synod requires a culture of encounter

Pope Francis is a man who knows how to speak to the heart, from the heart. His homilies and talks touch many because he genuinely shared the life of the people he served in Buenos Aires.

Evening falls on our assembly. It is the hour at which one willingly returns home to meet at the same table, in the depth of affection, of the good that has been done and received, of the encounters which warm the heart and make it grow, good wine which anticipates the unending feast in the days of man. It is also the weightiest hour for one who finds himself face to face with his own loneliness, in the bitter twilight of shattered dreams and broken plans; how many people trudge through the day in the blind alley of resignation, of abandonment, even resentment: in how many homes the wine of joy has been less plentiful, and therefore, also the zest — the very wisdom — for life […]. Let us make our prayer heard for one another this evening, a prayer for all.

(Pope Francis, October 4, 2014. Prayer vigil before Synod on the family.)

Francis paints a realistic image of the joys and struggles of family life. Pastoral experience and compassion give credibility to his words. The above quote is included in the lineamenta for the 2015 Synod on the family.

Some priests and bishops focus on promoting an idealized model of family wrapped in doctrinal purity and moral perfection. Perfection is unattainable for most. Despite our sincerest efforts, family life is often challenging and down right messy. We do not need to hear any more condemnations of our failings, or judgmental diatribes about our lives or those of our loved ones. We need compassionate support and practical help to safely traverse the challenges before us. We need spiritual tools to remain grounded in God’s love in the midst of the messiness.

It is simplistic and wrong to say that priests and bishops, because they are celibate, have no right to preach or teach about family life. The key, of course, is how grounded they are in the lived reality of those they serve. Pope Francis has captured the hearts of many because of his experience as a pastor who reached out beyond the confines of the chancery office. The recent synod recognized the need for the church to embrace this pastoral approach.

The path of renewal delineated by the Extraordinary Synod is set within the wider ecclesial context indicated by Pope Francis in his Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, namely, starting from “life’s periphery” and engaging in pastoral activity that is characterized by a “culture of encounter” (Lineamenta, p.18)

Do you know a pastor or bishop whose homilies are characterized by a “culture of encounter” formed from genuine time spent with the families he serves? Please share your story. 

3 thoughts on “synod requires a culture of encounter

  1. I have a great deal of respect for tradition. However, tradition, like one’s conscience, requires constant discernment. Invariably, our Catholic traditions are proffered as virtuous and even when they are not enshrouded within “creed”, we are expected, even obliged to treat them as if they were. In reality we also “live” in traditions that are negative, contrary to reasonable reflection in intelligence, good will. Do we have the faith to address these or do we accept intransigence rather than transience? Do traditions of negative value and harm merit preservation and “sanctity” because they serve institution and a de facto/theological judgment that humanity can only be led through control and constraint rather than by love and compassion?
    Two examples of possible relevance here? –
    1. Divorced persons KNOW that their fractured spousal relationship persists – for better or worse – it will never entirely go away. Isn’t that the “ontological” reality? How can a bad or a fractured relationship be deemed “holy”? “Holy Matrimony” is a theological concept, a practical ideal that does not always become a reality. Acknowledge divorce, allow remarriage and sacrament. The hope of love should not be denied either for a new relationship or for com-union in Eucharistic community. Teach love as the “constraint” rather than constraint as the meaning of love.
    2. Nature is “normative” and is neither “law” nor “absolute”. Nature does not “mimic” God, it expresses God in mysterious yet in many obvious and ever unfolding ways. What man, church, should hold as absolute is love and compassion as the overriding principle that drives all man-made directives and law. Sexual diversity is “outside the norm” but it is normal. It happens in all of nature. The nature of love itself is the absolute, not an evolved tradition whose murky evolution has been erased and its construct, valuable as it is, elevated to social, political and religious absolute. The quasi-absolute of “marriage” is the demi-divinity of human love and its creativity and stability of community, not only reproductive fecundity. Even the practice if not the rhetoric of Church acknowledges this by acknowledging infertile marriages. Homosexuality begins within family. It should not be tear family apart nor prevent family formation. Homosexuality, like sexuality itself, is “evil” in the absence of love.
    It seems to me that the Synod is an “encounter”. It is primarily an encounter of the vested interested with the vested interest. It is a quest of self interest to rephrase the “package” in language that will sell to a new generation. Even if there are “chinks” in this circle of self-interest they are either “planted” or utilitarian rather than an encounter with the fundamental reality of human relationship on its evolutionary journey back to the Creator in time.
    Is the Synod an encounter with love or an encounter with itself? If it is the latter, it is as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger “rationalized” the fate of man without woman: “…a sterile and, in the end, baneful encounter with himself”.
    Since the time of St. Augustine and Constantine we have lived a “tradition” of religious control which has been called love. It is time now, to reignite the tradition of “love” and risk it. Isn’t that how St. Paul paraphrased Jesus’ teaching: “….but the greatest of these….”.

    1. Hi Dennis. You’ve given us all much to ponder. Thank you! “Is the Synod an encounter with love or an encounter with itself” seems to be a key question and addresses all the issues you mentioned. On the plus side, there is finally an attempt to make all voices heard. But, the tone and wording of the “official” questions continue to limit simple, honest discussion from real family experiences that is so needed. We need theological experts and academics, but too often their language is inacessible to the families whom they are supposed to serve. Which is more important….So called ecclesial “experts” talking among themselves about family life? Or using the time to genuinely listen and respond to the voices of the people?

      1. To your point about “genuinely listen” I am constantly reminded of words penned by British author Ian McEwan immediately following the World Trade Centre attack: “This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others”. That “thinking” is really a kind of listening, a listening that also penetrates the soul and mind, that lasts….
        We tend to limit our definition of compassion to “acts of kindness” but there is so much more to it.
        (McEwan’s OpEd is worth the Google search: TheGuardian, “Only Love and then Oblivian…”, Sept. 15, 2001)

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