Archbishop John Dew reflects on being part of the Synod on Marriage and the Family

As I return from the Synod on Marriage and the Family I’m aware that the gathering, the discussion and the topics have caught the attention of the secular media and Catholic media have followed it closely. I understand that many New Zealanders have followed the discussion with hopefulness and enthusiasm.

Shortly after Pope Francis announced that he would be calling for a Synod on marriage and the family the preparatory document was released with a set of questions relating to the wide range of topics that would fall under this heading for Bishops Conferences from each country to respond to in their submission and to form the working document of the Synod. The New Zealand Bishops chose to make these questions available online to ensure wider consultation that is normally able to be conducted.

It gave people from all walks of life, different vocations and background the opportunity to anonymously and in their own words share their own insights on these topics which are so important to all of us. More than 2,000 people responded here in New Zealand. Many shared deeply personal experiences, they shared stories of joy, of love and care, of judgement and exclusion and feelings of hope for our Church. We were moved and sincerely grateful for the insights people shared.

The themes that emerged from the responses formed the New Zealand Bishops submission and for me as the New Zealand representative I carried them with me to the Synod gathering in Rome.

In the days before leaving for Rome I was astounded at the emails, letters and messages that were sent to me, offering prayerful support to me and the Synod participants and expressing hope and enthusiasm that this discussion was taking place. This hasn’t happened before previous Synods but because it is about the family and issues people are deeply concerned about it was clear to me how important this was for people.

To open the Synod Pope Francis called on all of us present to not be afraid to speak boldly and honestly, to listen with open hearts, not to leave things unsaid, to speak with peace and calm and to trust always that the Spirit of God is with us and that it is the Church of Jesus Christ, not ours.

The days began with a time for prayer and reflection and the discussion would begin with a presentation from a married couple who were participants in the Synod. From there Cardinals and Bishops took turn s to give their “interventions”. My own intervention on behalf of the New Zealand Church focussed on the need for Church language to be changed so that it gave people hope and encouragement. To find a language that speaks the truth of the gospel but in a way that doesn’t make them simply sanctions but draws people to God. Terms like intrinsically evil, or irregular situations don’t encourage people to see God present in their lives. We can then propose what we believe the gospel and the Church is calling us to as an invitation and a calling not an imposition.

There was quite a lot of discussion on graduality. At times this was misunderstood, with some bishops thinking that others were speaking about “graduality of doctrine of faith and morals, while what they were speaking about was that we grow gradually, we go through stages of moral growth. It recognises that none of us are perfect but we’re all on a journey so what are we doing to help (or hinder) others on that journey who are often in very difficult and complex family situations.

The other interventions talked about communion for the divorced and remarried, the impact severe poverty has on families particularly as parents need to go abroad in order to be able to provide for the family which separates them. Many bishops spoke at length about homosexuality. The very fact that this topic was being discussed so openly is a change from previous discussions. They were genuinley trying to find a way to recognise those who live a homosexual lifestyle, but were on no way comparing such a union to Christian marriage.

While there was a sense of hope and excitement and positivity in the Synod Hall and probably by those following the discussions from a distance. This is only the beginning of the process. We’re not sure yet what will happen, this time we’re not asked to vote on propositions and we need to remember that things will not change overnight. However Pope Francis has announced a commission to look at simplifying the annulment process and there may be other areas that will need to be looked at as well in the next year before the Synod reconvenes.

Change in the Church can seem slow at times but what has been clear is that this discussion, is about people’s lives and people are hurting, and if the Church is to be a mother that consoles, encourages reaches out supports it must listen to what is emerging from the discussion.

We can all have hope that questions have been raised and talked about in depth and at length with openness and readiness.

The very last presentation in the Synod Hall, before the closing Mass on the Sunday morning, was Pope Francis speaking. His words were welcomed with a five minute standing ovation and all – almost all, were saying that his words were the highlight of the Synod. I highly recommend people reading his speech at the end of the Synod, it is available online and I know I will be meditating on it for a long time to come.

My experience of the Synod is one of active collegiality. At the closing Mass of the Synod Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul VI. Fifty years ago Pope Paul VI talked about the need for collegiality in the Church at a time of great hope and change in the Church. And when Pope Francis was elected some of his first words to the world were that the Cardinals had gone to the ends of the earth to elect a bishop of Rome and he is and during this Synod he has been a bishop among brothers. Fifty years on we as a Church have got a lot to thank Pope Paul VI.

The text of Pope Francis’ final address to the Synod is available in full here.

You can read the daily blog posts from Archbishop John Dew that were posted throughout the Synod.