Last week was the final deadline to submit comments to our local bishop about the agenda for the upcoming Synod on the Family, to be reconvened this October at the Vatican. The Synod’s working document, or lineamenta, asked 46 questions about the pastoral care of the family, which the laypeople of our diocese were encouraged to answer.
Not being one to keep my mouth shut, I put in my 25 cents worth even when it touched on issues of priestly formation. Because, the way I see it, nothing’s more essential to evangelization of the family than the knowledge and personal holiness of the priests who proclaim it. I also included lots of practical suggestions that shouldn’t take much time or effort to implement.
What do you think of my suggestions? Do you know any parishes or dioceses that already incorporate these ideas in their programs? I’d love to hear from you about ongoing efforts across the country.
As a pre-Cana instructor and author of an upcoming book on Catholic marriage to be published by Ave Maria Press, I offer the following responses to the Lineamenta.
Q. 10. What is being done to demonstrate the greatness and beauty of the gift of indissolubility so as to prompt a desire to live it and strengthen it more and more? (cf. n. 14)
Most people do not undervalue the gift of indissolubility, they instead see it as an almost impossible goal far beyond their ability to achieve. This lack of hope is heightened when people’s own parents have become divorced and remarried, sometimes more than once. The most encouraging witness for these people is often the most simple – recognition masses for couples in the community who are celebrating their 25th or 50th wedding anniversaries. Masses for those who are celebrating their 10th anniversary might offer additional consolation, especially since these couples will be closer in age to the newly married or still single.
Q. 11. How can people be helped to understand that a relationship with God can assist couples in overcoming the inherent weaknesses in marital relations? (cf. n. 14) How do people bear witness to the fact that divine blessings accompany every true marriage? How do people manifest that the grace of the Sacrament sustains married couples throughout their life together?
People need to realize that a successful marriage does not depend on finding the “right person.” Every person is imperfect and many are wounded. A successful marriage depends on accepting your own faults and the faults of your beloved without ever giving up the constant struggle to overcome these weaknesses. Forgiveness can be learned in the Sacrament of Confession, which should be available whenever requested. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is a constant reminder that the one perfect person in our union, whose love is unquenchable and unending, is God.
Q. 16. What initiatives in catechesis can be developed and fostered to make known and offer assistance to persons in living the Church’s teaching on the family, above all in surmounting any possible discrepancy between what is lived and what is professed and in leading to a process of conversion?
Catechesis must begin with the priesthood. Guidelines for ongoing priestly formation could include a requirement of catechesis on the family. Monthly confession and spiritual direction could also be offered to priests. Catechesis must be rooted in heart-felt devotion and closeness to Christ. Priests could then train, oversee, or approve the activity of lay catechists. No catechetical initiative can succeed without people adequately trained to carry it out.
There are numerous excellent catechetical programs available, but there is a tendency to remain with the familiar rather than attempt improvement. Lay people and movements have a tremendous amount to offer but there is a tendency to squelch initiatives that do not originate from within the church hierarchy. This dampens zeal and halts growth. Sometimes fostering spiritual renewal is just a matter of not standing in the way of it.
Q. 20. How can people be helped to understand that no one is beyond the mercy of God? How can this truth be expressed in the Church’s pastoral activity towards families, especially those which are wounded and fragile? (cf. n. 28)
A deeply devout Spanish-speaking priest in Manhattan would shout to the overflowing number of people attending Mass – “I have helped so many couples who haven’t married in the Church yet! Come to me! I can fix this!” This joyful offer of convalidation acknowledged the truth of the situation and placed no barriers to the immediate resolution of the problem. Parish bulletins could include weekly announcements that convalidation is available. Parish offices and web sites could develop one-page fact sheets on the basics of divorce, annulment, and convalidation, with numbers to call in order to take the next step.
Q. 28. How is marriage preparation proposed in order to highlight the vocation and mission of the family according to faith in Jesus Christ? Is it proposed as an authentic ecclesial experience? How can it be renewed and improved?
Marriage prep is often overwhelmingly secular, because of deficiencies in the program, the administrators, the instructors, or all three. Engaged couples could receive better secular preparation (e.g., on work, communication, or finances) from a secular source. Receiving a second-rate secular preparation from a religious source demeans the core competence of Mother Church as a spiritual teacher. Pre-Cana should in fact be an authentic ecclesial experience, and too often it is not. At a minimum, Mass should always be included as part of the program. Opportunity for confession should also be available.
Q. 31. The pastoral accompaniment of couples in the initial years of family life — as observed in synodal discussion — needs further development. What are the most significant initiatives already being undertaken? What elements need further development in parishes, dioceses or associations and movements?
Some simple ways to accompany couples in the initial years of their marriage include: sending anniversary cards, offering blessings to all couples in the first year of marriage at a designated Mass each month, personally inviting these couples (and their children) to carry up the gifts at Mass and listing their names in the bulletin, and offering an annual day or evening of follow-up post-Cana instruction with free babysitting. All of this would of course depend on an organized system of creating and maintaining a database of couples married or registered in the parish.
Yours in Christ,
Parishioner of St. Joseph Church, Garden City
Founder of Can We Cana? A Community to Support Catholic Marriages