The third extraordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops will reflect on “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization” Oct. 5-19 at the Vatican. 

Pope Francis called the extraordinary assembly last fall to prepare for the ordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops, the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015. 

The bishops will focus on the nature of families and the current challenges they face. They will also discuss openness to life and child rearing. 

Preparing couples for marriage is a responsibility among pastors that is “increasingly necessary” in modern times, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, explained in a press conference this summer. Special attention is to be given to difficult pastoral situations regarding married couples. 

Among these pastoral challenges will be unmarried couples who live together and de facto unions, separated and divorced couples, remarried divorcees and their eventual further children, single mothers, those who are in canonically irregular situations and non-believers or non-practicing Catholics who wish to marry, he said.

The cardinal said the Church has a duty to accompany the increasing number of unmarried couples who cohabitate, “in the trust that they are able to bear a responsibility, such as that of marriage, that is not too great for them.”

He added that the Church is required to find solutions for remarried divorcees that are “compatible with her teaching and which lead to a serene and reconciled life.”

“In this respect, the need to simplify the judicial procedures for the annulment of marriage would appear relevant,” Cardinal Baldisseri said.

Divorced and remarried

The topic of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics has been a hot topic over the last several months. 

“I don’t think you have to be brilliant to see that the media has, for months, been trying to hijack this Synod,” said Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect for the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura — the office which, among other things, handles annulment cases in the Church.

In particular, he told Catholic News Agency in a recent interview, the media has been presenting Pope Francis as being in favor of allowing Holy Communion to be distributed to those who are divorced and remarried, and other such propositions, even though this is not the case.

The danger, Cardinal Burke continued, is that “the media has created a situation in which people expect that there are going to be these major changes which would, in fact, constitute a change in Church teaching, which is impossible.”

“That’s why it’s very important for those who are in charge to be very clear,” he said.

Cardinal Walter Kasper discussed marriage and family life during a two-hour address to an extraordinary consistory on the family with around 150 cardinals and Pope Francis. His concluding comments on “the problem of the divorced and remarried” has received a lot of press coverage. 

Cardinal Kasper asked, “Is it not perhaps an exploitation of the person” when a person who has been divorced and remarried is excluded from receiving Communion? He suggested that for “the smaller segment of the divorced and remarried,” perhaps they could be admitted to “the sacrament of penance, and then of Communion.”

While controversial, Cardinal Kasper upheld the “indissolubility of marriage.” 

As a sacrament, Cardinal Kasper said, marriage “is both a healer for the consequences of sin, and a tool for sanctifying grace.” In the face of hardness of hearts, families must continue on the path of “conversion, renewal, and maturation.”

Cardinal Burke, along with several other cardinals and scholars, have responded to this call in a book entitled “Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church.” The book, set to be released in October, is a compilation of essays which provide scholarly answers to the claim that some divorced and remarried persons can be admitted to Holy Communion without having obtained an annulment, or a Church recognition that the marriage had never been valid.

The Church’s teaching on the matter, Cardinal Burke said, is merciful, “because it respects the truth that the person is indeed bound by a prior union which the person, for whatever reason, is no longer living.”

Other issues

Cardinal Baldisseri explained that “a distinction is made between the contexts in which civil legislation is more or less in favor” of same sex unions. “There is a need for pastoral care on the part of the particular Churches in these situations, including matters relating to children who may be present,” he said this summer. 

The focus on topics connected to openness to life includes “knowledge and difficulties in receiving the Magisterium, pastoral suggestions, sacramental praxis and the promotion of a mentality open to life.”

The ordinary synod in 2015 will reflect on how “Jesus Christ reveals the mystery and vocation of the family,” the cardinal said. Pope Francis will use the conclusions of the ordinary synod to draft his first post-synodal exhortation, which Cardinal Baldisseri said the pope would release in 2016. 

Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, joined Pope Francis and the office for the Synod of Bishops in encouraging a universal Day of Prayer on Sept. 28 for the extraordinary synod.

 “The extraordinary synod on the family is an important moment for the Church and for families,” Archbishop Kurtz said. “As the Church turns with special attention to the family, may God’s plan for marriage and the family be a source of hope and healing for all.” 

“The holiness and indissolubility of Christian matrimony, often disintegrating under tremendous pressure from the secular world, must be deepened by clear doctrine and supported by the witness of committed married couples.”

— Pope Francis 

“We must take a positive starting point and rediscover and announce the Gospel of the family in all its beauty. Truth convinces through its beauty. We need to help, with words and deeds, to ensure that persons find felicity in the family and thus can give to other families a testimony of their joy.”

— Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

“These orphans of divorce, sometimes surrounded by many goods and with much money available, are the poorest among the poor, because they have many material goods yet are deprived of the fundamental good: the self-giving love of two parents who deny themselves for their children.”

— Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

It is “grossly misleading, as it seems to be induced by public opinion, to reduce the work of the Synod of Bishops to that of discussing the sacramental practices surrounding divorce and remarriage.”

— Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian Episopal Conference