This month, the Vatican will gather bishops from around the world to discuss the theme of "pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization," including the challenge of promoting Catholic teachings in societies where the traditional family may not be so traditional.
In June, the Vatican released a document, called "Instrumentum Laboris," which outlines the topics that will be discussed during this conference of bishops, the first of two such synods within the next year. The second meeting, the ordinary general assembly, will take place in 2015. The synod includes 253 representatives from five continents. Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the leader of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, will represent the United States at the synod.
"The aim of the meeting is to propose to today's world the beauty and the values of the family, which emerge from the proclamation of Jesus Christ, who disperses fear and supports hope," said Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops. "'Synodus,' which means 'taking a path together,' is the expressions that includes the ecclesial space in which we convene in order to meet and to reflect, in the dual faith in God and man, before today's challenges to the family."
The "Instrumentum Laboris" is divided into three key focuses of discussion: how to communicate the Gospel of the family in today's society, the circumstances of modern society that make evangelization more challenging, and how to promote a culture of life and parental responsibility. It also gathers and analyzes the responses of bishop conferences held in countries throughout the world.
The bishops blamed "the prevalence of ideas that lead to an excessive, selfish liberalization of morals, the fragility of interpersonal relationships, a culture which rejects making permanent choices" and "values reinforced by the so-called 'culture of waste'" for widespread rejection of Church teachings. However, the bishops also agreed these circumstances require changes, and they strive to maintain a sense of balance between promoting traditional Church teachings while also welcoming everyone equally.
Nancy Scherr, director of the diocesan Office of Family Life Ministries, said of the text of the synod document, "It certainly connects with a lot of the challenges that families face today. The aim of the meeting in October is to really emphasize the beauty and the value of family, and how important it is. It's the building block of society, it's the cell of the Christian Church and society at large."
"As Christian people and believing in Gospel values, we need to walk the walk with people, help them and reach out with programs and with our presence, in whatever ways we can to help them to have a good life and live life to its fullest, while trying to be consistent with our values and beliefs in this world," she also commented. "Certainly, our world can be countercultural in a lot of ways, and as Christians and witnesses to the Gospel, we need to be consistent and firm in our beliefs, and live that out in our daily life, hoping to bring hope and dissipating a lot of the fear and anxiety that is in the world today."
According to the bishops, blended and alternative families are common and society, especially Western society, includes many parents who have divorced and remarried, single-parent households, same-sex couples, couples who live together without marrying, and those who marry but choose not to have children. The "Instrumental Laboris" emphasizes that while these situations differ from what the Church believes is the ideal model of a father, mother and children, these families require pastoral care and sensitivity to their circumstances to avoid feeling ostracized and causing them to leave Church congregations.
Many bishops conferences have suggested streamlining procedures for marriage annulments and giving more care to people who have gone through divorce, since "a more painful wound results when these people remarry and enter a state of life which does not allow them to receive Holy Communion." Bishops have noted a lack of ministry in parishes for remarried individuals and have suggested addition of groups and activities for them, as well as individual blessings for those who cannot receive communion.
"With regard to divorced people, divorced people can receive Communion, it's just that if it's outside the guidelines of the Church, they do need to seek some counsel with their parish priest and try to rectify that situation. Here in the diocese, we do have a program for those that are divorced, and it's called DivorceLink. They meet twice a month for RAP sessions. Basically, it's a support group for those who are currently in the situation of separation or impending divorce," Scherr also said. "They can come; they've got people to talk to, friends to meet and support to have. For those who are serious who would want to commit to it, they've got an eight-week program where they go through, there's some book reading and small group support, so they do have some ongoing support, on a bimonthly to weekly basis."
The bishops also recommended promoting an environment that rewards having children, and recognized obstacles and reasons, such as finances, fear of commitment and lack of job prospects, that modern couples give for delaying marriage. Scherr's office includes a marriage preparation program, which meets monthly in the diocese and includes talks from married couples geared toward teaching newlyweds about Church teachings. Couples share values and experiences of married life on a variety of topics, including commitment, spirituality, communication, intimacy and sexuality and natural family planning.
"Certainly, the Holy Family is a model for us, and as a parent and family member myself, we learn to live, pray and work within the family, and hope to bring forth a healthy next generation of family members and help do the best we can to benefit society," said Scherr.
For more information about DivorceLink or marriage preparation programs the diocese offers, contact the Office of Family Life Ministries at 847-2210.