individuals in unions at odds with church discipline. The Church yearns to reach out to them, like Jesus to the woman at the well: “If only you knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you: Give me a drink, you would have been the one to ask and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10)
How can we find a way of communicating our need as a community of faith for them to become more actively involved with us, just as Christ shared his human need of thirst with the woman at the well, thereby allowing her freely to respond? In short, how do we show them that it is not just their lives that are affected by not being part of the worshipping community, but that the parish is greatly impoverished by their absence?
“A family of families, able to share with each other not only the joys but the inevitable difficulties of initiating family life” (Pope Benedict XVI)
“Favour reciprocal knowledge” said Pope Benedict, “so that the parish community increasingly becomes a family of families, able to share with each other not only the joys but the inevitable difficulties of initiating family life".
Instigating family-oriented associations such as the Family Groups Movement, the Family of Nazareth community, the Beginning Experience and Catholic Grandparents Association to name but a few, and, indeed, anything that can be done in parish life to bring families together socially as well as spiritually will go a long way to addressing the sense of isolation and frustration expressed by so many.
Parents are the “priests of the domestic church” (Familiaris Consortio)
The poet Thomas Moore said: 'the ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.' The consultation shows that only a minority of people have any appreciation of the profound value of such a spirituality. If the family, as Catholic doctrine acclaims, really is the domestic church and parents are the ‘priests of the domestic church’ (Familiaris Consortio), then it is the parents whom we need to be more actively and creatively supporting as the first and best of teachers in the school of love, that is the home. But talking about this and making it happen are at times two very different things.
Fortunately there are some really useful family-friendly resources available to complement existing parish initiatives enabling households to be places where faith formation can be a more consciously chosen activity. As the diocese discerns a way forward in response to the Synods, it will need to do so in such a way as to treat the family not so much as an object of evangelisation but its active agent.
“The Church is a home and family for everyone, especially those who labour and are heavy laden.” (Blessed John Paul II)
We express our gratitude to all those who took the time and effort to respond to the questionnaire and for sharing such heartfelt convictions. To everyone we repeat the words of the great ‘Pope of the family’, Blessed John Paul II: ‘no-one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone, especially those who “labour and are heavy laden."’
For further details contact Edmund Adamus at the Diocese of Westminster Office for Marriage and Family Life firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7798 9363