Today in Rome the 14th Ordinary Synod of Bishops – and the third so far on the Family – concludes.
It follows the 1980 Synod that informed St John Paul II’s great exhortation Familiaris Consortio and the Extraordinary Synod of 12 months ago. All three meetings gathered together bishops and lay experts passionate about God’s plan for marriage and our pastoral care of families in today’s world. The popes know, the bishops know, we all know what pressures people are under today. Fewer get married at all. Or stay married once they do. Many postpone it and practise non-commitment in various cohabitations in the meantime. Some never have children, or find it hard to.
Many children grow up without a stable home founded on a man and woman married to each other and committed to them as mum and dad over the long haul. And so on. It’s not a matter of blaming anyone; it’s not clear it’s anyone’s fault; marriage and family today are plain hard!
Of course media commentary on the Synod hasn’t focused so much on this so much as the hot button issues like Communion for the civilly remarried, the sovereignty of conscience unimpeded by hierarchs or traditions, and approaches to same-sex attraction. Reporters barely noticed the most beautiful moment of this Synod month when Pope Francis canonised Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux.
Though many married couples through history – starting with Mary and Joseph – have been saints, and many more have had a child who was a saint, this is the first couple to be canonised in the same ceremony. Married in 1858, Louis and Zélie had nine children, and must have expected many grandchildren. But God’s ways can be strange: four died in infancy and the remaining five all entered religious life! But they trusted in God, attended daily Mass, fasted and prayed, visited elderly and sick neighbours, and welcomed the poor into their home.
A synod’s worth of cardinals and bishops and 65,000 faithful attended the Mass. Pope Francis underlined the way saints like these substitute the human thirst for power with the quiet joy of humble service – St Thérèse’s “little way”. There is much for us to ponder here regarding family life as it is actually lived, its joys and griefs, challenges and gifts. Yet that’s not what the media wanted: no, they looked for conspiracies and power blocks, humiliating defeats for particular high ecclesiastics; they sought divisions right and left and, ideally, a poisoned chalice or two.
Any Church synod, being a divine but also human affair, will have more than a bit of politics and some of it can be scandalous. As Blessed John Henry Newman once observed, “those who love the barque of Peter” should probably keep clear of the engine room; Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles put it: “those who enjoy sausage should never watch how it’s made”! Of course, we’ve hardly begun to digest the conclusions of the Synod fathers and are yet to receive the subsequent exhortation from the Holy Father. We watch this space. But we have confidence that God can work amidst the mess of conflicting human personalities and opinions, that He entrusts Himself not just for 33 years but still today “into the hands of sinful men” and that somehow He “writes straight with crooked lines”. We pray for great pastoral fruit from this latest gathering.
Because she was no politicking bishop our media little noticed the intervention of one of the lay participants at the Synod, Dr Anca-Maria Cernea (Rome must tell the word: ‘repent, turn to God; the kingdom of heaven is near’, CW 25 Oct). She’s a medical doctor, president, in fact, of the Association of Catholic Doctors of Bucharest (Romania). Having grown up under communism she’s seen first-hand what happens to the family in a culture without God. She pleaded with the bishops to resist the siren calls of this world and focus on evangelising families in the truth and assisting their conversion from sin to authentic freedom. She told of how her parents, like St Thérèse’s, influenced and inspired her.
They were not long engaged when her father, a Christian political activist, was imprisoned. Her mother had to wait – 17 years – for his release, not even knowing for sure if he was still alive, let alone what he would be like when he emerged. Their unusual courtship and their married love was like the fidelity of God to the faithful remnant of Israel in our first reading today (Jer 31:7-9). It bore witness to the power of God’s grace to help his followers remain faithful to Him and each other through thick and thin. Married or single, we will all face our challenges and the Church will be there as a field hospital to console and help heal the walking wounded. But first it must help build resilience in our Christian vocations, support us in virtue and perseverance, help prevent our falling by the way in a world that does not always stand for what we stand for.
Bishop Thomas Muldoon slapped my face once! In those days, after calling down the Holy Spirit and anointing us with Chrism, the bishop would give us a good smack, especially the cheekier looking boys. It was redolent of the military gesture whereby a newly minted knight is given his ‘accolade’, slapped by one or all the other knights. Fear not dear Candidates for Confirmation: I will be gentle. Nonetheless you are to become ‘soldiers for Christ’. Not so you can go around coercing people into joining him. For Christians the battle is more often an internal one: the battle with our own personalities, weaknesses, vanities and temptations. Like Bartimaeus, we all have our blind-spots (Mk 10:46-52). Indeed, as our epistle explained, this is precisely one of the reasons for the Incarnation: to reassure us that God knows our weakness from the inside and so brings high-priestly healing from beyond (Heb 5:1-6).
Whether the spiritual battles are within or without, Christian maturity is not for the fainthearted. It takes toughness to keep loving when the loving is hard, to be faithful when infidelity is so tempting, to be hopeful when our weakness inclines us to give up. The enduring love which St Thérèse’s parents exemplified, that Dr Anca-Maria’s parents typified, that serves with fidelity through thick and thin, this is the soldierly love, the chivalry our world needs and Christ commissions you for today.
Pastors, sponsors, family and friends of our candidates: continue to support them in their new Christian maturity. Help them apply the gifts of the Holy Spirit in lives of Christian faith and practice, of virtue and holiness, of the worship of God and love for all.
Candidates for Confirmation: when I anoint you and knight you, you can be sure that God will give you all the gifts you need to be ‘Christian soldiers’, that is, missionary disciples founded and built up in Christ (Col 2:7). Resolve now in return to show His goodness to your families, friends and work colleagues; through what you say and do; in Sunday Mass, regular prayer and Confession; in spiritual or corporal works of mercy – whatever your vocation and wherever God calls you to be. In demonstration of your readiness for such a mission, I charge you to stand up now and profess your faith with this assembly.
This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the mass for adult confirmations on 25 October at St Mary’s Cathedral.