Report on the Synod


October 26, 2015 

It’s good to be back in New York after almost four weeks in Rome for the Synod of Bishops on the Family. I have written a few blog posts to keep you updated on the synod (which you can find at www.cardinaldolan.org), but now that I am back I want to share with you a more complete report. 

I missed being away from New York, but the synod was a grace too! Let me mention three particular blessings of the synod.

The Holy Father

It is always a gift to be with the Holy Father, but at the synod we were with him every day. We listened to him to be sure; most of the time though, he was listening to us, and that’s a great example. Pope Francis invited us to speak freely, and is very generous with his time in listening to what the synod participants have to say. You know how happy we were last month to have Pope Francis with us for two days in New York. Well, to be with the Holy Father every day is never a blessing to be taken for granted. 

The Universal Church

“Catholic” means universal. The Church that Jesus established isn’t for one time or one place. The Church is certainly present in New York in the 21st century, but that is not all the Church is! The Church is universal, for every time and every place. With brother bishops, ecumenical representatives, theologians and married couples from every part of the world, the synod was a very vivid experience of that universality. In a place like New York, we can sometimes think our priorities are global priorities. A synod is a good lesson in humility! We belong to the Church; we are not the whole Church. So when the coverage of the synod returned over and over to a few disputed questions, it was good to be reminded, especially by the suffering Churches and the young Churches that we need to see beyond any narrow preoccupations. In particular, the circumstances of marriage and the family are not the same all over the world, and a synod reminds us that we need to learn from the experience of others, rather than force their experiences into our categories. Thank God for the witness of those Catholics in places where the Church is young and vibrant, especially Africa; for the heroic witness of Catholic families where the Church is suffering, like Ukraine and the Middle East; and for the Church in central and Eastern Europe, still rebuilding after decades of Soviet oppression.

The Witness of Catholic Family Life

Our Catholic tradition speaks about the family as the “domestic church.” Indeed, the early Christians met for worship in family homes called “house churches.” That’s not only where the faith started in history, it’s where it best starts today, in happy families where children are raised in the faith by their parents. The Catholic faith is a family faith. God in the beginning creates us male and female, that the two might be united in one flesh. He commands our first parents to be fruitful and multiply. God begins with the family! After sin mars that creation, He comes to us for our redemption through the Holy Family. Sure, there were disagreements at the synod, but there were no disagreements about the absolutely essential importance of the family, of its centrality in God’s plan for our salvation. 

In the Church we are often very good about thanking the priests who serve us, the religious brothers and sisters who are so close to us, the teachers who make sacrifices for our schools, the many generous volunteers who do all the hidden work in our parishes. You are kind enough to give even the bishops a pat on the back from time to time too! The synod reminded us that we need to thank the Moms and Dads who give life to our domestic churches, those families where the faith is first handed on. Maybe we don’t say thank you enough. Hearing the inspiring married couples at the synod reminded me to give thanks to God for the families of the Church in New York—and to express my gratitude to them too! May God bless you in family life, and reward you for your generosity in living your vocation as disciples in holy matrimony, as fathers and mothers, as parents and children, as grandparents and godparents, as uncles and aunts, as brothers and sisters!

Two Challenges from the Synod

Those were three highlights among the blessings of the synod. Permit me now to highlight two challenges the synod offers us.

Because the synod was about the family, and the family is fundamental to the faith, touching every aspect of life, the synod’s discussions went to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus. Much was made at the synod of “journeying together.” We are not meant to be disciples alone, we are meant to follow Jesus together, in the Church, and it is a journey. We are not meant to remain where we are, but to follow Jesus Christ to where He wants to lead us—to heaven ultimately, there to behold the blessedness of the Father in the company of the saints forever, as we’ll recall on this coming weekend, November 1 and 2, the Feast of all Saints and All Souls. At the heart of the synod was a fundamental question: By the gift of God’s grace, are we still capable of doing this?

Having spent more than a year praying, thinking and discussing the family at two synods of bishops, I want to share with you two challenges which I think summarize the situation that the Church faces in encouraging happy, holy and healthy Catholic family life.

The Challenge of Emmaus in Full

At last year’s synod on the family, several fathers proposed the method of Jesus on the road to Emmaus as the model for the Church’s accompaniment of the family. You recall the story? As recounted in Luke 24, two disciples are leaving Jerusalem on Easter Sunday evening, having witnessed the crucifixion on Good Friday. They are discouraged. They have lost hope. They have heard from others that Jesus has risen, but they consider that news too fantastic to be true. The Risen Jesus draws alongside them in the guise of a fellow traveler and asks them why they are disconsolate. Jesus then proceeds to restore their hope after opening their eyes to His presence in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist.

Both last year and this year I was excited to hear the references to Emmaus. When I first came to New York, the gospel story of Emmaus was read at the installation Mass. I preached that first time in St. Patrick’s Cathedral about how I wanted Fifth Avenue to be a road to Emmaus, where disciples would encounter Jesus and have our hope restored. Not long after my arrival, the Council of Churches gave me an image of the road to Emmaus leading into Manhattan. I treasure that gift.  

