Crisis and opportunity: Challenges to the family call bishops to Rome for Synod on the Family

People attend an Oct. 4 prayer vigil led by Pope Francis for the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. The pope called for "sincere, open and fraternal" debate during the two-week long synod, which opens Oct. 5. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
People attend an Oct. 4 prayer vigil led by Pope Francis for the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. The pope called for “sincere, open and fraternal” debate during the two-week long synod, which opens Oct. 5. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

[dropcap type=”4″]O[/dropcap]n Oct. 5 the Catholic Church’s leaders began a process of prayerful and deliberative reflection called a synod, a word that simply means “gathering.” The specific topic of discussion among the bishops has been given by Pope Francis: “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”

Mike Phelan is the Phoenix Diocese's director of the Marriage and Respect Life Office.
Mike Phelan is the Phoenix Diocese’s director of the Marriage and Respect Life Office.

You may remember that last November this process began with a preparatory document — essentially stating “here’s what we bishops need to ponder” — and a questionnaire to the ministers, religious and lay faithful around the world involved in marriage and family work on the issues currently impacting the family, and what is being done worldwide to address the situation. This information was organized and sent to the Vatican for analysis.

Step two in the process was the issuing of the “Working Instrument” this past June, the marching orders for discussion which is guiding the first round of the synod, the Extraordinary Synod, next month. A year from now, the “gathering” will be expanded with an Ordinary Synod, a larger gathering of bishops to continue to deepen the discussion. According to the Working Instrument, three key questions will be addressed:

  1. How can the Church more effectively preach/communicate the Gospel of the Family in our time?
  2. How can we better help those in difficult family circumstances as a Church?
  3. How can we help parents develop a mentality of openness to life and to raise their children in the faith?

Notice that none of these guiding questions is wrestling with Church doctrine, per se. Pope Francis, from the beginning, has been clear in the synod’s title and his own comments that this gathering is pastoral in nature — that is, how shall the Church better shepherd the little flocks of its families going forward in light of all the challenges that families face. Many of these challenges are explicitly mentioned: abuse, migration and separation, divorce, “remarriage,” the “contraceptive mentality,” weak faith and catechesis, a lack of understanding of the natural law, etc.

There has been some buzz in the media about this being the moment where the Church relaxes or even changes its doctrine regarding divorce and remarriage. This is off the table.

There has been some buzz in the media about this being the moment where the Church relaxes or even changes its doctrine regarding divorce and remarriage. This is off the table.

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Prayer for the Synod on the Family

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendor of true love,
to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again
experience violence, rejection and division:
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may the approaching Synod of Bishops
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
graciously hear our prayer!

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It has been repeated often by the Holy Father that this synod is not doctrinal in nature. It is not trying to solve a doctrinal problem; rather it is pastoral in nature. It will therefore result, likely sometime in 2016, in a post-synodal apostolic exhortation document from Pope Francis to move the Church to deep prayer and thoughtful action on behalf of the family.

I, for one, am eager to see the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in this gathering, launched by Pope Francis, who knows quite well the varied challenges faced by the “fundamental cell of society.” This deepening of the Church’s reflection of the current crisis of the family, which touches every nation on the planet, will call us to more profound prayer and more intentionality at the parish and diocesan level in reaching out with compassion and confidence that, as Archbishop Joseph Kurtz said in a recent article, this synod can and must be “a catalyst for renewal” in the Church.

Here in Phoenix, under our bishops’ apostolic leadership, we will be aiming to be a proactive front following the Holy Spirit’s lead through the Magisterium.

Pope Francis has asked the entire Church to pray specifically for our bishops at this synod, that it would begin just what is needed, a deep renewal of the Church’s mission to strengthen and support her littlest cell of the Body of Christ, the family.

You will find (at right) the prayer which our Holy Father has written for this purpose. Please join him in asking the Holy Family to intercede for a great Domestic church renewal in our diocese and around the world!

Mike Phelan is the director of the Phoenix Diocese’s Marriage and Respect Life Office.