(Cardinal Wuerl recently responded to questions about the Synod on the Family from Mark Zimmermann, the editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper and website of the Archdiocese of Washington.)
- )Now that you’ve come home after participating in the Synod on the Family in Rome, what would you say is the Synod’s main message for families here in the Archdiocese of Washington, and for Catholic families around the world?
Cardinal Wuerl: “Among the things that the Synod tried to highlight was the beauty of marriage, the wonderful blessing that marriage is and how the grace of God is so much at work in the couple, the man and woman, who have come together to share their lives with each other, to give themselves to one another and to the Lord. In fact, the Synod made a point of praising the dedication of married couples today and offering support, because we fully recognize the challenges that marriage presents. I mentioned in the context of my intervention in the Synod the celebration of marriage anniversaries here in the archdiocese as is done throughout the country. We rejoice in the gift of enduring married love and the great blessing it is and the testimony of God’s grace at work among us that marriages represent.”
- )Some commentators compared the media coverage of the Synod on the Family and its impact to a tsunami that roared across the world. From the media coverage you read and heard, were there any key misperceptions about the Synod that helped propel that tsunami?
Cardinal Wuerl: “One thing we have to remember when listening to commentaries on the Synod is that it is more important that we read what the Synod actually said rather than reports about what people say it said. I think one of the things that we have to also keep in mind is that so much of the media coverage focused on the interim report. This Synod is part of a long ongoing process that our Holy Father has very clearly articulated. He noted all the way back in February at the Consistory that the first part of the process was that very meeting, but that now we have the 2014 Synod that just concluded, all the discussing between it and the 2015 Synod. The interim report was one stage. Unfortunately, much of the media took it as a final document or read it as if it were some sort of definitive statement which it was not. The key to understanding the Synod and the whole process leading up to the next Synod is precisely that it is an ongoing process of discernment, listening to the Spirit and proposing pastoral assistance to people in need.”
- )The Synod’s midterm report, with its conciliatory language about divorced and remarried couples, cohabiting couples and those in same-sex unions, was highly controversial. What did you think about that language, and about the ensuing controversy?
Cardinal Wuerl: “We have to start with what was very clearly said by the Pope and the Synod over and over again, that there is no change in the teaching – marriage is a gift from God, marriage is a blessing of a man and a woman that has been raised to the level of a Sacrament for those who are baptized, and marriage is indissoluble. None of that is changing nor can change, but what the Synod was attempting to do was use a language that is inviting, because as Pope Francis tells us, we have to go out and meet people where they are. It is not just a matter of waiting for people to come to church so we can tell them what the teaching of Jesus is. We have to go out and reach them. To do this the Synod was proposing a more pastoral way of speaking, a language that would be inviting. This was too quickly interpreted as changing in some way the teaching.”
- )What did you think about how the Synod’s final report dealt with those three situations? Why do you think that all the final report’s 62 paragraphs received a supermajority or two-thirds vote of approval from Synod fathers, except three paragraphs dealing with the questions of homosexuality and of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried?
Cardinal Wuerl: “It is significant that every one of the paragraphs in the Synod’s final report was approved by a majority of the bishops. And only three of the paragraphs did not get two-thirds vote. I believe this is true for a number of reasons. The question of the possibility of Communion in very limited and specific cases for someone who has been married, divorced and remarried had become such a point of discussion in the media that some felt this was not the time to present it in the final report lest it be interpreted as a change in teaching. I believe the question again is how do we word things that are unchanging in the life of the Church in a way that the message can be heard by the very people we are trying to reach. It is clear also that in the document itself we highlighted that some things have to be more deeply explored and more profoundly studied before any further statements can be made. Again, let us keep in mind that we are in a process and there will be considerable discussion now at the level of bishops’ conferences around what exactly can we say in a way that is faithful to the teaching and yet inviting to people who are not hearing the teaching and certainly not living it.”
- )Those hot-button issues at the Synod got most of the media’s attention, but I understand that the Synod fathers also heard testimony from an Iraqi Christian family about the devastating effect that war and persecution has had on families in that region, and the Synod also heard about the negative impact that poverty and even the Internet has had on families. Do you think that some of those other issues affecting families may have gotten short-shrift in the world’s attention as the Synod unfolded?
Cardinal Wuerl: “You have to look at the entire final report which serves as the Lineamenta or frame of reference for the next Synod and the discussion leading up to it. Here you will find an overview of marriage and family that I think is beautifully done. It highlights God’s gifts in Creation, it speaks about the wonder of marriage raised at the level of the Sacrament and it speaks about the great gift that married life is not only to the couple and the family but to the whole Church and the world. The document when read in its entirety is, in my opinion, a very beautiful, positive, encouraging and at the same time challenging report.”
