You’ve got mail – from Pope Francis.
The letter that the pope wrote to all the world’s families won’t arrive in your mail box, but was communicated from the Vatican Feb. 25. (Read it here.)
He asked families to pray for the success of the Synod of Bishops meeting at the Vatican in October to discuss issues facing families today. With its theme, “Pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization,” the pope said the synod would involve bishops, clergy, religious and lay people from every region of the world.
“Indeed, in our day the church is called to proclaim the Gospel by confronting the new and urgent pastoral needs facing the family,” Pope Francis said.
“This Synodal Assembly is dedicated in a special way to you,” he told families, “to your vocation and mission in the church and in society; to the challenges of marriage, of family life, of the education of children; and the role of the family in the life of the church. I ask you, therefore, to pray intensely to the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit may illumine the Synodal Fathers and guide them in their important task.”
The synod will be followed a year later by another meeting at the Vatican on the same topic, and by the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September 2015. He did not confirm his attendance in Philadelphia but previous popes have traditionally celebrated Mass in the host city of the meetings, held every three years since 1994.
The Philadelphia Archdiocese has already begun to assist with the preparation for the Synod in October. Like Catholic communities around the world, the archdiocese last November invited local Catholics to help the bishops by participating in a questionnaire consisting of a summary of church teaching on marriage and family life prepared by the Holy See, plus nine questions to be answered by participants.
The issues specifically included cohabitation, same-sex unions, interreligious marriages, single-parent families, the equality of spouses, “a weakened sense of the permanence of marriage, a feminism hostile to the Church … and the negative impacts of the media and legislation on the meaning of Christian marriage and family,” read an introductory message to the questionnaire on the archdiocesan website.
Father Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocesan Office for Divine Worship, was the archdiocese’s lead coordinator on the project. Typically, he said, bishops’ conferences – collectively the Catholic bishops in each country in the world – prepare a report for use at the Vatican based on bishops’ assessment of church life in their diocese. A bishops’ conference of a country then delivers its report normally without direct input by Catholics on the given topic.
In the case of preparation for this fall’s synod, “what the Holy See wanted to do was extend an invitation beyond the typical structures to get input with regard to significant church teaching on family and marriage,” Father Gill said.
The almost 900 responses to the questionnaire that his office received was relatively light considering the 1.4 million Catholics living in the five-county Philadelphia Archdiocese. Father Gill pointed to the short time frame for completion as a key reason.
Announced and made available on the archdiocese’s website on Nov. 15, 2013 with a completion deadline of Dec. 2, the two-week window left little time to inform people that the questionnaire was available. It also left people who were participating in it with little opportunity for deep reflection on the questions.
“That being said, the opportunity for input was excellent because, frankly, the church’s faith with regard to family and marriage, while preached by bishops and priests, is lived by the baptized,” Father Gill said. “Therefore there should have been input coming from the baptized.”
He said most responses were received electronically since that was the main means the questionnaire was communicated, and about 100 were received by postal mail.
“For the most part the people who responded took it seriously,” he said. “And more than 80 percent were married people,” adding the remainder included clergy, religious and single laypeople, including divorced and widowed people.
Father Gill declined to reveal actual responses by participants on particular points of the questionnaire, saying dioceses were instructed by the Vatican to keep the responses confidential.
The questionnaire was intended both to assess how well people understood the church’s teachings on marriage and family life, and how they were living those teachings, according to Father Gill.
Without revealing specifics, he suggested teachers and pastoral workers in the church had their work cut out because respondents indicated “a disconnect” between their knowledge of church teaching and their practice of it in their lives.
“One thing we did learn was that we have to be much more proactive,” he said. “We cannot just depend on church teaching filtering through the cracks. We need to have an evangelical aggressivity to putting on the table just what we believe on all these issues.”
What is needed, Father Gill believes, is not simply a renewed effort to present church teaching in the same ways that it has been. “Somehow the Gospel has to be presented in a way that is compelling, engaging, insisting on a response,” he said.
He thinks many people emphasize negative aspects of family life today including divorce and various painful family situations.
“Why define the teaching in terms of what’s lacking? I think the approach is to put forward what can be or what should be, so that what isn’t has a place to go,” Father Gill said.
The general tone of the responses to the questionnaire gave the priest a sense of hope. “Many times (the respondents) didn’t comment negatively, many times they were grateful,” he said. “Many expressed a concern for marriage and family, its ‘gospel’ health.”