Part one of Your Extraordinary Synod about the family is coming to an end and I’ve read a bit about its proceedings in online Catholic media. It was only mildly interesting reading, but it set me thinking about the complex relationship web we call family. Your advisors and employees will never ask me about those ruminations, so I thought that I would like to share them with you in a letter.
Your predecessor John Paul 2 said that the family, in its various forms, ‘constitutes the Church in its fundamental dimension’. It’s church-speak for saying that the Church comes wrapped in families. It saddens me when so many of my generation, which is your generation too, seem to believe that the parish is the foundational Christian community and not the other way around. Centre your faith and your social life around us, we are your one true community and here is your true home. There’s nothing terribly homely about a large, single purpose building furnished with rows of upright timber pews.
It’s in a family, however it is structured, that God is first encountered and imaged – physically. I’m an ordinary Australian and my extended family, like every family I know, can tick the boxes labelled married- two parents, unmarried, two-parent , single parent, blended, childless, divorced, single, widowed, a gay couple- and so on. It is within those family relationships, however misshapen and even sinful the Church seems to think they are, that love, forgiveness and a sense of community and belonging is experienced. We best understand Church liturgies and practices when we see their relevance mirrored in our everyday family rituals.
It has been my experience that women and men who ask for baptism for their child – and often those who don’t – have a God sense. I listen to them talking and I recognise that the truths that enrich their lives are the same truths that we consider to be religious. Maybe it’s a language thing. Parents need help to name, claim and then pro-claim the sacred that is to be found in the ordinary of family life.
I was delighted to read you encouraged the select group of Bishops who have assembled for this Synod to stop talking and start listening. I wish they would listen to the non-verbals that millions of ordinary Catholic families have been saying for years –that the Church expects families to fit a one- size-fits-all model, even though the sizing is European and has been out of stock for years. I wish that they could understand that they don’t have exclusive access to the Spirit of God.
I wonder what might have happened if this Synod had been replaced by a great gathering focused on the priesthood – its history, its problems, the ‘what-ifs’ as the Church moves into the future. What if there were married priests? What if women were ordained? What if every bishop in the world took a year- long sabbatical and spent it with a family? Maybe that would begin to close the yawning gap that currently lies between the institutional Church and the way modern families are structured and view themselves. Imagine how different a follow-up Synod, focusing on families, might then be.
Don’t lose heart, Pope Francis. There are lots of us barracking for you.
Judith, a (mostly) loyal Australian Catholic.