By Brian Niemiec
Like many of you, I was struck by the tone and content of the recently released document from the Extraordinary Synod on the Family currently taking place in Rome. While the remarkable statements on homosexual relations seems to have made the biggest splash across the western world, I was struck by one very concrete pastoral concern found in the document.
I find it interesting to first note that this document does not have a lot of specifics. Rather, it has within it an openness to further discussion. In several sections, like the paragraphs about reception of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, the Bishops acknowledge the conversation, what has already been discussed, and most importantly, the reality that a decision has not been made. The bishops are living in a tension of openness, and allowing the Holy Spirit to enter into that space and orient hearts and minds to the will of Jesus Christ.
In that light, I was taken aback by the detailed discussion of pastoral practice toward couples living outside the sacrament of marriage. The document addressed the need for more pastoral presence and engagement with couples who are civilly married, or couples living together outside of marriage (cohabitation). “A new sensitivity in today’s pastoral consists in grasping the positive reality of civil weddings and, having pointed out our differences, cohabitation“(36). This opening sentence, by acknowledging the positive, the good, and the holy in these committed relationships, forces us as church to look anew at how we minister to these populations. This section was the closest to outlining a pastoral directive, and it was quite clear that these non-sacramental relationships should be nourished and engaged by the Church, not rejected as an intrinsically sinful state of life.
It got me thinking, what would this look like at my parish? Let’s consider a parish like my own, which is a remarkable blend of young families, up and coming professionals, and life-long Irish Catholics whose families have been in this neighborhood since the Potato Famine. Like most urban areas, family structures vary widely in this community. The influx of millennials like myself have radically shifted the parish’s demographics away from traditional and extended family dynamics.
The document notes that “All these situations have to be dealt with in a constructive manner, seeking to transform them into opportunities to walk towards the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel” (39). The fullness of marriage in this sentence means more than simply getting them to walk down the aisle. Realizing the fullness of marriage starts with recognizing and living the signs and vows that marriage requires. It means drawing the couple deeper into relationship with Christ, and engaging them as a couple with the work and mission of the Church. While that commitment is nourished and strengthened by the grace of the sacrament through the Holy Spirit, the willingness and effort must already be present for the sacrament to be fully realized.
I think our parish should start a group open to all types of committed couples: married, civilly married, cohabiters, and the rest. The rules of this space would recognize that sacramental marriage is the ideal, but that all committed relationships (including sacramental marriages) are trying to daily realize the love, fidelity, life and beauty of the ideal. There would be no judgment regarding the type of relationship. This group would be a space where couples could come and share their experiences: the good, bad, and ugly. They could be nourished by the experience and advice of the other couples who like them are trying to live out their relationships in light of the Gospel.
Most importantly, it would provide an opportunity to encounter Christ and deepen the spiritual, emotional, and practical intimacy that already exists. By encountering Christ in prayer, sacrament, and the other, these relationships would more and more ground couples on the life-giving word of Christ. Perhaps then, marriage as a sacrament would not seem irrelevant, intimidating, or prohibitive, but rather the natural fulfillment of an already growing relationship.
So, fellow parishioners (and Father), what do you think? This could be really helpful, and a very practical way to put the thoughts of this Synod document into practice!