Only by saying what they truly think can participants in the extraordinary synod on the family reach real conclusions, Pope Francis told them at the opening session Oct. 6.

“You have to say all that which in the Lord you feel you have to say: without human respect, without timidity,” the pope told synod participants in his opening remarks. “And, at the same time, you must listen with humility and accept with an open heart what your brothers say.”

Initiated Oct. 5 by a Mass with Pope Francis presiding, the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family reflects on the theme, “The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” The two-week gathering was called by the pope in order to form a more concrete reflection for the Ordinary Synod to take place in 2015.

While there will not be any quick fixes unveiled at this year’s synod, a fair amount of talk can be expected on the application of the Church’s pastoral practice, predicted Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington.

“I think one of the things that’s a challenge is that this synod is not going to be offering sound bite solutions. It can’t,” Cardinal Wuerl told CNA Oct. 4.

“We live in a world that loves quick answers, quick fixes, sound bites that take care of having to think through something. That’s not what the Church’s message is all about. It’s something much more beautiful than that, and it’s much more all-inclusive and all-enveloping than that.”

Although there will most likely be no immediate changes or decisions coming out of this year’s synod discussions, Cardinal Wuerl explained what can probably be expected is talk regarding “two areas in the life of the Church: her teaching and the lived application, the pastoral practice.”

“We have to make sure that the teaching is clear,” he said. “It’s unchanging because it comes to us from God, it comes to us from Jesus.

“But the effort to live it in all of the human condition today, with all of the challenges and all of the things we have to face today, that’s the pastoral practice, that’s the application.”

Family ‘not outdated’

At an Oct. 6 press conference, Cardinal Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest, Synod rapporteur, presented a 14-page “relatio ante disceptationem” which declared that the family is not an outdated model, and Catholics should defend it from the sins that call into question and often destroy the traditional family.

The relatio took into consideration the responses given a preliminary questionnaire which was delivered to bishops' conferences earlier this year, as well as the relations of the synodal fathers.

In many instances, the relatio stressed the need for more comprehensive education on Catholic teaching. “It is particularly useful for the bishops of the local communities to be offered clear guidelines to help those living in difficult situations,” since “it is unrealistic to expect that by themselves they will find the right solutions in conformity with the truth of Gospel and nearness to individual in particular situation.”

Given that “the issue of mercy has emerged more prominently as an important perspective in proclaiming the Gospel,” the relatio underscored that mercy does not “do away with truth nor relativize it, but seeks to interpret it correctly in the hierarchy of truths.”

“Consequently, mercy does not take away the commitments which arise from demands of the marriage bond,” which “continue to exist even when human love is weakened or has ceased.”

Divorce, remarriage

Cohabitation and civil marriage represent “a new dimension of pastoral care of the family today,” and the Church “cannot fail to take advantage of an opportunity, even in situations which, at first sight, are far from satisfying the criteria of the Gospel, and to draw close to people in order to bring them to a conscious, true and right decision about their relationship.”

Regarding divorced and civilly remarried persons, the relatio said the situation “does not put in question Christ’s words or the truth of the indissolubility of marriage, or even maintain that these are no longer in force.”

Cardinal Erdo stressed that “divorced and civilly remarried persons belong to the Church” and “they have the right to receive care from their pastors. Consequently, in each particular Church, at least one duly prepared priest is needed, who can offer counsel, without charge, as a first step for the parties to ascertain the validity of their marriage.”

The challenge of this synod, the relatio concluded, “is to try to bring back to today’s world the attractiveness of the Christian message about marriage and the family.”

This mission should be fulfilled in “highlighting the joy” given by living Christian teachings, and at the same time “to respond, in a true and charitable way, to the many problems which have a special impact on the family today.”

General debate

In the first full day of discussions Oct. 7, it was agreed that greater preparation for marriage is necessary, so that it is not only valid but also fruitful. “It is necessary,” said a summary report from the discussion, “to transmit a vision of marriage that does not regard it as a destination, but rather as a path to a higher end, a road towards the growth of the person and of the couple, a source of strength and energy.”

For this reason, married couples must be accompanied throughout their path in life, “by means of intense and vigorous family pastoral care.” The path of preparation for marriage must therefore be “long, personalized and also severe, without the fear of eventually leading to a reduction in the number of weddings celebrated in Church. Otherwise, there is the risk of filling the Tribunals with marriage cases.”

Regarding couples “in difficulty” and divorced and civilly remarried persons, the Church should offer not judgment but truth, with a gaze of understanding, “because people follow the truth, and will follow the Church if she speaks the truth,” the report said.

“Suffering families do not seek rapid pastoral solutions, and they do not wish to be a mere statistical figure, but rather feel the need to be inspired, to feel that they are welcomed and loved. More space must be allowed for a sacramental rather than a juridical form of logic.”

With regard to the approach to the Eucharist by the divorced and remarried, it was emphasized that it is not the sacrament of the perfect, but rather of those “who are on the way.”

Compiled from Catholic News Agency and Vatican News Service. For Synod updates, see