From the very first years of a person’s existence, the family is the place for the transmission and learning of values, such as brotherhood, loyalty, love for the truth and work, and respect and solidarity between generations, not to mention the art of communication and a sense of joy in living. The family is the privileged place to live out and promote the dignity and rights of man and woman. The family, founded on marriage, is the place for the integral formation of a country’s future citizens.—Instrumentum Laboris discussion document for Synod of Bishops
Considering everything the family is supposed to do, as envisioned by the Instrumentum Laboris discussion document for the Catholic Church’s ongoing Synod of Bishops in the Vatican, it’s a miracle if it accomplished even just half the above-quoted wishlist.
Besides making a living, raising and educating children, and lasting till one spouse expires, the family should teach values, build respect and solidarity between young and old, promote human rights, and mold future citizens. Can it?
Well, if the home can’t impart love, dignity, respect, and everything else good and true, nothing else can. Not schools, not media, not government. Not even the Church.
Can any soul, pray tell, even begin to understand a priest admonishing “love one another” if the listener never felt the caring of a mother giving sustenance from her infant’s first breath? And how might a citizen show respect for authority if he didn’t learn to follow his father’s admonitions?
Yes, the family is not just the basic unit of society, but its most important instrument for character and social formation. With all that riding on Mom, Dad, sisters and brothers, Pope Francis and the 250-odd prelates, religious, and selected lay people have their work cut out this week and next, deliberating and recasting Catholic thinking and practice regarding the family.
It may well take divine intervention to achieve the Catholic family ideal. Not to mention dealing with broken marriages, cohabitation, contraception, abortion, same-sex couples, teen pregnancy, single parents, blended families, and all the other domestic complications compiled from the Vatican’s global survey of family issues and picked apart in the 75-page Instrumentum Laboris.
Faith flows from family
Even Christianity’s fundamental tenets are conveyed through family. When Jesus invites us to call God “our Father,” we would have no idea what He means without our own lifelong experience of being fathered and mothered.
And the Blessed Trinity becomes a bit less inscrutable by comparing love among the three Divine Persons to marital union and devotion. Explains the Synod document: “The experience of the mutual love between the spouses is an assistance in understanding the life of the Trinity as love. Through a communion lived in the family, children can glimpse an image of the Trinity.”
Now, if a family fails to live up to the Christian ideal, then even learning the faith and making it real are impaired. A wife-beating, grog-guzzling, womanizing brute cannot give the right idea of what the God the Father is like.
Thus, fixing the family is crucial to the Vatican’s New Evangelization initiative to spread the Gospel and bring humanity closer to God. If one cannot see godliness in one’s home, it’s even harder to find it elsewhere.
One good news from the Vatican is the Pope and his fellow prelates’ openness and effort to look into on-the-ground realities faced by families and parishes worldwide as a crucial starting point for the Synod.
Besides the reality that many practices frowned upon by the Church are widespread, the survey also revealed economic conditions, legal systems, and cultural norms going against the Catholic ideal portrayed by the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Bottom line: It’s not enough to simply keep hammering on age-old admonitions. Hence, explains Jesuit theologian Fr. Catalino Arevalo, the global survey is a welcome and laudable change from past synods, which largely affirmed documents and policies drafted by experts like him.
The conference also invited 20 lay people as full-fledged participants, plus others as resource persons. One Australian couple, happily married for five and a half decades, told the assembly of more than 200 celibates that their half-century bliss was in large part due to their fulfilling sex life, as reported by London’s The Guardian newspaper.
Ron and Mavis Pirola of Sydney also recounted how devout Catholic friends let their son bring his male partner to a Christmas gathering at their home. “They fully believed in the Church’s teachings, and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family,” the Pirolas said. “Their response could be summed up in three words: ‘He’s our son’.” To that the bishops applauded.
Mercy and compassion above all
As Catholic bishops and priests worldwide, from the Bishop of Rome to the farthest-flung pastor, revise their approaches to Catholic family values and ethics, not a few devout, upright believers fear some confusion about what’s right and what’s wrong.
Fundamental principles will likely remain. Instrumentum Laboris stressed that family ties must be based on love, and blames many failings on self-centered thinking and action. That includes elevating individual will and mind as the sole arbiter of personal choice. God’s reign is cast aside, along with the Holy Family as the overarching Christian ideal.
But in leading the faithful to that paragon of holiness at home, the Church must never drive anyone away from God’s mercy. “We may not be able to change doctrine,” Fr. Arevalo says. “But we can change the pastoral approach. Bishops cannot be just police enforcing canon law. The Church is not just for saints, but for sinners.”
Indeed, Francis, who refers to himself as a sinner, espouses above all the mercy and compassion of God as the paramount theme of his papacy. “Without compassion we cannot breathe,” says Fr. Arevalo, adding that the Holy Father wants the Philippines to be “an exemplar in mercy and compassion.”
Inevitably, the reforms of Francis, like all sweeping changes, will cause dissonance and disorientation. The stable if strict rule of centuries-old edicts will yield to fractious arguments, if not disconcerting adjustments.
Amid these anxieties, the devout believer can count on one thing: God’s mercy shall ever be the eternal anchor and beacon in the shifting winds and waters of this world.
As in past millennia, the Lord offers His illuminating word, miraculous grace, and all-forgiving mercy to carry the faithful through every storm — even the ones engulfing His Church. Amen.