Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster

Cardinal Vincent Gives His Reflections Following the Synod

Cardinal Vincent gave a press conference in London following the Ordinary Synod on the Family in Rome. He was also joined by Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton. The press conference is available to listen to here, or a summary can be read below. 


During the synod, Cardinal Vincent was interviewed by Fr Thomas Rosica, CSB, for Salt and Light Television. 

An ‘immensely rich experience’ were the words Cardinal Vincent used to describe the Synod on the Family which took place in Rome over three weeks in October.

He began by explaining that, at this synod and the Extraordinary Synod last October, Pope Francis ‘has gone to great trouble to make every participant feel relaxed’. At last year’s synod, the Pope had told all present: ‘I want you to speak freely, I want you to speak passionately, I want you to say what you experience, and you can feel free in doing so because I am here’.

‘The meaning of the synod as being with the Pope is crucial to understanding him,’ said the Cardinal. As with the first Council of Jerusalem when Peter stood and spoke at the end of the discussion, Pope Francis spoke about the ‘pattern of synods as being central to his understanding of the Church’.

‘The synod was a process of discernment, a walking together of a group of people to discern the way forward,’ the Cardinal made clear. ‘This discernment is a pathway, not a “yes” or “no” answer to people’s complex situations.’

He explained that there was a noticeable shift in the emphasis of this synod, from ‘problems facing the family to appreciation and esteem for the families around the world’.

‘In particular, our esteem grew for those families who live in great difficulties but support and sustain their stability, their faithfulness, their fruitfulness (in the wide sense of the word) and do so inspired by their understanding of the call of God’, Cardinal Vincent said.

He added, ‘this synod saw itself as offering real, strong support for marriage, based on the partnership of a man and a woman and for family life as key institutions in the world today.’

In his closing address on Saturday evening, Pope Francis posed the question, ‘What does this synod mean for the Church?’

Cardinal Vincent believed that the synod helped the Church to ‘develop a freshness about the way we think of the family’. He mentioned key phrases in the final document of the synod, including: ‘the family is the image and likeness of the blessed Trinity’ which points back to Pope Benedict XVI’s phrase that ‘the deepest essence of God is relationships, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that the image and likeness of God is to be seen in the family’.

The Eastern tradition contributed the image of the family as ‘the mystery of the love of the Trinity’, noting that the family can inspire ‘contemplation and awe’ because family life has ‘something of the mystery of God about it’.

From the feedback he received from the diocese, Cardinal Vincent explained that the strongest voice was that of people saying that the most important thing in their life is their family, and that they would do anything for them. ‘It is clearly a light in people’s lives, even when other things go a bit dark,’ he said.

The document also repeated the phrase of Pope St John Paul II that the family is ‘the way of the Church’.  The family was also described as ‘the icon of God’s relationship with his people’. The Cardinal explained that synod looked to the example of the family, to see how families cope with difficult situations where people don’t agree. ‘We can learn from how these families do this,’ he said.

The Cardinal said that his favourite phrase of the synod was that ‘the family is the flesh of the Church’. He continued, ‘the Church and the mystery of Christ’s presence amongst us takes flesh in the family’.

He explained that the synod ‘has set a pathway for the Church’ on which ‘we are going to have to find new ways of accompanying families and individuals at every phase in their life. This is particularly true for those facing difficulties, and there are key paragraphs directed towards those who are divorced and remarried.’

Referring to the first reading (Jer 31.7-9) and the Gospel (Mk 10.46-52) of the Sunday following the synod the Cardinal explained that the readings echoed ‘the wish of the synod to find ways of accompanying people’ and ‘typified the type of accompaniment the synod envisioned for people in difficult situations’.

The Cardinal explained that there may be some people in irregular relationships in whose lives and relationships were ‘real signs of goodness’ who might be accompanied on a journey towards marriage or encouraged towards a ‘sacramental understanding and celebration of their marriage’.

‘You have to begin by acknowledging what is positive and of the gospel in their lives even though it’s in an inadequate or incomplete setting,’ explained the Cardinal. He reiterated that this is not new, but instead there is ‘a long tradition of pastoral practice within the Church’, with masters of this ‘art of accompaniment’ such as St Ignatius of Loyola and St Alphonsus Liguori. 

‘This Synod is inviting us to recover some of these treasures and to become more conscious of them in explicit ways than in the last twenty years or so,’ added the Cardinal. Echoing Pope Francis he continued, ‘You have to bring your theological understanding face to face with realities and that is when theology becomes a living stream. This is the road the synod has chosen to take.’

‘It’s a pathway of step-by-step accompaniment to help those who are divorced and remarried, who might have left in tears to realise that, as Pope Francis has said, they’re not excommunicated; they have a place in the Church. They are our brothers and sisters, and we want to walk with them to find the best way forward for their participation in the life of the Church in many different ways,’ he added.

‘Whether that amounts to them receiving Communion cannot be predicted, and should not be predicted.

‘This pathway is about wanting to listen and explore all the hurt that inevitably results from divorce, which can be like losing a limb. We want to offer a pathway of healing.’

The Cardinal also referred to paragraph 56 of the final document, which quotes from Evangelii Gaudium expressing Pope Francis’ wish that ‘all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are’. Echoing the Pope’s words, Cardinal Vincent explained that ‘we are looking for a path of pastoral and missionary conversion because we cannot leave things as they are’.

‘We must always ask ourselves how the Church fulfils this mission of pastoral care.  This synod has also raised the question of how we understand the sacraments today, how they are almost embedded in people’s lives and what the Eucharist really means. 

‘We have almost got to a position where the Eucharist has become a badge of approval. And that is a misunderstanding of the Eucharist.

‘Every time I receive Communion it’s a challenge to me to change, to be different, to be more like the Sacrament I receive. St Augustine taught that we were to see on the altar the Sacrament of who we are and of who we are to become.

‘I think there is a much deeper understanding of the Eucharist, and probably the theology of marriage, and the whole sense of why, for the Catholic Church, sacraments are central to our lives as disciples of Christ.’

There was also quite a bit of discussion about the effect of poverty on families. Families are being broken apart as people travel round the world looking for work, or as they are caught in jobs which make it impossible to sustain family life.

‘I can’t help but think of Cardinal Manning,’ said the Cardinal, ‘and his insistence at the time of the Great Dock Strike in 1889 that a man should be able to go home and have a family life and the  working  conditions were such that that was impossible. If that is the situation today I see no reason why the judgement of the Church would be any different.’

Throughout the synod there were constant reminders and appeals for the difficulties faced especially by families across the Middle East in the violence and disruption faced by people seeking refuge in Europe. In his Angelus message on the Sunday following the synod, Pope Francis reiterated the appeal: ‘We have been walking together at this synod. Do not forget the thousands of people who have been walking to try and find refuge in the safety of Europe.’

At the end of the synod, a final document was presented to Pope Francis representing the completed work of the participants. It is likely that the Holy Father will produce a document during the Year of Mercy.

Cardinal Vincent said: ‘My hope would be that the title would be The Joy of the Family, in line with his previous The Joy of the Gospel. It would be a very positive of exposition of why the Gospel of Christ and his vison for marriage and family is really good news for people and for our society today.’

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