The III Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops drew to a close on 19 October 2014 with Pope Francis welcoming the frank and open discussions that took place and saying the synod had been held in “a spirit of collegiality”.
The Extraordinary Synod, held at the Vatican from 5-19 October 2014, was called by Pope Francis to address the pastoral challenges that families face in the context of evangelisation. Bishops representing all regions of the world gathered in Rome to share with the Pope, and with each other, their perspectives and the experiences of their people. The synod also featured input from married couples, experts, auditors and delegates.
From the outset, Vatican spokesmen said the Synod process was not trying to achieve a ‘political’ consensus. Rather, the goal was to listen to all, to share information, advice and perspectives.
At the end of the synod, the bishops would return home and reflect on the issues with their communities before gathering again in Rome in one year’s time, for the General Synod.
“I can happily say that with a spirit of collegiality and of synodality, we have truly lived the experience of Synod, a path of solidarity, a journey together,” the Holy Father said in his concluding address.
Australia became centre-stage on day one of the gathering when Sydney couple, Ron and Mavis Pirola delivered their presentation to the Synod. The Pirolas are former members of the Pontifical Council on the Family (1985-2010) and current chaircouple of the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council, an advisory body directly responsible to the Australian Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life.
Giving a lively testimony to both the joys and challenges of family life, they created headlines around the world with their frank explanation to the Pope and the bishops of the centrality of the sexual relationship within marriage.
The couple, married for 55 years, with four children and eight grandchildren, affirmed Church doctrine but also raised the challenges that families face around issues such as divorce and same-sex relationships.
A summary of the discussions released at the midway point of the synod, seemed to introduce a shift in the language used around topics such as cohabitation before marriage, same-sex unions and the situation of divorced and remarried people within the Church.
The Synod’s final document, the relatio synodi, affirmed the important role of families who are living out the faith, while also seeking a more pastoral, loving language in relating to people whose situations fall short of the fullness of Church teaching.
In an unusual step, the Vatican also released the figures showing exactly how many bishops voted in favour or against each paragraph of the document, even the paragraphs which did not have the necessary two-thirds majority to pass.
The two-thirds majority was reached on all but three sections of the document. Those sections concerned access to Eucharist for the divorced and remarried, and homosexuality.
In his concluding remarks, which received a standing ovation, Pope Francis welcomed the open discussions during the synod, saying he would be “very worried and saddened … if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace”.
“Instead, I have seen and I have heard with joy and appreciation, speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage: and of parresia. And I have felt that what was set before our eyes was the good of the Church, of families, and the supreme law.”
The Holy Father said the Church now had one year to mature its reflections and “to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families”.
President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), Archbishop Denis Hart, who attended the synod and helped develop the final document, said that over the coming months, the ACBC would review the ‘lineamenta’ (guidelines) presented to each episcopal conference following the conclusion of the extraordinary synod.
“The Australian Bishops will continue to pray for families everywhere, in particular reflecting on how we can accompany and lead those in difficult situations, such as single women bringing up children and those who have divorced and remarried, towards participation in Church life,” he said.
Extraordinary Family Synod Question and Answer
By Ben Smith, Director, Family & Life Office
Q: What is a Synod?
A Synod is an assembly of Bishops from around the world who provide counsel to the Holy Father on important questions facing the Church. Synods were established by Blessed Paul VI in 1965, shortly after the close of the Second Vatican Council.
Synods can occur in an Ordinary or an Extraordinary form. An Ordinary Synod involves a meeting of all the world’s bishops to deal with matters of importance. An Extraordinary Synod involves a smaller group of bishops to deal with matters that need immediate attention. The Synod on the Family is taking place in two parts. Firstly, the recent meeting held in October was an Extraordinary Synod involving 253 people. Next year, from 4-25 October, an Ordinary Synod on the Family will take place with a much bigger group of bishops and advisers from around the world.
Q: Why are we having a Synod on the Family?
Since the sexual revolution in the late 1960s, the social context of marriage and family has changed substantially. In the Western world, the whole definition of marriage is being questioned and in some places completely redefined. The level of marriage and family breakdown has escalated considerably over the past 30 years. As families are the cornerstone of society and the Church, it is important for the Church to develop appropriate pastoral responses to help strengthen families and to reach out to the marginalised and estranged.
Q: Is the Synod on the Family going to change Church teaching?
The teaching of the Church is always developing in response to new issues or doctrinal questions that surface in different historical periods. This development happens in an organic way that builds on previous teaching. In the area of marriage and the family, there has been a significant degree of development over the past 100 years largely as a result of the Second Vatican Council and St John Paul II. It is highly unlikely that the Church will change the substance of its teaching on divorce or same sex ‘marriage’. The Synod may change the Church’s pastoral approach on certain issues or even the way it explains the Gospel of the Family to the modern world.
Q: What happens next?
The next stage is the Ordinary Synod to be held in October 2015. It will involve more discussion and development of a final summary document that will be voted on by the bishops. The third stage will involve Pope Francis, who will take the final summary document from the Ordinary Synod and produce an Apostolic Exhortation highlighting the key issues that he believes the Church needs to focus on in the area of marriage and family. This Exhortation should be released in 2016.