By Most Reverend John Corriveau, OFM Cap.
Bishop of Nelson, British Columbia
Between 1994 and 2012, I was privileged to participate in five Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. These five Synods touched a variety of challenges in the Church: Consecrated Life and its Role in the Church and the World (1994), Special Assembly for America (1997), Special Assembly for Oceania (1998), The Eucharist, Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church (2005), and The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Faith (2012).
Synods were inaugurated by Pope Paul VI to give continuing expression to the collegial nature of the leadership and governance of the Church. This was certainly my experience. At four of these five Synods I was not yet a Bishop and I was inevitably perched high up in the corner of the Synod Hall where I could survey in the delegates the very face of humanity gathered from every corner of the earth. It was a graced moment for me to experience in this diversity the palpable unity and the vibrancy spoken of in Acts of the Apostles: “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11). Pope Paul VI also saw the Synod as a privileged instrument to continue the reforming spirit of Vatican Council II. Vatican II initiated the most profound reconsideration of the identity of Church since the Council of Trent: “The universal Church is seen to be a people brought into unity from the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (LG, 4). The theology of communion was a strong thread which wove through all of the Synods. The Synods began to enunciate for me the Trinitarian source of the communion of the Church emphasizing that communion is not simply the sociological result of faith, but a constitutive element of faith itself. To be Church is to be drawn into the dynamic, creative relationship of the love of the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
There is a two-fold newness to the Synod on the Family convoked by Pope Francis, namely, its strong pastoral emphasis and its methodology. Church teaching on marriage and the family is already well-established and we do not need another Synod to describe it. Pope Francis has challenged the Church to bring this teaching to bear upon the concrete situation of families in our world today. Pope Francis has also broken new ground by involving the entire Church in this Synod experience. The Family Questionnaire which is being discussed throughout the world, including Canada, utilizes a see – judge – act model of enquiry. We are asked to enunciate the actual situation of family life in Canada today, to judge this reality in the light of the gospel of joy and mercy and to propose directives for the future. As the Church gathered in small groups, we give expression to the faith-experience of all Catholics as we chart our way toward the future.
The convocation of the Synod of Bishops to address The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World
has provoked both hope and concern within the Church and intense interest in our wider society. My experiences cause hope to trump concern and fear in my heart! Why? Not because I am unaware of the intense challenges facing the family in our highly secularized society, nor because I take lightly the task of safeguarding the sanctity of Christian marriage, nor I hope, am I unmoved by the pain experienced by those who have experienced marriage-breakdown. Hope trumps concern because the Synod is first and foremost an experience of the unifying power of the Holy Spirit. The Bishops gathered in Synod are very conscious that they gather as the successors of the Apostles and are charged with safeguarding the faith which has been handed down to us and to continually discover its richness and relevance for the people of God in every age and place. The Bishops bear a special responsibility for the unity of the Church. Through this Synod the family is being summoned to an encounter with Jesus alive in his gospel of mercy and hope and in the Eucharistic community gathered to celebrate his passion, death and resurrection. Pope Francis tells us the result of such an encounter: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus” (EG,1).