By the time most people read this week’s “thought for the weekend”, the Synod of Bishops in Rome will be drawing to its close and the media and Catholic blogosphere will be buzzing with comment and analysis of all that’s happened and especially about how it will end. Will there be a final address from the Pope? Most probably. Will there be a concluding document? Yes but perhaps not made public. Will there be a formal post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation in a few months time? Who knows. There is certainly going to be the abolition of several Vatican dicasteries (departments) which deal with inter-related aspects of marriage, family and life care and the formal establishment of one brand new sort of ‘supra’ dicatsery to deal with these ongoing issues and which will respond to the Synod. This will all be settled in December once the Jubilee Year of Mercy begins on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady (8th December). We must pray that such a development is firmly under her sacred mantle for its protection and direction.
But amidst all these unknowns and hopeful expectations one thing is absolutely crystal clear; the overwhelming consensus of all 270 delegates of the unmistakable spiritual and moral power of the union of one man and one woman for life, open to life. Well what else could they have agreed one might ask? It’s a given isn’t it? Well yes, but I think what emerged early on and grew in intensity of conviction is the fact that the Synod Fathers seemed to be saying that this amazing lived reality and catechesis called Holy Matrimony is something that; a] they had taken for granted as pastors, and, b] that they need to ‘big it up’ BIG TIME, as they say, as THE primary agent of evangelisation.
Why do I say this and how did it come about? Because the simple truth is that once the bishops began listening to the speeches of the lay auditors – the invited guests – at the synod, especially the married couples and experts who were there even without their spouses, something unseen but unmistakable was being transmitted. What they began to see unfold before them and hear through heartfelt testimony was the “sacred power” of the sexual identity of the masculine and the feminine tangibly present in the matrimonial sacramental reality. Blessed Paul VI used the phrase ‘sacred power’ when he addressed the international marriage enrichment movement Teams of Our Lady in the 1970s. Of course we shouldn’t be surprised by this, after all a sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace. But the problem is we often overlook it and inadvertently forget its iconic value. Holy Matrimony is a unique icon of the Trinity in the world and Church. And as the Synod Fathers gazed on this “icon” over the unfolding of the synod, its beauty, truth and above all its power became more striking for them.
The reality of this truth was something that I experienced on two occasions in the last week. I was attending the Arundel and Brighton diocese’s annual Mass of Thanksgiving for Matrimony at Arundel Cathedral last Saturday where over 70 couples were renewing their vows led by Bishop Richard Moth. The liturgy, the welcome, the prayer and joy among the throng was lovely but what really made an impact was the presence among us all of the oldest couple there who on that very day were celebrating their 68th wedding anniversary! ‘Wow!’ is too lame a word to describe the sacred power in which we all basked in their remarkable company. It was highly symbolic that the eldest couple cut the celebratory cake with the Bishop afterwards at the reception. Chief pastor and high priest of the diocese in union and witnessing to joy with two “priests of the domestic church.”
Later in the week I facilitated several workshops in two different high schools of the Explore remote marriage preparation project whereby volunteer married couples have an informal but informative and educational experience with adolescents. There’s often a degree of cynicism among the students we encounter before a session gets going and in the case of the schools this week some pretty challenging behaviour on a level I hadn’t quite witnessed before (one of them being a non faith school in a very deprived area). In minutes this cynicism dissipates and is transformed in to openness of heart then mind on the part of the young people to really want to hear the stories of the couples and learn from their collective wisdom and shared love. Yesterday in fact I witnessed a minor miracle in this process. One young man aged about 15 was deeply negative at the beginning, not just seeking to be uncooperative but actually determined to try and throw a spanner in the works of the dialogue by his insistence that there’s no point in marriage as the faith and hope people have in love bringing them fulfilment is illusory. Within a short space of time I saw a massive turn around in the attitude of this young man as he listened to not just what the couples were saying but HOW they were sharing it – in a manner of complete respect, harmony, tenderness and love. His countenance altered, he softened, warmed to the reality of what he was witnessing and began to contribute to the conversation in a thoughtful and constructive way which barely 10 minutes earlier I thought would have been impossible. His reason for the initial hostility was because his parents had divorced and it left him understandably angry, hurt and in pain. However what the witness of the ‘sacred power’ of the couples gave him was the beginning of a liberation for him from that anger and hurt. A light was dawning on him that whatever had been the story for his poor parents, did not have be his story so he was given the grace to hope and recognise that the relationship trajectory for his own life could be something very different, unique and life-giving.
On the 17th October Cardinal Vincent Nichols addressed the assembly of the synod on behalf of the continent of Europe, and in concluding he said: “We recognised together that the family is the first witness to the faith in society, the first workshop in the faith and the backbone of every parish, the first tutoring in humanity for every person. Europe knows clearly now this challenge and the need to find ways of holding before people the full invitation of marriage in the Lord, its faithfulness, its fruitfulness and its witness.”
So let us be thankful to God for the greater clarity the Holy Spirit is granting the Church through the synod of the ‘sacred power’ of matrimonial loving and living; hopeful that amidst all the other pressing pastoral challenges of the family, the bedrock of that light and vision underpinning human flourishing and loving – Holy Matrimony – is granted a whole new level of dynamic energy in the Church, from diocese to parish, from parish to individual homes and for each and every unique couple in those homes, and all who interact with them over time within their families and beyond.
Here’s one of my favourite songs describing the beauty of lifelong married love – ‘The Voyage’ by Christy Moore. Enjoy!