Vocation and Mission of the Family

The Synod called by the Pope on the theme ofThe vocation and mission of the family in the church and the contemporary worldmet for three weeks.  270 cardinals, bishops, theologians, religious superiors, parish priests (all men as Synod Fathers) with one lay brother present gathered each day. I was there as one of 12 Fraternal Delegates (6 Orthodox and 6 Protestant). Also present were about 30 lay people (mostly married couples with one baby and some religious sisters and experts in the area of family matters).  This gave the Synod a very different feel from previous Synods, following the wish of Pope Francis to do things differently and to listen more widely across the Universal Church. Sinodality was stressed at various points. The voice of those who were not Synod Fathers and therefore had no vote was strongly heard as each gave a three minute address as well as their contribution in the small groups in different languages where much of the work of scrutinizing the working document produced since last year`s Synod, taking into account questionnaires from dioceses around the world was done.

So what were my impressions as a first timer in this exhausting process stretching over three weeks?  Well, in general I detected some misgivings amongst the more conservative cardinals and bishops about the process. Less time and influence for them maybe. More risk that the Church would appear divided in trying to maintain its unity in the face of increased diversity because of the disparities of context, North and South. The Pope`s personal authority was unquestioned but the ability of the new synodical way of advising the Holy Father in important matters was the cause of nervousness. We were told to listen to each other as well as the voices of those outside.

At times there seemed to be a divide opening up between those intent on defending the Truth and Magisterium/Teaching of the Church against those who were more  open to change in respect of the pastoral  implications of the subject of the place of the family in Church and Society.  These focussed on particular challenges that were expressed, principally, on the nature of sacramental marriage of man and woman for life to produce children.  Could this view accommodate the range of different models of family we encounter around us in society today?   Where did this leave the separated and divorced/remarried who chose not to go down the route of annulment - could they be admission to Communion through a Penitential Path?  And what about mixed marriages - might baptised Christians in such a marriage be admitted to communion?  There were more contentious issues some might have preferred not to speak of - same sex relationships/unions, the single and childless.   And what some asked about the bigger challenges to Family?  The issues of Domestic Violence, Physical and Sexual Abuse, Poverty, Migration, Human Trafficking, War and all the other evils which were destroying family relationships?  

The small groups  thrashed out these issues with passion on both sides, some calling for a rigid adhesion to the traditional teachings of the Church, other calling for relaxation and pastoral sensitivity to those in difficulties.  The final text was presented to the Pope for him to reflect upon and take appropriate action, reaffirming traditional teaching on marriage and the family (the opposition to same sex unions as marriages , abortion and euthanasia were clearly spelt out) while strengthening the Church`s wish to enhance marriage preparation and support for families in difficulty. It skilfully balanced the desire to stick to existing rules while allowing some possibility for further development in the pastoral response of the Church as it sought to open doors and welcome all, caring for a range of needs: the elderly and widowed, young people reluctant to marry, those with children with special needs and those unable to have as well as those whose lives were ravaged by forced migration and persecution, street children and child soldiers, and the victims of poverty and abuse of various kinds.  While those in divorced situations and gay relationships may not be any better off in areas outside Europe and the English-speaking world, the hopes of a pastoral sensitivity to their situations and inclusion in the church remains a possibility for some.

Bishops learning to live with the variety of views and practices from their different cultural and geographic contexts has provided a model for the whole Catholic Church working together in unity and diversity to present the Gospel of the Family to a world  crying out for compassion. The person of Pope Francis leading by example and words gives great hope for the future development of the Catholic Church in its proclamation of the gospel if only it would listen!  

Tim MACQUIBAN, Director of the Methodist Ecumenical Office Rome 


Contribution ('Intervention') to the Synod by The Revd Dr Tim Macquiban

Holy Father, sisters and brothers in Christ:

Methodists, with the Catholic Church, have shared two emphases within their own understanding of faith. The primary calling of Christians is toholinessin response to God`s grace, calling us to bedisciples of Jesus Christ, the Living Word who challenges us to participate innew evangelisation.  Like you in this Synod, Methodists are exploring the tradition and experience of the Christian Church in living in contexts where its values, teaching and practice relating to marriage and the family have not been shared with those of the surrounding society. The ideal of family as a place of mutual care and concern, compassion, growth, and flourishing, needs to be true also of the family of faith, the Church. It needs to be a safe place, a place of care and compassion, of flourishing for all kinds of disciples, who seek to follow God's call in a variety of ways, and, by doing so, a home for those whose lives are holy.    

Sometimes in this Synod we seem to have concentrated on one form of family, of parents and children, as defined through sacramental marriage and its vocation.  For some this fails to take account of the different ways many people experience different forms of family in our various contexts and cultures.  Perhaps we understate how we all belong tothe family of faith,constituted by the call of God, comprising local church communities connected to theecumeneas part of the worldwide "household of faith" which is familial in character. And we need to respond to the many challenges but also opportunities we have together for pastoral care and evangelisation.

While we rightly celebrate the joy of new life and the centrality of marriage and family life (as traditionally defined), those who are single, with or without children,  or in civil partnerships or co-habiting relationships,  and even those within marriages conducted in church and childless can easily feel excluded. The Church is challenged to accept that it can (even if unintentionally) add to these difficulties with such a stress on "the Gospel of the Family" and a theology which all too often talks of children as "gifts" without taking into account the nature of the gift or the significance this might have for those who are denied such a "gift". For some the alternative of adoption may be an opportunity to express the love of God for those who desire a stable family unit in which to grow up. For others, through circumstance, childlessness may be embraced as a vocation which needs to be recognised, supported and affirmed by the Church by appropriate pastoral strategies. But it should not be sidelined or marginalised.

The family, however defined, is the place of mutual care and concern, compassion and helpfulness, giving and receiving, sharing and discipline, forgiving and being forgiven, whether in the traditional family or the family of faithful disciples who constitute local ecclesial communities. The Kingdom of God into which we are called is one of mercy and grace. God`s love is wide enough to encompass all. The Church which witnesses to God`s love revealed supremely in Jesus Christ should reflect this with appropriate teaching and pastoral support of those who embrace a single state or relationships without the blessing of the "gift" of children so that they may feel included and welcomed within the "household of faith", the Church.


Director of the Methodist Ecumenical Office Rome