Family Life, Oranga Whanau, and the Synod in Rome

One thing we all have in common is family life. Love it or struggle with it, one’s family to a very significant degree shapes who we are. Part of becoming an adult is the awareness that the perfect family does not exist. Some even endure deep hurt within their family yet go on to forgive, reconcile and heal.

Both the State and the Church have a profound interest in families. The State has (or should have) a deep concern about the formation and education of a new generation of citizens, and the Church, in addition to these concerns, supports families as witnesses to love, protectors of human dignity, incubators of faith and agents of compassion in an often broken world. Little wonder then that in our parishes, schools and Religious Orders we often use the term “family” to describe ourselves.

Relationships are the heart of families. Within marriages we find relationships that exist nowhere else: wife, husband, spouse, in-laws, wahine marena, tane marena, hoa marena, hunaonga. While we recognize the existence of many forms of family life (and recognize the good present within them) as Christians, together with people of other faith communities, we uphold the vital importance of marriage as the normal foundation of families. Just last night I received a call from a second cousin asking me to officiate at the celebration of her marriage to her partner. They have four children, are in their forties and distanced from the Church but not from faith. She simply said: we want to commit to each other totally and ask for God’s blessing on us. The basic ingredients of a marriage have been recognized and therefore can be nurtured and enhanced through God’s all pervasive grace.

A few months ago all Catholics across the globe were invited to participate in a survey on marriage and family life. It was a massive undertaking as part of the preparation for a Synod in Rome. Pope Francis like all of us is deeply troubled by the undermining of stable family life (from housing and employment obstacles to the trivialization of relationships). He is also acutely aware of the pain felt by people whose marriage has ended and the unsureness some gay people feel about belonging to the Church. The complexity of human nature and of the circumstances in which can find ourselves, set against the ideals rightly treasured of marriage and family life, present us all with a conundrum or mystery. How can we pursue and uphold an ideal (lifelong marriage) yet accept and include those in situations at variance with that?

Today the Bishops of Aotearoa are issuing a pastoral letter following the compilation of the responses to the survey. The letter is a summary document of the numerous contributions received from all over our country. You will see that it is an honest and raw portrayal (for a full summary see the reference after our names). It invites not the questions ‘do I agree or disagree’ but rather ‘have I noticed or not noticed, ‘have I cared or turned my back’?
I wish to take this opportunity to express my angst at learning again of the pain that many of you have experienced personally, or through your children, by feeling that you have been judged not to “measure up”. We all know that there is right and wrong, ideal and less than ideal, and we want that; without certitudes a society soon collapses. But we also know deep in our hearts that the Church is the one place that should be big enough to hold ambiguity, difference, brokenness and sin.

I do believe we are, because I have witnessed on numerous occasions both individuals and communities extending their hands and hearts to those who need encouragement not judgement. Indeed, it is good for us to ask ourselves again: why was the Holy Spirit sent at Pentecost? As an observer, a kind of UN monitor? Of course not. The Holy Spirit was sent as a worker and advocate. God’s human project was not complete and so the Spirit continues to work among, with, and for us, leading us inch by inch to truth (Jn 15: 26; 16:13). Let us be patient with ourselves, let us take hope in God’s imagination which is infinitely greater than ours, and let us resolve to strive for all that is good, true and beautiful.

May Mary, Joseph, and Jesus be welcomed into all families and homes no matter how they may be.

+Charles Drennan
Bishop of Palmerston North