Moving accounts of refugee families separated by war
The Synod on the Family has provided the Church with a manifesto for action, writes Archbishop Eamon Martin
Three weeks ago, as I rather nervously prepared for the Opening Mass of the Synod on the Family, I had a sense of being part of something very special and historic in the life of the Church. The first person I spoke to was an archbishop from Lesotho, and soon we were joined by Bishop Eugene Hurley of Darwin and Archbishop Zore from Slovenia. By the time Pope Francis pulled up in his Ford Focus, more than 300 priests, bishops and cardinals, from every corner of the globe, stood vested and ready to concelebrate Mass with the successor of St Peter.
'Cum Petro et sub Petro' (with Peter and under Peter) is the phrase which best describes for me all that has been happening here since the beginning of the Synod. In the packed Synod Hall, Pope Francis listened attentively and with deep concentration to every word spoken. We heard testimonies from all over the world painting a panorama of the pastoral challenges to family life -from poverty and austerity to child trafficking, domestic violence and abuse; from polygamy and exploitation to divorce and separation; from individualism and isolation to the spread of abortion, euthanasia and gender ideology.
Some of the most striking contributions at the Synod were about the plight of migrant and refugee families in many parts of the world. I found myself deeply moved on several occasions as we listened to accounts of families separated, grieving and oppressed because of war and persecution in their homelands. An African bishop told us that massive numbers of refugees have poured into Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia. We heard from the Lebanon Patriarch about the ongoing persecution which is driving Christian families from their homes in Syria and Iraq. We listened to stories of millions of families who continue to suffer because of the war in Ukraine.
Outside the Synod Hall, the western media and some Catholic commentators seemed fixated on intrigue and potential divisions amongst the bishops, particularly on the issues of homosexuality and communion for the divorced and remarried. Although these issues were discussed and there was a divergence of opinion, they certainly did not dominate or distract unduly from the main focus of the Synod, which was 'The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World'.
The Synod faced the delicate task of trying to balance mercy and truth, doctrine and pastoral care, justice and forgiveness. At the time of writing, the final Synod report to Pope Francis is still unfinished, but it is my hope that through the Synod, the Church will speak with both the tenderness of a mother and the clarity of a teacher, thereby witnessing to Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
By all accounts, the most dynamic and interesting sessions at the Synod were the 13 'Circuli Minores' or 'small group' discussions. Almost half of the time at the Synod was devoted to these language group meetings. I was honoured to be elected as 'Moderator' (Chairman) of one of the English language groups and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin was elected 'Relator' (Secretary/Reporter) of another. In my group, 18 nationalities from five continents were represented, and although we all spoke English, I can assure you there's quite a difference between the Derry accent and that of South Sudan! Equally, we found great richness and challenge in the different modulations of marriage and the family that are accented in the various cultures and traditions around the world.
It became clear to us that the Church is called to accompany all families as they persevere through the ups and downs of everyday life, and to reach out with particular care and understanding to those who seek God but who have, for whatever reason, been unable to live fully in accordance with the teachings of the Church.
Those best placed to be the agents of such support and accompaniment for families, are faithful families themselves, especially when they are given opportunities for faith development and formation. Indeed, the discussion was deeply enriched, both before and during the Synod itself, by the contributions of lay people, including married couples (and one little baby!), who kept us all grounded in the realities of family life.
Returning home from the Synod, I am confident that the final document, together with Pope Francis's reflections on it, will provide us with both a manifesto and a challenge for pastoral action in the coming years.
As we look forward to Ireland's hosting of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin 2018 - one of the most significant events in the calendar of the Catholic Church - we have much to be getting on with.
Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland