Family matters being put in spotlight by Pope Francis

This column by Chris Codden was featured in the November 22 issue of the Saint Cloud Visitor

Pope Francis has called for the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to be held from October 5-19, 2014, dedicated to the “Pastoral Challenges to the family in the context of evangelization.”

In my work, this is a really big deal.  According to the Code of Canon Law, an “extraordinary general session” of the synod is held to “deal with matters which require a speedy solution.” This will be only the third extraordinary synod since Pope Paul VI reinstituted synods in 1965, designed to advise the pontiff on specific subjects.

In 1980, after the deaths of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I, Blessed Pope John Paul II convened the Fifth General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, September through October 1980.  The subject was, “The Duties of the Christian Family in Today’s World.”  The idea of a synod on the family was that of Pope Paul VI, but was wholeheartedly embraced by Pope John Paul II.  While this was not an extraordinary general assembly as the one next year will be, it did offer forty-three propositions.  Pope John Paul II took the information from this synod and, on November 22, 1981, gave the church his “Apostolic Exhortation on the Family” or “Familiaris Consortio.”

Familiaris Consortio is a prophetic document that outlines the “precious value of marriage and of the family,” in only a way that Pope John Paul II could. I have read and reread it countless times and feel, with each reading that it could have been written yesterday.  At the beginning of this exhortation, John Paul states:

At a moment of history in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it, and aware that the well-being of society and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family, the Church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family, ensuring their full vitality and human and Christian development, and thus contributing to the renewal of society and of the People of God.

In the document, Pope John Paul II outlines the Church’s vision for marriage and the family, the role of the Christian family and its pastoral care.

The Extraordinary General Assembly that will be convened next year will focus on some similar concerns, with an emphasis on evangelization.  This is just phase one of Pope Francis’ work.  Phase two will be an Ordinary General Assembly scheduled for 2015 which will develop working approaches for the pastoral care of the human person and the family.  Also slated for 2015 is the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.  At this point it is unsure if or how that will fit into these synods.

As with other synods, much work is done prior to the convocation.  A preparatory document was released last week that outlines the list of concerns it hopes to address, ranging from cohabitation, same-sex unions, influence of the media on the understanding of marriage and family, legislative measures that devalue marriage, surrogate motherhood and lack of participation at the sacraments, particularly marriage and penance.  The statement includes a series of questions each diocese is invited to reflect and submit answers, particularly on pastoral approaches.

When you consider that we are a global church, input may be varied depending on culture and customs.  Yet, unfortunately, too many of these concerns are universal.  In the midst of this process, there will be some that will try to push their own agenda.  I have already received two requests for input from non-official outside sources, who have taken the questions and skewed them to reflect ideologies not embraced by the church.

The goal of all this vast effort is to bring people to Christ.  The Preparatory Document for the synod cites:  “The teachings of the faith on marriage is to be presented in an articulate and efficacious manner, so that it might reach hearts and transform them in accordance with God’s will, made manifest in Jesus Christ.”  What will flow from this work by so many is a greater understanding of what it means to follow Christ in our God-given vocation.

In his recent encyclical, Lumen fidei, Pope Francis speaks of the family as, “The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city…”  May we pray for our bishops as they participate in these coming opportunities that the Holy Spirit guide them as they shepherd and guide families in their care.