You may recall that last December the Bishops of England and Wales invited us to reflect on and respond to five key questions concerning marriage and family life encompassed by the title above. The period of consultation ran from the Feast of the Holy Family 2014 through to the Solemnity of Pentecost May 24 2015. During this period, submissions facilitated online closed on April 30th. Other responses came in via email, post and collective submissions from parishes, lay associations and others. In Westminster diocese 155 people sent in replies online. 4 of these were from priests. Across 22 parishes, a further 275 people took part in group discussions. We estimate that within this same cohort of parishes, 12 other group submissions probably involved around a further 150 persons. So the total number of people who responded to the reflection questions is approximately 580. During September we will be publishing and distributing a summary of the report we produced for the Cardinal and the complete report with all the comments, replies and submissions will be available on request and accessible online.
For now, the key thing that the majority of participants are concerned about is receiving more support from the Church to sustain an authentic Christian family life and that the basis of achieving this must be solid and robust marriage preparation.
We express our gratitude to all those who took the time and effort to respond and especially for sharing such heartfelt convictions. To everyone we repeat the words of the great ‘Pope of the family’ St. John Paul II that, “no one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone, especially those who “labour and are heavy laden.”
So more anon, but at this point I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of the key conclusions of the 2014 pre-synod consultation which the Cardinal approved for Westminster in February 2014:
It is clear that there is a great deal of confusion over what is understood by conscience. There is an urgent need to help people revisit what it means according to the Catechism especially in the light of simple rules such as ‘One may never do evil so that good may result from it.’ (CCC 1789) Formation of the moral conscience then, merits fresh efforts on many levels.
Marriage as social institution and sacrament of the Church is universally accepted as a great good and that marriage preparation is obligatory. However much more needs to be done to bring about ‘maximum pastoral attention to training couples preparing for marriage and to ascertaining beforehand their convictions regarding the obligations required for the validity of the sacrament of Matrimony.’ (Sacramentum caritatis n29) Marriage preparation for example is not just about what we do to help the engaged couple prepare for the wedding day and beyond but in fact what the whole of the parish community including schools does in seeking to inspire young people of all ages to aspire to lifelong commitment in a union of love and stability open to life.
There is both deep heartache and joy in the experience of families at the perceived levels of failure and success at passing on the faith to the next generation. No one doubts the enormous scale of the challenge facing parents and to some extent grandparents in this role against the backdrop of aggressive secularism and the IT revolution we are living through. We need to explore ways of the home, school and parish being better and more skilled partners in a shared task as a top priority for the future; within which the truth of the parent as the primary educator must have pride of place. St. John Paul II said that loving the family means giving it back reasons for confidence in itself. Confidence-building measures must begin with parents.
The authentic dignity of every person from the moment of conception to natural death is a radical teaching for our modern ‘throw away culture.’ However, because of the imbalance many people have about a life ethic and a social ethic, our cue from Pope Francis to take great care of creation is about being really creative in deepening the understanding of a human ecology. To this end, anything and everything that can be done to raise awareness of and deepen the lived understanding of a theology of the body is both timely and vital as a pastoral response to many painful situations for individuals.
A Pastor’s vision
Speaking of the parish in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us that much depends upon the ‘openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community’ if it is to be the Church ‘living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.’ There is deep appreciation of the support and Christian compassion experienced in parish life but as the pope says, parishes have to prove themselves ‘capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity.’ They will do this by recognizing it’s ‘certainly not the only institution which evangelizes’ The Christian household just by being a loving and forgiving place lies at the heart of the mission of the Church and spouses are the primary agents of the mission.