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Back to the synod: Year given for 'discernment' also brought debate

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • October 3, 2015

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis planned two gatherings of the Synod of Bishops to focus on the family and urged participants to use the year between the assemblies as a time for "true spiritual discernment" with both study and prayer.

In the months leading up to the opening of the world Synod of Bishops Oct. 4, dozens of books about the Catholic Church and families were published, consultations were conducted, conferences held, groups formed, petitions were circulated and study days were sponsored. "Spiritual discernment" sounds like a quiet, peaceful pursuit, but screaming headlines and reports of "shadow synods" and conspiracies by forces allegedly trying to overturn church doctrine or to keep it in the Dark Ages probably made such discernment a challenge for many participants.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, synod general secretary, told reporters Oct. 2 that Pope Francis invited church members and all people of goodwill to discuss the theme of the family. "It is not surprising then that there were positions and statements that contrast with each other or focus on different aspects. This was foreseen."

"Obviously, it can appear that there is turbulence on some themes, but we are on the high seas, so there is some turbulence," he said.

The cardinal also said that, partially in response to accusations that the extraordinary synod's discussions were manipulated -- at least in its controversial midterm report -- changes have been made. Each of the three chapters of the working document will be dealt with separately: There will be an introduction, a "testimony" by a couple or a layperson, speeches in the hall and discussion in 13 small groups. The small group reports will be published.

A 10-member commission will summarize the findings and draft the synod's final report, which will be voted on and given to Pope Francis. Part of the commission's task, he said, is to exercise vigilance to ensure what is written at the end of each stage and at the end of the synod reflects the speeches in the hall and the discussion in the small groups.

In the year between the synods, much of the turbulence in the media and particularly in the Catholic blogosphere focused on the church's outreach to homosexuals and to people who have been divorced and civilly remarried without an annulment. But Pope Francis told reporters traveling with him that the agenda was much wider than that and focused on helping an even broader range of Catholics.

"There is the issue of second marriages, the divorced who enter a new union," he told reporters Sept. 27 during his inflight news conference from Philadelphia to Rome. However, "the problem of new unions on the part of the divorced is not the only problem."

The synod working document "mentions many" other topics, he said. "For example, young people are not getting married. They don't want to get married. This is a pastoral problem for the church. Another problem: the affective maturity needed for marriage. Still another problem is faith," do young people really believe marriage is forever when they approach the altar?

Marriage preparation is a big and important topic for the synod, Pope Francis said. "I often think about how preparation for becoming a priest takes eight years, and then, it is not definitive; the church can remove someone from the clerical state. But for marriage, which is for life, we offer four courses, four meetings. Something is not right there."

At the end of last year's extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, Pope Francis told participants that church leaders and members had a year "to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families."

But he also insisted that the "joy of the Gospel" includes the joy of the family.

Speaking Sept. 27 in Philadelphia to an international gathering of bishops who had attended the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis said, "As pastors, we bishops are called to collect our energies and to rebuild enthusiasm for making families correspond ever more fully to the blessing of God which they are! We need to invest our energies not so much in rehearsing the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity, but in extending a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family."

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