Synod message thanks families for witness, calls for open church

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

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Thanking them for their "fidelity, faith, hope and love," the Synod of Bishops released a message to Christian families Saturday that also called on the church to be "a house with doors always open to welcome everyone."

The short, 3-page text does not summarize the discussions of the some 190 prelates attending the synod but rather takes a lyrical approach to the situation of families around the world. Another text that is to summarize those discussions, known as a relatio, is to be voted on by the prelates Saturday evening.

Outlining some of the problems facing modern families, the synod's message from Saturday morning outlines a situation of "light and shadow" facing families around the world.

Centering itself on the image of Jesus knocking on the door of a house, the message quotes Jesus' words in the Book of Revelation: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me."

"On his journeys along the roads of the Holy Land, Jesus would enter village houses," states the message. "He continues to pass even today along the streets of our cities."

"In your homes there are light and shadow," the message continues. "Challenges often present themselves and at times even great trials. The darkness can grow deep to the point of becoming a dense shadow when evil and sin work into the heart of the family."

Recognizing what it calls the "great challenge" of family life, the message says there is also light emanating from Christian families.

"There is also the evening light behind the windowpanes in the houses of the cities, in modest residences of suburbs and villages, and even in mere shacks, which shines out brightly, warming bodies and souls," states the message. "This light -- the light of a wedding story -- shines from the encounter between spouses."

The synod of bishops is a global meeting of Catholic prelates at the Vatican, one of two called by Pope Francis for 2014 and 2015.  The 2014 synod began Oct. 5 and is concluding Sunday with the beatification of Pope Paul VI.

The synod made global headlines last Monday when it released a working document summarizing its first week of discussions that called on the church to listen more and to apply mercy much more widely.

This week, the prelates met in 10 working groups, divided by language, to discuss that document and to submit possible revisions. The final version of the document, the relatio, was to be subject to the prelates' vote Saturday evening.

Speaking at a briefing Saturday, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said it was unknown if that document would be made public as it is up to Francis to make a final decision on that matter.

Lombardi also said Saturday that of the approximately 190 prelates attending the 2014 synod, 174 were present Saturday morning when the group voted to approve the synod message. 158 prelates voted in favor of the message, said Lombardi.

Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the synod's commission for the message, said Saturday at the briefing that the message took a "soft style, a light style" unlike the as yet unreleased text of the relatio "which is meant to have a more theological style."

Also speaking at Saturday's briefing were Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Bombay; and Brazilian Cardinal Raymundo Assis, the archbishop of Aparecida.

Asked if the final version of the relatio would have a similar openness of tone of the initial working document, Gracias said the final version is "open" and "accepting everybody."

"I think it's very balanced," said Gracias, who also serves as the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. "It admits that we don't have the answers to all the questions today ... but it's a commitment that we will continue to search for a way ahead to find a pastoral approach to the problems of today."

Gracias also addressed questions about how the working version of the relatio addressed gay people, using a tone of unusual openness and asking if the church was welcoming them into the community.

Asked pointedly if gay people were welcome in the church, Gracias responded: "The answer is an unequivocal yes. Of course they're welcome."

Gracias also said he was "happy" with the final draft of the relatio.

"I would say yes, I would go ahead and vote for it," he said. "We could go on another two weeks making it perfect, but I think it's good."

Assis, who is also president of the Brazilian bishops' conference, said the final relatio incorporates and respects revisions from the synod's ten working groups but also takes a positive, welcoming tone to people around the world.

"It is not of course the original," said Assis. "It is something new, but there are many ... of the basic thoughts there."

Ravasi even called the final document "choral," saying it was "the fruit of the work of the small groups" coming together into a final proposal.

Unlike Monday's working version of the relatio, Saturday's message from the synod does not address at length many of the topics that have garnered interest in the synod's discussions.

It does, however, state that the family's journey "is sometimes a mountainous trek with hardships and falls."

"God is always there to accompany us," it continues. "The family experiences his presence in affection and dialogue between husband and wife, parents and children, sisters and brothers."

The message also mentions the question of communion for people who have divorced and remarried without obtaining annulments in the context of the Eucharistic community.

"The high point which sums up all the threads of communion with God and neighbor is the Sunday Eucharist when the family and the whole Church sits at table with the Lord," it states. "In the first stage of our Synod itinerary, therefore, we have reflected on how to accompany those who have been divorced and remarried and on their participation in the sacraments."

The message finishes with a request to families that "we Synod Fathers ask you walk with us towards the next Synod."

Concluding with a prayer to God, "united to the Family of Nazareth," the members ask God that "we may all see flourish a Church that is ever more faithful and credible, a just and humane city, a world that loves truth, justice and mercy."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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