Following the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops held in October 2014, ‘The Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelisation’, Pope Francis invited all within the Church to reflect “with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families confront.”
The Bishops Conference of England and Wales asked all within the Church to consider the key issues and to provide responses ahead of the Synod to be held in October 2015. Bishop Declan in his Pastoral Letter for the Feast of the Holy Family 2014 invited all parishes within the diocese to take part in this relection and spiritual discernment.
Parishioners of Saint Edmund’s Church in Calne met with the Parish Priest on Wednesday 13 May 2015 to discuss these issues and to prepare this response.
It was noted that the preparatory document for the Synod, the ‘Limeamenta’, published by the The General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops in December 2014 included the following:
“The proposed questions …. are intended to assist the bishops’ conferences in their reflection and to avoid, in their responses, a formulation of pastoral care based simply on an application of doctrine, which would not respect the conclusions of the Extraordinary Synodal Assembly and would lead their reflection far from the path already indicated.”
The meeting appreciated that the bishops were not seeking in any responses a repetition of the Church’s existing doctrines; rather a reflection upon possible changes to pastoral practice to “guide us in finding the road to truth and mercy for all”.
The meeting was set within the context of two passages from scripture:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everybody was asleep, his enemy came, sowed darnel all among the wheat, and made off. When the new wheat sprouted and ripened, the darnel appeared as well. The owner’s servants went to him and said, ‘Sir was it not good seed that you sowed in your field? If so, where does the darnel come from?’ ‘Some enemy has done this,’ he answered. And the servants said, ‘Do you want us to go and weed it out?’ But he said, ‘No because while you pull out the darnel, you might pull up the wheat with it. Let both grow till the harvest; and at harvest time I shall say to the reapers: First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt; then gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Matthew 13: 24-30
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea that brings in a haul of all kinds. When it is full, the fishermen haul it ashore; then, sitting down, they collect the good ones in a basket, and throw away those that are no use. This is how it will be at the end of time: the angels will appear and separate the wicked from the just to throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.”
Matthew 13: 47-50
It was noted that Saint Augustine in his writings on these parables makes clear that we are not in a position to pass judgement on others and that only Christ can see the full picture and make it clear on judgement day. The wheat and the darnel will be separated at harvest time, and only when the fish are on the seashore will the angels separate them.
With these thoughts in mind, the meeting considered three questions posed in the preparatory document for the Synod.
1. How should couples be prepared for marriage in the church today? Who should be involved? How can the community be part of this?
Those present shared their own experiences of preparation for marriage. These ranged from having very little or no preparation, to attending talks only on family planning and budgeting, to forthcoming attendance at an ‘Engaged Encounter’ course.
It was noted that the example of other married couples and families within the worshiping community provided a strong witness.
It was noted that preparation for marriage should take account of the different types of family structures, and that those preparing to marry should be welcomed within the local church, particularly if one party is not a Catholic.
It was noted that unlike preparation for some other sacraments, for example the Eucharist and Confirmation, which is firmly rooted within a parish community, preparation for the Sacrament Marriage is often disconnected from the local parish community.
It was agreed that:
The living witness of married couples and families within local parish communities is important.
The welcome given by the local parish community to those seeking, and preparing for, the Sacrament of Marriage is important.
Steps should be taken to ensure that the local parish community, as the worshiping ‘local church’ is involved in some way in the preparation of couples to celebrate the Sacrament of Marriage.
Consideration should be given as to how the Body of the Church can support those who are recently married.
2. How should we accompany and welcome those whose marriage relationships have broken down? What about those in second unions? How can we welcome these people to the sacraments?
Those present noted that in the past those whose marriage relationships had broken down were almost ‘ostracised’ from the community, and the application of church teaching had been ‘severe’.
This approach did not sit comfortably with the teaching of Christ within the parables quoted from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, or with our understanding of the place of ‘mercy’ and ‘forgiveness’. It was noted that the forthcoming Jubilee Year has been announced as the ‘A Holy Year of Mercy’.
The situation regarding divorced persons and reception of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, was discussed in depth.
Reference was made to Canon XI from Session 13 of The Council of Trent:
“And for fear lest so great a sacrament may be received unworthily, and so unto death and condemnation, this Holy Synod ordains and declares, that sacramental confession, when a confessor may be had, is of necessity to be made beforehand, by those whose conscience is burthened with mortal sin, how contrite even so ever they may think themselves.”
The words ‘for fear’, indicated to those present at the meeting, that the Council was concerned over the issue of causing scandal, but felt that a far greater scandal could be occasioned by denying the sacraments. It was appreciated that this issue was a great source of debate amongst the bishops at the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops held in October 2014.
The insolubility of sacramental marriage was acknowledged and appreciated, but present practice presents a ‘stumbling block’ to many, including those who are not Catholics, and reference was made to the meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well recorded in the Gospel of Saint John in Chapter 4:
“If you only 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.
It was noted that those in second unions, and together in forms of union which are not sacramental, for example civilly celebrated marriages or cohabiting, are not denied grace, or the love and mercy of God.
It was agreed that:
We should welcome all.
We should extend mercy.
We should not judge.
Decisions in relation to this difficult issue would best me made by the bishops attending the forthcoming Synod.
3. How should we accompany and welcome those with homosexual tendencies? How can we live with difference without diminishing what is essential to our faith?
The meeting appreciated that the second of these two questions was central. It was agreed that ‘the door should always be open’, and that our responsibility was that of ensuring that all people, at all cost, are welcomed and made to feel included. Judging others could become our own biggest sin.
It was acknowledged that every sign of discrimination should be avoided.
Likewise it was acknowledged that civil homosexual marriages are not in accord with the Church’s understanding of the nature of marriage.
It was agreed that:
We should extend a welcome to all, avoid discrimination and not judge.
The meeting concluded with a period of prayer.