Catholic Church Reform's alternate gathering on the family highlights lay vocation

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Joan Chittister

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Martin Buber wrote once: "All journeys have a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware." If that's true, then think about this one.

Catholic Church Reform International, an umbrella coalition of 100 Second Vatican Council renewal groups from 65 countries around the world, will journey to Rome on Thursday and Friday to support Pope Francis and his extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family.

But going to meetings isn't all members of the group do.

In preparation for this event, they also wrote a public letter to Pope Francis, asking him to include representation from ordinary and diverse Catholic families with "appropriate provision for them to share their views, be heard, and to have a vote."

While in Rome, the group will hold a Forum on the Family called "Listening to the Faithful" to share the results of the regional reports it has collected on the subject from around the world. Together there in Rome, members of the group will then deliver to the synod the testimonies of these groups as well as their insights and suggestions.

I have an idea that the destination of this group is far greater than the naked eye can possibly see. I, for one, would love to be on site to hear this group's discussions. Then I'd like to compare those discussions to the kind of concerns, the nature of the responses and the quality of the questions the synod delegates themselves see as essential. The distinctions, if any, may well be crucial to the future of the church itself. It will certainly have a great deal to do with the kind of support the church provides the modern family at this moment in history.

Most of all, just to know that this group is in Rome, waiting patiently for the beginning of this special session on the family, is both a great joy and a real disappointment at the same time.

The joy lies in the fact that they are a sign that the church is taking the church in hand.

The disappointment lies in the fact that anyone could even think of having such a synod on such a subject and not invite them to be part of it in the first place.

At a great sacrifice of both time and money, these people are doing this for all of us. They are carrying the concerns of the average modern family in their hands. They are making the trip to present the opinions and insights of families from all over the world. And they are encouraging us to discuss our own questions, issues and insights here, either locally or online.

Catholic Church Reform has gone to Rome to be present to the synod delegates, to be a living sign of the importance of this synod, to be an eternal reminder to clergy and laity alike that theological conferences affect more than footnotes. They affect people. Real people. Real couples. Real children. People with real pressures. People who are under real stress, theologically as well as socially and financially. They affect people who are trying to be good Catholic families in the midst of great human concerns.

Yes, I'd like to be sitting in the midst of them right now, but not to see the city -- much as Rome affects me deeply no matter how many times I see it.

I don't want to be with them simply to enjoy the pomp and circumstance, the street-side pizza, and the softness of the Roman nights, though I love all of those things.

I wouldn't want to be with them even to know how it feels to touch early Christianity and renew contemporary Christianity at the same time.

No, I'd like to be there right now to see one of the few times in modern history when a body of Catholic groups -- despite their different concerns, their separate agendas, their distinct charisms -- unite us all by being one real icon, one great living sign, of the whole church wanting something much greater than any single particular issue.

This group, Catholic Church Reform, is there breathing one spirit, calling with one voice for the single issue that unites us all: the commitment of all facets of the church for the revival of the spirit of renewal in the church. Not just from the people up, but from the top down.

That one voice says it all: This meeting is not the gathering of a group of faithless dissenters.

This meeting is about faithful listening to the call of the church in Canon 212 that the laity "are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs."

This group has not gone to Rome to be against anything. When will the clerical church ever understand that?

This group has gone to Rome to be for what the church itself called for in Vatican II: It is about the recognition of "the vocation of the laity." There, in full display for all the world to see, they have gone to Rome to take their responsibility to breathe into the church the Holy Spirit who guides them, too.

In meetings like this, the lay vocation comes to life, to fullness, to public light, to a living display of the vibrancy of the Spirit for which we are all baptized.

Without groups like this, without these people at the door of a synod, without their insights on a subject whose sacrament is their own, the church cannot possibly be whole.

From where I stand, the theology is clear: Without their recognition and participation, this special session on the family is at best nothing but a pale imitation of the real thing.

It is groups like Catholic Church Reform that are making the sacrament of baptism a living, real, and responsible thing for all our sakes.

They are making the lay vocation true. And that, after all, is their secret destination.

[Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister is a frequent NCR contributor.]

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