After returning from the 2014 Synod on the Family, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster has clarified that the meeting was focused upon reaching out to those in difficulty, rather than changing doctrine. “You may have heard or read that this Synod has been about changing the teaching of the Church on marriage, family life or sexual morality. This is not true,” the cardinal said. “It was about the pastoral care that we try to offer each other, the 'motherly love of the Church', especially when facing difficult moments and experiences in family life.” In a pastoral letter released Oct. 24, Cardinal Nichols recounted the “rich and moving experience” of taking part in the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops that was held earlier this month in Rome. He rejected numerous media portrayals of the synod, stating firmly, “There was no suggestion that the teaching of the Church might somehow give approval to the notion of 'same-sex marriage' or that its teaching on sexual morality is to change.” Rather, he said, it was made clear that people should not be identified simply by sexual orientation, because they have a deep and unique dignity as a human person and a Christian that must be respected. In addition, he said, it was clear at the synod that the Church’s teachings on respect, compassion and acceptance towards all people need to be “translated into loving care, in our daily life in the Church, in our parishes, and indeed in society.” Cardinal Nichols also dispelled the notion that the synod “represented a 'defeat for Pope Francis' or that he was disappointed at its outcome.” “At the end of our meeting Pope Francis spoke at length about his joy and satisfaction at its work,” the cardinal said, adding that the Pope stressed the synod as “a spiritual journey, not a debating chamber.” “In fact, the very word 'synod' means making a walk or a journey together,” he said, explaining that this is what the synod participants did as they discussed a global range of issues affecting families, ranging from war, immigration and polygamy to inter-religious marriage, cohabitation and divorce.   Listening to the real struggles of married couples, synod participants were able to see both the overwhelming suffering that accompanies so many people today and the great joy and importance of marriage and family as a “sanctuary of holiness.” “Pope Francis set the tone” at the synod, Cardinal Nichols said. “He asked us to look reality in the eye; to speak openly from the heart; to listen humbly and respectfully to each other.” The result was a “marvelous experience of the Church as a family and of the Church, at this level, hard at work, trying to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit and express them in carefully chosen words.” While there were disagreements among synod members, there was no rancor or contestation, the cardinal said. Rather, participants demonstrated tranquility and trust, in response to the call of Pope Francis, who emphasized the need for the Church to go out and find the lost sheep in today’s world. Cardinal Nichols explained the synod process of working to form documents that would reflect the views of participants. “By the end I believe we got there,” he said, noting that the final synod report was voted on paragraph by paragraph, to show where the greatest areas of agreement were. That document will be the starting point for next year’s synod, which will focus on 'The Vocation and Mission of the Family Today.' “Central to the work of the Synod that has just ended was the desire to strengthen and reinvigorate the pastoral practice of the Church,” Cardinal Nichols emphasized. “A central principle for this pastoral care emerged clearly: that in trying to walk alongside people in difficult or exceptional situations, it is important to see clearly and with humility all the good aspects of their lives.” “From this point, we learn to move together towards conversion and towards the goodness of life that God has for us and that Jesus opens for us all.” This approach is particularly important in reaching out to individuals who are not living in the way that God asks, such as those cohabiting or the divorced and remarried, the cardinal said. Recognizing that there is still “real goodness” in their lives despite these shortcomings allows a basis for approaching them in care and offering an invitation to come closer to the Church and its call, knowing that this is where true happiness is found. The coming year leading up to next year’s three-week synod has been described by Pope Francis as a time “to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront.” Cardinal Nichols echoed this call, voicing hope that the ongoing prayer and reflection will yield fruit that will renew the Church “in response to the unfailing love of Jesus, under the leadership of Pope Francis and always in union with him.”