Synod diary: Marriage preparation, the Green Bay Packers, and a stroll through St. Peter's Basilica

The pace of news around the Extraordinary Synod on the Family has slowed a bit, with the participants in closed session and only general recaps published orally at the daily press briefings and through other semi-official channels. However, the Vatican has published the testimony of several observers to the synod, who are for the most part married lay Catholics chosen to provide the bishops with perspective on family issues. One of these families comes from Wisconsin — Jeff and Alice Heinzen, who have been married for 34 years and who have been active in the laity. Jeff is president of McDonell Catholic Schools in Chippewa Falls, and Alice runs the Office for Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of La Crosse. They have three children, four grandchildren, and told Time Magazine that they were “astounded” to be chosen as auditors for the synod:

The Heinzens are pretty much your everyday, middle-class Wisconsin couple. Alice, 60, and Jeff, 63, first met at a bar during a 1977 snowstorm, and their connection was immediate. Their parents each ran small, family-owned businesses—his a printing outfit, hers a shoe company—both had large Catholic families, and both had mothers named Rita. Now, 34 wedding anniversaries, three children, and four grandchildren later, they still attend mass, are Green Bay Packers fans, and host Sunday dinners for their neighborhood.

This week, their life story takes an unusual plot twist: they are attending the 2014 Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops on the Family at the Vatican, one of just fourteen married couples appointed by Pope Francis as Synod auditors, a term for the non-voting attendees at the meeting. They are also the only couple attending from the United States, and on Tuesday afternoon, they made a four-minute presentation to the Synod fathers sharing their experiences of married life.

“One thing that we have in common as auditors is, we are all a little astounded why we are here,” says Alice. “They certainly could have pulled the perfect families out of every country—they did not. They pulled the real families out of the countries, which is true to Francis.”

Their testimony to the bishops urged them to bolster marriage preparation and pastoral support for those married and experiencing difficulties in order to address the crises families face today:

Our parents bore faithful witness to the joy and beauty of God’s plan for love and life. Unfortunately, not only in our evaluation of current culture, but also due to our pastoral experience, we know that many young people do not see the witness of married love that we experienced. So many youth grow up in homes broken by divorce or with no experience of married parents due to out-of-wedlock pregnancies. We have entered, as some social scientists have described, the age of the diminished family structure. This is more than a crisis. To quote Saint John Paul II, “[T]he role of parents as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it.” Sociological research testifies to this problem and information in the Instrumentum Laboris confirms it. Children raised without the blessing of married parents, who have created a home animated by love and faith,will likely struggle to trust in God and their neighbors. How can they create life-long marriages?

Our diocese in the United States is not unlike those around the world. We have seen the number of marriages decline each year and the rate of cohabitation increase. We have seen a steady drop in the number of baptisms. We have watched our youth fall prey to the confusion of a hedonistic culture. We know countless divorced adults who have joined other faith communities because they do not feel welcomed in the Catholic Church. And, our hearts ache for single parents who struggle to care for their children. Like you, we strive to find simpler, more effective ways,to better share the blessings of God’s plan for marriage and family.

The Instrumentum documents pastoral programs that attempt to address the negative issues impacting marriage and family life. Sadly, these efforts are not meeting the magnitude of the cultural challenges facing us today. We must developmore robust and creative methods to share the fundamental truth that marriage is a divine gift from God, rather than merely a man-made institution. This will require us to examine the methods by which we teach our children about the nature of human sexuality and the vocation of marriage. When speaking of the call by God to serve, marriage should be included in all programs designed to explore vocations. And, it should compel us to ask how we provide for the aftercare of marriage that can help couples deepen their relationship. We therefore see the issue before us not as a crisis of truth, but rather as a crisis of methodology. How do we as a Church, effectively share what we know to be true in practical, simple and convincing ways, so that all men and women are challenged and supported to live life-long marriages and build homes that reflect the domestic Church?

Not surprisingly, this was a major topic in the synod. According to the general recap of that session, the bishops want greater preparation for marriage, and not just as a check-box for scheduling the wedding at the parish church. “It is necessary,” the recap states, “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.”  Marriage has to be taught as a vocation, with specific consequences of fidelity and “coherence,” and requires “intense pastoral care.”

Marriage preparation, therefore, has to be “long, personalised and also severe,” even if that might seemingly reduce the number of weddings taking place. In fact, that might be the point. The alternative, the discussion suggested, will be “the risk of filling the Tribunals with marriage issues.” 

Interestingly, this debate included the issue of the divorced and remarried, which is slated to be a major topic of discussion this afternoon. The key to addressing these difficult situations is to “offer not judgment but truth,” as people are drawn to the latter and not to the former. The bishops want to find ways to welcome them into the parishes through mercy and pastoral care. But what about the issue of the Eucharist? This appears to be an open question — and part of the discussion about the law of graduality. “More space must be allowed for a sacramental rather than a juridical form of logic,” the recap summarizes the discussion. The Eucharist is “not the sacrament of the perfect, but rather those who are on the way.”

More discussion on this topic will take place this afternoon, and we will get a chance to hear more on Thursday about what took place.

After finishing business in the press office yesterday, including the frantic upload of my first video before La Sala Stampa and its excellent Internet access became chiuso, I walked back to my apartment to drop off my equipment and took my camera back to St. Peter’s Square. On the weekends, the lines are long to get into St. Peter’s Basilica, but during the week, the lines drop off to nearly nothing, so I took advantage of the time to do a little photography. I wasn’t terribly happy with the results — I’ll make another trip with better information on what will work and what won’t — but a few of the pictures turned out rather well. This shot of the nave gives the scope of the massive church:

St. Peter's Basilica (click to expand)
St. Peter’s Basilica (click to expand)

Michelangelo’s Pieta is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking sculptures in the world, and was at one point damaged by a deranged visitor to the basilica. The Vatican Museum succeeded in completely restoring the status, but the statue is now behind glass. It’s still very accessible, and still compelling:

Michelangelo's Pieta
Michelangelo’s Pieta

As a photographer, I’m particularly drawn to domes and their effect. The basilica features one of the most copied domes in the world over the main altar — the dome on Capitol Hill is modeled after it — and is impressive both outside and inside. This picture shows the effect from the perspective of the altar, catching Bernini’s baldacchino as it stretches skyward:

Basilica dome & baldacchino
Basilica dome & baldacchino

I will have more later today from the Synod, including an interview with Fr. Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt and Light TV and one of the spokesmen for the Vatican.