Waiting in Hope for Our Families:
The Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (October 5-19, 2014)
Mary Jo Iozzio
Holding true to comments made during the July 28, 2013, return flight from Rio de Janeiro and World Youth Day to Rome, Pope Francis called for an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the pastoral challenges of the family. The October 8, 2013 announcement was met with great interest on the part of many Catholics (lay, religious, and clergy) and others sympathetic to or critical of the Catholic voice. A November 2013 Preparatory Document included reasons for urgency, general outlines from Scripture and the tradition, and questions to prompt local churches in gathering information from priests and the laity that would be used to develop the Instrumentum Laboris that presents topics to be discussed at the Extraordinary General Assembly.
Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops in 1965 to institutionalize the collegiality experienced during the Second Vatican Council. Comprised of bishops from around the world, the Synod is designed to foster unity with and to assist the Pope in safeguarding faith and morals, preserving ecclesiastic discipline, and considering questions pertinent to the Church’s apostolates in the common pursuit of pastoral solutions that have universal validity and application (Code of Canon Law, #s 342-348). Since 1967, the Synod has met thirteen times in Ordinary General session, twice in Extraordinary General session, and ten times in special session of critical importance to delineated geographic areas; the next Ordinary General Assembly will meet in 2015, continuing the work of this, the third, Extraordinary General Assembly.
What signs of hope can the laity, religious, and clergy hold for their concerns, uncovered through this past year’s localized series of consultation? Those signs depend on the degree of participation achieved. As the Instrumentum suggests, a broad survey was conducted in many parochial contexts, following Secretary General of the Synod Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri’s request to share the Preparatory Document “immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received regarding the themes and responses to the questionnaire” (Letter to bishops, 18 Oct 2013).
A careful look at the Instrumentum reveals tremendous concern for the pastoral challenges families worldwide confront as well as a tremendous diversity in the local evaluation of those challenges. The Instrumentum reviews Church doctrine on matters of marriage and family life, recognizes the changing dynamics in family structures, and then turns to the pastoral challenges where expectations are raised for sensitivity and flexibility especially in regard to the contra-normative, irregular situations in which many of the faithful live. Hope is tempered by a seemingly sacrosanct tradition while pastoral practice suggests innovation (consider the September 14 Holy Mass where the Holy Father presided over the marriages of 20 couples, some in those irregular situations, and the September 1, 2014 Reflections of Johan Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp).
I hope for support of those families, however they may be constituted, who bear witness to God’s love and mercy in good and in bad times. Consider the joys and sorrows of remembering the promises borne by families: of a bright future for a young man dying of AIDS; of parents challenged by love for their non-hetero children and their own heterosexist cognitive dissonance; of siblings affirming the strengths and weaknesses in one another; of migrants separated from their homes; of households disadvantaged by stagnant wages, little access to education and healthcare, vulnerability to violence; of caregivers facing another’s Alzheimer’s decline; or of grandparents saddened by news that their grandchildren no longer practice the faith and may not believe. These joys and sorrows are recognizable across the cultures and nationalities present in our Church and, though the particulars change, they are the storylines found everywhere in individual families and in the family of families that are our parishes.
This Extraordinary General Assembly presents an opportunity for the bishops to examine the Church’s pastoral mission to bring the good news of God’s love to the world. As the Church –from its members in the hierarchy to those in the pews—discerns the signs of the times, let it acknowledge the unseen, unheard, and ignored witness of the faithful in irregular situations, cohabitating, single parents, separated, or in same sex committed relationships and then listen carefully to what they say. This Synod and the General Assembly of 2015 may be the pastoral signal of the preferential option and the time of solidarity in practice for those who have been disheartened by rigorous reading and application of ecclesial norms.