One of most insightful speeches at the synod was that of Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, who spoke precisely about Emmaus. He described for us what that pastoral approach of the Lord Jesus:

“First, Jesus drew near, and accompanied his downcast disciples as they walked in the wrong direction, into the night. He started by asking questions about their present disposition and by listening to them, but he did not stop there. Instead, he challenged them with the Word of God: ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’ (Luke 24:25) His presentation of the objective vision of Scripture broke through their subjective self-absorption and, along with his loving presence, brought them to conversion. The disciples of Emmaus accepted the Word of God that challenged them, and … they changed direction and, with burning hearts, raced through the night to Jerusalem to bear joyful witness to the community gathered there.”

Cardinal Collins takes us through it well. Jesus drew near. He accompanied them with His loving presence. He asked them about their situation. He listened to their experience. He rebuked them for their mistakes. He taught them about the truth of the Scriptures. He revealed Himself in the Eucharist. He thus restored their hope and led them to conversion.

Thus converted, the disciples raced back to Jerusalem to take their place with their fellow disciples in the nascent Church! They had been “going the wrong way!” He “turned them around!”

“We are called to accompany people with a compassion that challenges, and that leads to conversion, and to a heart on fire for Christ,” Cardinal Collins said. “Pastors, who must daily accompany their people in their struggles, should imitate Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and with clarity and charity preach the call to conversion, which is the foundation for the liberating message of Jesus ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 4:17).”

Might I propose a challenge for the Church in New York after the synod on the family? 

Let’s imitate the full Emmaus!

Many of the disagreements at the synod about the pastoral care of the family arose from choosing to offer only a partial Emmaus experience to those who might be discouraged, walking into the night. But partial Emmaus is not what Jesus wants for His people; it is not what the pastors of the Church are called to offer in service. If we only accompany but do not convert, then we simply walk beside people farther into the night, away from the community of faith in Jerusalem. If we only question and listen, then we withhold from people the saving news of salvation. If we only rebuke, then we afflict those already suffering. If we only teach the objective truth of the Scriptures, we fail to show how it is good news for each particular soul. If we bring people to the Eucharist without first preparing them for conversion along the road, then they will not be transformed by the revelation of Christ. I don’t suggest that it is easy to do all that Jesus did on the way to Emmaus, and it may well be that offering the full Emmaus is not welcomed. Our challenge is to try our best. That’s our mission, both as pastors and as fellow disciples: To draw near, to accompany, to question, to listen, to rebuke the lack of faith, to teach the truth of the Gospel, to reveal Christ, to restore hope, to convert, to return to the Church

Much attention in the coverage of the synod was given to whether those in a valid sacramental marriage, having civilly divorced and remarried, can then receive Holy Communion. (Actually, this hot topic hardly dominated the Synod as it did the press coverage.)  The Church’s longstanding practice—recently confirmed clearly by St. John Paul II after the synod on the family in 1980, and renewed by Pope Benedict XVI after the synod on the Eucharist in 2005—is that they cannot as long the second conjugal union continues. It is the necessary consequence of what Jesus taught about divorce and re-marriage and of what St. Paul the Apostle taught about being in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion.  The final proposals of the Synod bishops did nothing to alter that teaching.

Catholics in such situations are often carrying a heavy cross; they may well feel like the forlorn disciples on the road to Emmaus. Yet the Church cannot admit them to Holy Communion if she is to remain faithful to the teaching of Christ. The synod did not change any of this, despite what you may have read in misinformed reports. At the same time, the synod certainly did not leave them to wander off into the night alone, cut off from the community of disciples. To the contrary, we need to offer them what Jesus offered them—the full Emmaus, confident that they too are capable of conversion, of hearts burning with renewed hope, eager to return to the Church gathered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. And we welcome them!  

The Challenge of the Upper Room

We must learn from what Jesus did on that first Easter evening. He was not only on the road to Emmaus. In the glory of His risen body, He first revealed Himself to the faithful women who came to the tomb, and then to Peter, the first of the apostles. In the evening, He was also with the disciples who didn’t go into the night, who didn’t leave the Upper Room. They weren’t perfect, they did not understand everything, they weren’t without doubts and failings, but they were where they were supposed to be—together, awaiting confirmation of the astonishing news brought by St. Mary Magdalene, that the Lord was risen indeed!

Not everyone is on the road to Emmaus, walking away into the night. There are those trying heroically to remain with that “little Church,” even if behind locked doors for fear of what it might mean to be known as a follower of Jesus in the city. There are those who are indeed, by God’s grace, walking not away from Jerusalem, but striving to remain, despite many difficulties, in the company of the saints, as the first Christians called each other. Jesus accompanies them. So too must His Church.

