12 March 2014, The Tablet

Bishops on Francis’ first year: how much will his family synod address their hopes for the Church?

One of the concrete actions Pope Francis has taken in his first year leading the Catholic Church has been to call a synod devoted to the subject of marriage and family life – and to ask lay people for their views. Gay marriage, contraception, divorce and remarriage were all included. Here a number of bishops from England and Wales describe the impact Francis has had on them and look ahead to the summit where bishops from all over the world will turn their attention to some of the thorniest issues within the Church.

You read Pope Benedict, you watch Francis – Westminster Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Pope Francis has put a spring in the step of Catholics across the world by talking of the joy of a relationship with the Lord and then going out with that joy, setting our sights on the eternal horizon, always in the hands of the Lord.

It has been fascinating looking at the transition from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis as there is such continuity. To understand Pope Benedict you had to read carefully what he wrote; to understand Pope Francis you have to watch attentively what he does. Pope Francis is able to communicate through his actions the dignity of every person and that is what has caught everyone’s imagination.

Following Pope Benedict’s visit to the UK in 2010, Catholics are becoming more confident about their faith and with Pope Francis that quiet confidence is growing as we seek to answer the call to be missionary disciples of Christ.

Windows and doors are being flung open – Bishop Tom Burns of Menevia
The sound of windows and doors being thrown open in Vatican City has been deafening – 50 years after Vatican II. Francis is plainly embracing collegiality and the principle of subsidiarity. The power dynamic is undergoing an engine-change. The resulting decisions will be more readily accepted and owned, and enacted convincingly and quickly.

Yet, the Questionnaire on Marriage and Family Life was constructed in such an obfuscating manner that it could have been a deliberate ruse to deter responses and halt the roaring train. [Respondents] have a right to know the strength of uniformity in what they said. The views belong to the people who made them. It’s called transparency. Let’s be among the first to re-build the Church – with good marriages, good families – and good re-marriages too!

(A longer account of Bishop Burns’ views appears in this week’s Tablet)

Few would have predicted what was ahead – Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham
When Pope Francis first stepped onto the central balcony of St Peter’s a year ago today, few would have predicted what the next 12 months had in store for the Catholic Church and the watching world. It’s been an exciting and uplifting journey.

I have been particularly struck and personally challenged by the Holy Father’s call to go out to the peripheries and serve. He has reminded us that we can all make a difference in our own families and neighbourhoods, in our communities and the wider world – if we use our God-given courage to step out of our comfort zones and reach out to others in need.

As we look ahead into Pope Francis’ second year of service, many people are investing hopes in next October’s Synod reflecting on marriage and the family. The Synod will offer the assembled bishops’ their first opportunity to consider the witness that married couples give to Christ’s love for the Church, as well as some of the challenges they face today. It will lead to a further period of consultation and reflection as we prepare for another Synod on these issues in 2015.

Along with every priest, during the celebration of daily Mass, I pray for the Pope’s intentions. On the anniversary of his election, I will offer special thanks to God for Pope Francis and the great gift he has already been to the Church and to the world.

Discernment, purification, and reform – Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth
I have been delighted to experience, as we all have, the simplicity, integrity and fidelity of Pope Francis this past year. Personally, I find him very challenging and as a new bishop I know I have much to learn from him. Since coming to the Diocese of Plymouth I have been reflecting a great deal on what he says in his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium) and especially where he asks each local Church to undergo a process of “discernment, purification, and reform” (paragraph 30). I believe he has given a very clear steer to how I might try to serve all in this part of the country.

Regarding the Synod on marriage and the family, I do not think that Pope Francis is interested in changing the Lord’s teaching on the permanence of marriage, but I do think that we need to learn from his openness to those who are in difficulty. All can be helped to see that God does not abandon them.

