In the past few weeks, it seems that the eyes of the world have been turned towards Rome, the Eternal City. Lately, wherever I visit with people, I have been asked about Rome, and about news from the Holy See. This is a historic time in the life of the Church, and the world is watching.
Over the last few weeks, bishops from around the world were gathered together in Rome for the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of the Bishops. The topic was “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” a discussion on the pastoral needs of families today, on the ways the Church can support mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. The gathering was a planning meeting—the goal was to suggest an agenda for a much larger Ordinary Synod, a gathering of bishops next year.
As the world watched, the bishops in Rome heard speeches by brother bishops and the lay faithful, discussed important issues, and disagreed with each other—sometimes very publicly—about how the Church should respond to the needs of the family in the modern world. There was disagreement about the synod process, about our theology, or about how to proclaim its meaning. At times, news from the synod seemed exhilarating. At other times it seemed confusing, even troubling.
The media coverage of the synod rarely helped anyone to understand what was happening. Across the globe, people are interested in the Church’s relationship to the family. They want to know how the Church will respond to the rise of divorce, to the issue of same-sex marriage, to a culture of contraception, and pornography, and abortion.
But, too often, commentators promoted agendas, mostly unrelated to what the Church was actually saying. Too few media outlets understood the process the Church was undertaking, or how to interpret the news of the synod’s discussion. The media portrayed the synod like a sports tournament or a political election—predicting who would win and who would lose, what the surprises would be, and when the upsets would come.
These have been a long few weeks.
But discussions in the life of the Church are not like sporting events or political elections. There are no winners or losers. Bishops disagreed—not because they wanted a victory—but because they each care about the life of the Church, much like family members will disagree with one another because they care about the good of the family.
Some of the ideas proposed were distressing, or even fundamentally mistaken. The media’s interpretation was often discouraging. But the bishops debated in order to assist the Church in the mission of holiness.
We have to be very careful about treating the life of the Church like a tournament or a political contest. We have to be careful about treating discussions like competitions. Throughout the history of the Church, from the earliest days, bishops have disagreed with each other quite openly. They’ve taken different positions. They’ve debated, and even argued. Some have been right, and some have been gravely wrong. Things are no different now. This is the ordinary process of the Church’s life.
And we have to be very careful, as we observe the Church deliberate, discuss, and debate, not to despair when we hear ideas that we disagree with, or even ideas that are inconsistent with the truth of the Gospel. There is a tendency to believe that any sign of struggle, or dissent, or disagreement, will lead the Church into error or demise. But the Church will not, and cannot, be led into failure. We can be assured of this because of the promise our Lord made to Saint Peter.
Blessed John Henry Newman, reflecting on the history of the Church, once wrote that “the whole course of Christianity… is but one series of troubles and disorders. Every century is like every other, and to those who live in it seems worse than all times before it…. Religion seems ever expiring, schisms dominant, the light of Truth dim, its adherents scattered. The cause of Christ is ever in its last agony, as though it were but a question of time whether it fails finally this day or another… thus much of comfort do we gain from what has been hitherto,—not to despond, not to be dismayed, not to be anxious, at the troubles which encompass us. They have ever been; they ever shall be; they are our portion… The waves of the sea are mighty, and rage horribly; but yet the Lord, who dwells on high, is mightier.”
The Lord is mightier than the struggles the Church faces in any given day. The Lord is bigger than the disagreements expressed in the Synod. And the truth, which is protected in the Church by the Holy Spirit, will always be victorious through Jesus Christ.
Marriage, family, sin and redemption—the synod will not change the teaching of the Church. Instead, the ancient truths of the Gospel will be, I believe, reaffirmed, as the synod resumes next year to continue their discussion on the pastoral challenges of the family. The Church will not abandon the truth because, no matter what is debated, Jesus Christ will remain with the Church.
At the conclusion of the synod gathering, the bishops wrote that; “love, of its nature, strives to be forever to the point of laying down one’s life for the beloved.” God has loved us by laying down his life for us. Families are called to do the same. Love is real—it has meaning. It requires sacrifice, and commitment, and trust. Love requires truth. And love requires Christ. When the synod resumes, there will doubtlessly be more debate, more disagreement, perhaps more confusion. But in the end, there will be one winner—the love of Jesus Christ, which brings us all into truth, to joy, and to peace.