- )I understand that the word “Synod” comes from a Greek word meaning “to walk together.” Is that ultimately what happened among the Synod participants? How did Pope Francis shape the process and outcome of this Synod?
Cardinal Wuerl: “Yes, that is precisely what the Synod is all about. At the very beginning of the Synod, the Holy Father in a beautiful exhortation challenged all of us to speak freely and to listen with humility. It is in this dialogue and listening, not only to one another but to the Holy Spirit, that the Synod moved forward and prepares now for the next steps. This became the framework for the process that was to deal with the many challenging issues that families face today and the many challenges that pastors face as we deal with an increasingly large number of people who are not hearing our message and certainly are not attuned to the language of our proclamation today. I think it is fair to say that Pope Francis has offered to the whole Church an opportunity to reflect on how best do we carry out our mission to bring people to Jesus and his Gospel. His particular emphasis that has helped shaped the Synod is on our need to go out and find people who should be with us. We proclaim the Gospel in all of its fullness and truth and then we go out and try to find people and meet them where they are so that we can accompany them on the journey. As the Pope spoke about speaking with clarity and listening with humility, he also spoke about accompanying people on the journey through life.”
- )In your interview with the Catholic News Service, you mentioned that the bishops at the Synod reached a “real consensus.” I’m reminded of the Archdiocesan Synod, when participants sought consensus on recommendations and proposed statutes, rather than unanimity. Isn’t it true that from the earliest days of the Church, bishops have sometimes disagreed on the best way to carry out Church teaching?
Cardinal Wuerl: “The purpose of the final report, the relatio synodi, the final Synod report, which is to serve as a working basis for the next Synod, was to present what was heard, what was said in the Synod itself. I believe the final document did reach a real consensus, and that was verified by the huge number of votes supporting what the document said. Even in those few instances where there was less than two-thirds majority, it was because the vote represented the very different focuses within the Synod discussion itself. There is always going to be discussion in the Church about what is the best pastoral practice when trying to bring people to Christ and his Gospel or to work with those who have already been baptized and are trying to live the Gospel. The Synod I thought in the final report reflected the spirit of unity and solidarity that was certainly the most predominant element in the hall.”
- )Pope Francis has often spoken about the importance of reaching out to people with God’s love and mercy, and you and other bishops have spoken and written about the pastoral importance of meeting people where they are. How do you balance staying true to the Gospel and Church teaching, while reaching out to people on the periphery, especially in the context of the challenges faced by many families in today’s world?
Cardinal Wuerl: “I think what we need to keep in mind is what Pope Francis said in his final talk. We should not try to close ourselves into a narrow wall of security, nor should we open ourselves out into a mistaken idea of goodness. He reminded us that what our task to do is to take the teaching of the Church and in the joy and the openness of the Holy Spirit examine it in light of the needs of our people today. At the same time, he said do not try to bandage a wound that has yet to be cleansed and treat it. Basically what we have before us is this ancient and ever present practice of the Church of proclaiming the Gospel and then meeting people where they are to bring them closer to Christ.”
- )Do you think or fear that Catholics might still might be confused about some of the controversial wording in the Synod midterm report and the media’s coverage of it, and if so, how do you dispel that?
Cardinal Wuerl: “As long as we recognize that we are dealing with a process that is inviting discussion, prayerful reflection and an openness to the Holy Spirit, we can avoid either of the two extremes that our Holy Father mentioned – refusing to discuss or consider any development in our pastoral practice or accepting anything and everything as a simple solution to the problem. This is a process, it will go on for some time and when we listen to media, we need to be attentive to what the Church is actually saying rather than what others are saying the Church is saying.”
- )The October 2015 world synod of bishops will focus on the “vocation and mission of the family in the church and modern world.” What do you hope will happen in the year ahead, as the Church prepares for that Synod, and what do you hope will be the ultimate outcome of that Synod?
Cardinal Wuerl: “I would hope that we will take seriously the invitation of our Holy Father. He has invited us into a process to reflect on how best we live our faith and how do we reach out to invite others to share that same faith. At the same time, he is asking the whole Church, bishops, lay faithful, everyone to listen with humility to the voice and experience of one another and to be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I think the year ahead of us can be a grace filled year of inviting people to hear, once again, the words of the Gospel and our efforts to accompany them as we journey together, always trying to draw closer to the Lord Jesus.”