Fresh thinking, new collaboration – Bishop Terence Drainey of Middlesbrough
Pope Francis has completed his first year with flying colours. He has proved himself to be a great communicator of the central message of the Gospel. He spoke recently about the qualities necessary in bishops: they are to be kerygmatic, able to preach the basic gospel message; they are to be witnesses to the risen Christ, men of prayer and good pastors. I would say this is exactly how Pope Francis carries out his role as successor to St Peter. He not only lives out these qualities but he communicates them in direct and accessible terms. If you have been present in or around St Peter’s Square in the last year on Wednesdays for the audience, you cannot help but be impressed by the number of people pouring into listen to Pope Francis and to catch a glimpse of him.

When have you read a papal document that strikes you immediately with its strong and challenging message, but at the same time encourages you and even makes you smile – this is the way Evangelii Gaudium struck me.

As for my hopes for the synod, here are the main points, which have been made by parishioners in the Diocese of Middlesbrough who responded to the questionnaire. As you will see we are dealing with multifaceted and complex issues and there will be no simple soundbite answers to them.

Promotion of positive teaching
The Church’s teaching on marriage and family life contains an enormous fund of wisdom to offer to its people and to the world. These positive aspects should be promoted in ways that are accessible to all, so that people are encouraged to aspire to live in ways which foster human flourishing.

Re-examination of the theology of human sexuality
A radical re-examination of the theology of human sexuality in the light of modern psychological and anthropological insights, together with the lived experience of lay people in many forms of family relationships, could lead to development in church teaching on all aspects of marriage and family life: contraception, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, cohabitation; even the position of women in the Church.

Relationship between Church and people
The Church can be a collaborative community of fellow pilgrims where all humbly walk alongside each other. When church leaders are in touch with their people as they live their lives, understanding the stresses, strains and temptations they encounter, they can truly minister Christ to their flock.

Development of pastoral solutions
The Church has to hold in tension its imperative to proclaim the high Christian ideals to which all should aspire with its desire at the same time to welcome with love and compassion those whose lives are complicated and messy. A careful discussion of this dichotomy could yield pastoral solutions in the areas of family life where many are struggling, enabling the Church more readily to welcome and include these people.

Should the results of the Questionnaire be made public? I think not. It was neither systematic nor scientifically based and it would be almost impossible to extrapolate any meaningful and reliable statistics from it. However it certainly raised issues which should be considered and discussed

A man fulfilled by his vocation – Bishop Terence Brain of Salford
Pope Francis has a great appeal for people: they listen to him: they see him as a man who lives what he preaches: they see a man who is happy and humanly fulfilled by his vocation. The challenge is to follow him in our own lives: his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is a great source of renewal and life – and encouragement.

The extraordinary synod on the Family and the consultation exercise in preparation for it is only part of the process of the Church listening and responding. While there are arguments for publishing the consultation results there are also valid reasons for waiting until the extraordinary synod has reflected on what it received and then we can look at both sides and see the development that has come out of the whole process. And this will then go to the ordinary Synod on the Family. I’m happy to await the outcome.

Straightforward and pastoral – Bishop Seamus Cunningham of Hexham and Newcastle
I am energised by the way in which Pope Francis' ministry is building on that of Pope Benedict; in particular I welcome the simple, straightforward approach of the Holy Father to the renewal of the Church. The Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle has organised a series of study evenings on Evangelii Gaudium. The Pope's pastoral approach to all those who are troubled in any way gives a good steer to the forthcoming Synod.

What do you think?


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User comments (2)

Comment by: gloriae
Posted: 19/03/2014 02:45:49

The teaching on these topics is well stated in JPII's Theology of the Body. Try it. You'll like it.

Comment by: John McLorinan
Posted: 15/03/2014 20:15:11

"Should the results of the Questionnaire be made public? I think not. It was neither systematic nor scientifically based and it would be almost impossible to extrapolate any meaningful and reliable statistics from it. However it certainly raised issues which should be considered and discussed" With the greatest of respect, may I suggest that after the Church's countless 'consultations' synods and consultative conventions, both nationally and locally, none of which provide any evidence of being accepted, and given that many people put much effort and time into responding, this comment about the questionnaire is both disappointing and hurtful?

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