The Word Among Us

September 2015 Issue

A “Wrestling Church”

Pope Francis’ vision for the Synod on the Family

A “Wrestling Church”: Pope Francis’ vision for the Synod on the Family

When it comes to family matters, does it ever feel like you’re in the middle of a long, drawn out wrestling match? Maybe your daughter’s marriage is rocky, and you don’t know how to help. Maybe your grandchildren have stopped attending Mass, and it’s causing tension in your family. Maybe you and your spouse disagree on financial issues, like how much money you need to save. Maybe there’s an unmarried couple living together in your neighborhood, and you’re wrestling with the question of how to relate to them.

Then there’s the wrestling that many of us do over the almost constant news reports surrounding marriage and family topics, from gay marriage rulings to the latest statistics on divorce. The ground appears to be shifting under our feet, and we all want firm definitive answers.

If this describes you, then know that you are not alone. In fact, you are in very distinguished company. Pope Francis himself, along with bishops from around the world, is wrestling with very similar questions!

A Wrestling Pope. One of Francis’ roles as pope is to guard the deposit of our Catholic faith. That sounds very clear-cut, but it’s not always clear how we should live out the truths of our faith, especially in a rapidly changing world. How do you balance the call to purity with the call to mercy? How do you apply timeless truths from Scripture to an increasingly cynical and individualistic culture? How do you speak to people in a way that will move their hearts closer to the Lord and not just result in more arguments and division?

Many of these questions don’t have easy answers, and it can be risky even bringing up some of them in public. But that hasn’t stopped Pope Francis from convening not one but two synods to discuss the challenges facing families today. Neither has it stopped him from insisting on a new level of openness and transparency as the bishops debate and discuss and even argue amongst themselves.

Francis knows that it’s healthy to try and work out our disagreements together—even if it means wrestling with each other. He knows that it’s healthy to get things out in the open and to listen charitably to those who disagree with us. Because, if we let anger, gossip, or division have the upper hand, we risk becoming more polarized as a people, and the light of our witness shines less brightly. Remember, Jesus told us that the one sure way that people will know we are his followers is by the way we love each other (John 13:35).

A Spirit of Openness. But Pope Francis is concerned not just with the bishops. He is inviting all of us to join him in praying about and wrestling over these issues. He seems to recognize that since they involve all of us, we should also have a hand in working through them. That’s why, when he announced the Extraordinary Synod on the Family that opened last October, he invited all laypeople to answer a few questions about their experiences of marriage and family life. This was the beginning of a long-term process that involves a second synod this October as well as a second questionnaire. As Francis has said numerous times, we are all the people of God, and the Holy Spirit speaks in a special way when all his people work together.

All year long, since the opening of the first synod, we have witnessed something that the Holy Father has referred to as a spirit of parrhesia, the Greek word for “open, bold speech.” Unlike many of the previous synods, the gathering last October was a wide-open forum where bishops felt free to express many differing views without fear of condemnation or reprisal. Of course, everyone agreed on topics like the goodness of marriage, the spiritual value of married love, and the need for the Church to offer more support to families that are struggling. It was the more controversial issues that evoked the most spirited discussion. These issues included the question of admitting to communion those who are divorced and remarried outside of the Church; the way in which gay, lesbian, and transgender Catholics should be welcomed at the table of the Lord; and the dramatic rise in unmarried couples cohabiting and raising children.

And so, when the Synod on the Family reconvenes on October 4, we can be sure that the bishops will discuss these topics, and possibly some new ones. Only now, as they continue their dialogue, they will have heard from many laypeople as well. And they will have to consider all this new input as they fulfill their task: “to formulate appropriate pastoral guidelines” for Pope Francis to consider (Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod). We can be sure that the same spirit of openness and freedom will prevail in this gathering as in last year’s. And we can also be sure that no matter what gets reported in the news, the Holy Spirit will continue to guide the Church.

A Wrestling Church. All of this discussion about divorce and remarriage, gay rights, and family tension can sound awfully dramatic, can’t it? But in many ways, this is a very familiar scene. This isn’t the first time that we have seen leaders and laity wrestling over difficult issues. Peter and Paul had their fair share of disagreements about how to accept Gentiles into the early Church (Galatians 2:11-14). Paul and Barnabas fought over whether to let John Mark continue as a missionary even though he had previously abandoned the cause (Acts 15:36-41). In the Old Testament, we see the prophet Samuel and King Saul fighting over the best way to lead the Israelites (1 Samuel 13:10-14). Later, St. Francis of Assisi wrestled with his successor over just how “poor” the poor friars should be, and St. Ignatius of Loyola wrestled with Church authorities over his Spiritual Exercises.

Even in the most recent past, we have seen this kind of wrestling over how to implement the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. Issues like ecumenism, the language of the Mass, and the role of women continue to be debated. In some circles, they are causes of division and strong argument. In other circles, they barely register. Wrestling with topics like these can appear to be a needless waste of time, but history shows that God honors our efforts anytime we ask how we can better proclaim his message to the modern world.

Make a Mess! All of these examples show us that it’s okay to wrestle with issues in the Church. It’s okay to have discussions and different opinions and interpretations. In fact, this is part of Pope Francis’ dream for the synod and for the Church as a whole. Not long after he was elected, he urged all of us to go out and “make a mess.” He was speaking here about going out into the world and sharing the good news of the gospel. But at the same time, the pope’s words encourage us to accept the fact that there will be messes, even within our Church, and that these messes serve a good purpose.

If it weren’t for the mess created by Peter and Paul’s disagreements, the Church might never have opened itself up to the Gentiles. It risked remaining a small “sect” within Judaism that could have died out after a couple of generations.

If it weren’t for the mess created by Vatican II, we would not have so many laypeople engaged so deeply in the mission of the Church. We would not have seen so much improvement in ecumenism. We would not have so many people seeking the presence and gifts of the Holy Spirit. And we would not have so many people reading the Scriptures and being touched by God’s word.

If it weren’t for the mess created by Pope Francis in convening the Synod on the Family, we would have risked more and more people growing frustrated with the sense that the Church isn’t listening to them or taking their needs to heart.

The Unity of the Spirit. So as the Synod on the Family opens, let’s embrace the messiness that is part of our heritage in the Church. Let’s be willing to talk charitably and listen prayerfully as we seek the Spirit’s guidance. It is perfectly acceptable to discuss and debate the issues, but it’s not acceptable to dismiss or attack the people who disagree with us.

Above all, let’s keep a spirit of love and patience in our hearts. You can be sure that countless news reports, blog posts, television programs, and opinion articles will appear during the synod. Some will be accurate. Others will not. Some will be respectful and careful, and others will not. It will be very tempting to get caught up in the arguments. Don’t let that happen! Instead, try to imitate Pope Francis as he seeks to “preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

If you remember nothing else, remember that God has a wonderful, beautiful plan for his Church. He has promised that not even the gates of hell will prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). May we all keep our Holy Father and bishops in prayer during the synod. And may we all continue to love and honor one another as our very own brothers and sisters in Christ.