Catholics in Australia are struggling to practise what the Church teaches on marriage and family, according to several Australians invited to attend next month’s Vatican think-tank on families.
Six Australians will be among more than 250 participants from around the world at the October Synod on the Family, which will examine pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelisation.
“There is a significant gap between what the Church is teaching and what they are able to practise,” says Professor Ron Pirola, who will take part in the synod with wife Mavis.
They will join fellow Australians including the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See and former Archbishop of Sydney, George Cardinal Pell, the Archbishop of Melbourne, Archbishop Denis Hart, the co-director of the World Organisation of Ovulation Method Billings in Australia, Joan Clements, and Sydney Life, Marriage and Family Centre director Chris Meney.
Professor and Mrs Pirola are chairs of the Australian bishops’ Catholic Marriage and Family Council.
Parents of four and grandparents of eight, they have devoted the past 40 years of their 55-year marriage to advocating for Australian Catholic families.
“As a Church we have great teachings for how to live our lives, and sometimes people don’t hear the compassion behind the teaching,” Professor Pirola says.
“One of the challenges is to find ways to express the pastoral situation as sensitively and carefully as possible.”
They believe the Church needs to be “more constructive and more proactive” in listening to families to “learn how they handle difficult situations”, he says.
“There are difficult situations which the Church grapples with and thinks, ‘What are we going to say?’ The families are actually dealing with this all the time. Divorce and remarriage is an obvious one.
“What insights can we gain from that that we can also apply at parish level so the parish family can be as loving as possible while maintaining the same vision as to what marriage and family life is about?”
Chris Meney, whose office was responsible for collating the thousands of Australian responses to the 2013 synod questionnaire, says the key concerns of local families include “pressures around family stability and permanence, and attitudes to children”.
Mr Meney, father of nine children ranging in age from nine to 29, says the Church is “genuinely concerned” about the pastoral challenges of family life and that “Pope Francis is very committed to trying to find a way forward”.
He says the gathering will address the “foundational issues” confronting families, including “how we understand what a family is”.
Mr Meney, who also made a personal submission on the pastoral challenges affecting families, says Australia will be “well-represented” at the synod.
The six Australians are among more than 250 participants from around the world, including 114 presidents of national bishops’ conferences, 13 heads of Eastern Catholic churches, 25 heads of Vatican congregations and councils, and 26 synod fathers.
Pope Francis has also appointed 38 observers and 16 experts, including 14 married couples.
The list of participants has been criticised for being dominated by prelates and members of the curia.
“Having curial officials as members of a synod fails to recognise that they should be staff not policymakers,” wrote National Catholic Reporter analyst Fr Thomas Reese SJ.
“They have all the other weeks of the year to advise the pope. This is the time for bishops from outside Rome to make their views known.
“We will have to wait and see whether the auditors will represent to the bishops the views of lay Catholics, but it is hard to argue that they are representative of Catholics at large.”