what do celibate males know about families?

What do a bunch of celibate males know about family life? Not surprisingly, the question gets thrown around during discussions on the upcoming Synod of Bishops on Family. It reflects our anger and frustration with the clericalism that builds a wall of protective exclusivity and privilege around ordination. Many of us know priests and bishops who carefully choose the company they keep. The company is usually composed of other clerics, or a few well-heeled lay folks who can keep them watered and dined in the manner to which they have grown accustomed. These men of God prefer to hang with the heavily cologned, not the smelly sheep.

Sure, some celibate males probably have no clue about the reality of family life. But, there are also many lay men and women who share in this cluelessness. They, too, get wrapped up in the trappings of their profession and a sense of self-importance that leaves no time for the messiness of family life. Extended family ties are ignored, their children are neglected and their elderly parents are abandoned.

Celibacy does not preclude experiencing family life, just as being a parent does not assume expertise. My family has been blessed to call many priests and religious sisters and brothers our friends. These women and men fearlessly visited us while we were raising five children. They cuddled the babies and chatted with the toddlers. They sprawled on the floor to build Lego structures with the older children. We celebrated mass with our priest friends; a coffee table for an altar and eager kiddies as servers and readers.

These friends also acknowledged the challenges and stresses of family life; which meant a lot to us. A dear Benedictine Sister thanked us constantly for affirming her celibacy! We must have made monastic and rectory life look easy in comparison to our domestic chaos. It was an unintended ministry but, in return, we received their love and prayerful support.

The professed religious and priests that we hang with, all have a great love for their own families. They maintain close relationships with siblings, nieces and nephews. They care for sick and elderly parents, and mourn deeply when death comes. Familial love extends to children in their care and the sisters and brothers in their religious communities.

Pope Francis’s devotion to families is apparent. One of his first post-election phone calls was to his sister, Maria Elena Bergoglio. He is constantly photographed with a beaming smile while embracing children. He preaches often of the need to not only care for our elders, but to be lovingly present to them. A new biography describes him as a hands-on Uncle. His nephew and god-son, Jorge, recalled, “My parents told me that when I cried he dipped my dummy in wine or whisky to calm me.”

With the upcoming Synod of the Family, we need to hear from all those who truly understand the reality of families in our modern world; whether they are single, married, vowed religious or ordained. They understand because they have immersed themselves in that reality, and know both the joys and the struggles.

synod for the family questionnaire – do we finally have a voice?


I was in Rome when news arrived that a questionnaire was being distributed to all Bishops in preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family. Every Synod begins with working documents, lineamentas, and questionnaires. The difference this time? The Bishops are encouraged to open wide the doors to a greater dialogue among all the faithful. This was received with much jubilation and excitement. Obviously this is the work of Pope Francis, we thought. FINALLY, we will have an opportunity to speak out and be  heard. We soon found out that the request was being interpreted differently around the world.

The Bishops of England and Wales gained much support by swiftly posting the questionnaire as an online survey, inviting all the faithful to respond.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops dragged their heels, arguing that this questionnaire was no different from previous Synod working documents. Therefore they would proceed as usual, leaving the onus on each bishop to decide how representative his response would be. Three dioceses in Iowa eventually put the survey online in its entirety. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia posted an edited version. But, there was no united effort by the USCCB to produce a national survey response.

Here in Canada, the Bishops are encouraged to consult with pastors and laity in their diocese and forward the diocesan responses to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is the same process used in past Synods.

Joshua J. McElwee, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, provides an insightful summary of previous attempts at collecting insights from the laity as well as the many challenges with this present attempt.

A quick read of the introductory preparatory document and actual questionnaire shows that this is no simple, multiple choice survey. This is a heavy weight document that reads more like an essay based exam. In fact, you need a certain level of education and theological know-how to even understand the questions. And, some of the questions have several questions hidden within them. Which do you answer?

Also, how in heaven’s name are they going to collect, read, and summarize all these long essay answers within the short time frame? Much time is needed to process a simple, multiple choice survey. Experts are needed to not only add up the check marks, but to interpret their meaning based on demographics. And, with a world-wide questionnaire, those demographics are going to be formidable indeed.

Optimistic souls are urging us to look beyond the clumsiness of the effort to the positive message it brings. An honest attempt is being made to listen to the voice of the faithful. The method may be imperfect, but we should work with what is given at this moment.

Is there a better way? Of course there is. News of this questionnaire wouldn’t be such a gob-smacking surprise if we were used to being asked for our opinion on matters concerning faith, family and church life. Bishops and priests wouldn’t have to be scrambling to collect our opinions if the lines of communication were already open. Dialogue would be a given, and genuine collaboration would be the modus operandi; not merely an interesting experiment to try out.

If a survey is used, the questions should be less of a theological exercise and more a pastoral and personal reflection. If you want to know what women and men think, ask us the questions that we are already asking; for we have many questions…and answers, too. You may not like the answers, but at least you will know what we are thinking.

a new face in rome

Greetings to all! I apologize (yet again!) for the long lapse in blog posts. I just came back from the annual meetings of our Marianist Lay Communities international leadership team and the World Council of the Marianist Family. As with most meetings, last minute preparations made for a harried two weeks before departure, and the return home left me with a long list of tasks in hand.

This was my fourteenth visit to the Eternal City! I’m still gob-smacked by it’s beauty and the richness of culture and history, but some of the shine is gone. Perhaps it’s because I associate Rome with a marathon of tri-lingual meetings while battling the bone-jarring fatigue of jet-lag. When we do have time to wander through it’s streets, my mind is numb and my body is dragging. There is a sense of “seen it”…”done it”… “already bought that T-shirt”.

This year, it was different. There was a new man in town. His smiling face shone from posters plastered in souvenir shop windows and bobble-head dolls wobbling on tacky souvenir stands. Rome was having a love affair with Papa Francesco, and we had a date to see him.

We attended the papal mass celebrating World Family Day at the close of the 21st Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family. It wasn’t a small, intimate affair. We joined 100,000 other souls who poured into St. Peter’s Square and down the Via della Conciliazione. We arrived early – really early. We were in our seats by 7:30 am for the 10:30 mass, but we had a prime spot by the barricades with hopes of getting a good glimpse of the papal drive-by. And, I did…check out the video. A mere couple of seconds of iPhone footage shows his warmth and exuberance.

I’m not usually one to get in a tizzy over meeting a celebrity. I’m uncomfortable with a certain cult of personality that swoons in the presence of greatness. But, I must confess that seeing Pope Francis in person was a true joy. Amid the massive grandeur of statuary and columns surrounding St. Peter’s, true holiness seemed to shine through a simple man; a man who reflects a genuine love for those he serves.