That’s why I posted on my blog about the new minority. The synod stressed that we need to comfort and console the afflicted. It also reminded us to think more broadly about all those who need accompaniment. Forgive me if I quote what I wrote about the new minority:

A very refreshing, consistent theme of the synod has been inclusion. The Church, our spiritual family, welcomes everyone, especially those who may feel excluded. Among those, I’ve heard the synod fathers and observers comment, are the single, those with same-sex attraction, those divorced, widowed, or recently arrived in a new country, those with disabilities, the aged, the housebound, racial and ethnic minorities. We in the family of the Church love them, welcome them, and need them.

Can I suggest as well that there is now a new minority in the world and even in the Church? I am thinking of those who, relying on God’s grace and mercy, strive for virtue and fidelity: Couples who—given the fact that, at least in North America, only half of our people even enter the sacrament of matrimony—approach the Church for the sacrament; couples who, inspired by the Church’s teaching that marriage is forever, have persevered through trials; couples who welcome God’s gifts of many babies; a young man and woman who have chosen not to live together until marriage; a gay man or woman who wants to be chaste; a couple who has decided that the wife would sacrifice a promising professional career to stay at home and raise their children—these wonderful people today often feel themselves a minority, certainly in culture, but even, at times in the Church! I believe there are many more of them than we think, but, given today’s pressure, they often feel excluded.

Where do they receive support and encouragement? From TV?   From magazines or newspapers? From movies? From Broadway?  From their peers? Forget it!

They are looking to the Church, and to us, for support and encouragement, a warm sense of inclusion. We cannot let them down!

I am pleased that the final report of the synod was a vast improvement over the original working text, in large part because it expressed esteem, support and encouragement for those who try their best to live by the light of the Gospel—and who are succeeding! This new minority not only needs encouragement; they give all of us encouragement! We thank them for their witness! They give us confidence that the Gospel has not lost its power.

One of the most successful gatherings we have in the archdiocese happens on Saturday evenings in a midtown parish, and attracts a thousand or more young adults who come for prayer before the Eucharist, confession, song, and, especially, good company with those who share deep Catholic values in a culture and city that can indeed be at times antagonistic. The name of their gathering is revealing:  Catholic Underground! That’s the new minority who give their bishop so much hope! May their tribe increase!

All Saints: The Feast of Family Sanctity

I write these lines just a few days before we celebrate one of the great solemn feasts of the liturgical year—All Saints on November 1st. This Sunday we shall celebrate that great number of saints, beyond the capacity of any one to count, who are in heaven. They are not officially canonized, but they are just as much saints as Mary Magdalene or Mother Teresa. We know them intimately, for among them are counted our own deceased grandparents and parents, our relatives and friends, our pastors and fellow parishioners. All Saints is the feast day of ordinary holiness, and the vast majority of those “ordinary saints” are family saints—married couples, mothers and fathers. 

Might I make a request of all the priests of the archdiocese this coming Sunday? Please lift up in your preaching the vocation of family sanctity! It’s a reality in all of our parishes, not just in the past, but today. It is possible today because God calls married couples and children to holiness in family life, and when God calls He never fails to provide the necessary grace.

Dear families: Make this Sunday your feast day, the feast day of family sanctity. You can be holy! The Church does not lack confidence in you. None of you has a second-class baptism! 

Whether you are on the road to Emmaus or in the Upper Room, know that the Risen Jesus is in your midst, He joins you at the dinner table in Emmaus, He comes through the doors of your homes, He is with you today that you might one day be with Him forever as saints in heaven.

At the heart of the synod was a question that the Church has to answer in every age and in every place. Do we still believe that what Jesus proposes is possible? Do we still have confidence that what the saints, the confessors of the faith and the martyrs who went before us received from God—the capacity for heroic holiness—is also possible for us today? Do we still have a sure hope that the salvation offered in the Risen Christ is real? Do we still have the capacity to live the joy of the Gospel?

There was much talk about both mercy and truth at the synod. Mercy and Truth both come from God, so they cannot be in conflict. At the conclusion of his encyclical letter on the moral law, The Splendor of Truth, Pope St. John Paul turns the discussion toward mercy. The moral life and the experience of mercy are not opposed. As I conclude this report from the synod, let me quote the words of the great pope of mercy, Pope St. John Paul:

At times, in the discussions about new and complex moral problems, it can seem that Christian morality is in itself too demanding, difficult to understand and almost impossible to practice. This is untrue, since Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy, gifts which come to us in the living communion of his Church (#119).

The simplicity of the Gospel; Discipleship; Transformed on the road to Emmaus; Living the communion of the Church in the Upper Room. Renewed by His mercy; All of this is the story of the synod on the family!

Pray for our Holy Father, who led the Church so well on the synod path!

Pray for me and all the synod participants, that we might be dispensers of the grace we received in Rome with Peter and under Peter!

Pray for the families of the archdiocese, called to be the saints of the twenty-first century!

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Holy Family of Nazareth, pray for us!

All you holy men and women, saints of God, pray for us!