An Opportunity to Seize or Ignore
Beginning Sunday 4 October through the next three weeks, 279 cardinals, bishops, and representatives from all over the world will be gathering at the Vatican for the XIV Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. These church leaders have been invited by the Holy Father to reflect on the theme “Jesus Christ reveals the mystery and vocation of the family.” The synod comes as the culmination of a year of special focus on the changing reality of the human family, a reality which continues to evolve as we speak. Pope Francis’ visit to our country last month and his attendance at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia was intended to bring together the whole church in thanksgiving for God’s gift of marriage and family. But the ever-changing reality of our human experience continues to demand a gospel response, one that challenges faithful Christians to a yet more authentic discipleship while at the same time one that reaches out to welcome and embrace with mercy and compassion those who sit on the fringes, who through no fault of their own are still excluded and regarded as unworthy of God’s love. Divorce rates continue to climb. Second and third marriages have created blended families, and children now have half-siblings, step-parents, and extended families that do not share their language, customs, religion, or DNA. On a side note, many cultures have always included occasional outsiders into the family circle, and we have little difficulty of keeping track of in-laws and outlaws. And when one or both parents is missing due to divorce, incarceration, military deployment, or mental illness, the ideal picture of a family made up of mom, dad, and 2.6 children is painfully far from the reality of so many. Family life continues to be disrupted by addiction, abuse, economic factors, immigration, poverty, and war. Many children are now being raised by their grandparents. This trend might raise a few eyebrows, yet among the wealthy, it is still quite acceptable to hire live-in help so total strangers can raise the children. And a generation ago, it was common to send them off to boarding school in their formative years. And I haven’t even brought up what I know many of you have been thinking of this whole time!
Last October at the Third Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, the Holy Father invited the entire church to speak to him of the challenges we face in living our experience of marriage and family. It was an unprecedented gesture of inclusion since the ordinary Catholic in the pew has never been asked their opinion, least of all by the pope himself. Some among us seized the opportunity and spoke our mind. Some others decided it was a gimmick, a joke, and chose instead to laugh at or ignore the invitation altogether. I don’t know if every diocese in the world turned in a response. If I’m not mistaken, less than half the parishes of our diocese did. And here at St. John, I only heard from 30 people. Either the majority of us didn’t think we had anything significant to tell the Holy Father, or we didn’t trust he would listen to what we had to say. Either way, we missed an important opportunity to contribute our concerns and our hopes. I bet when he decides to share with the whole church his plan to address the issues concerning marriage and family that have been brought to him, many people who ignored his invitation to speak will cry foul.
In the gospel, the Pharisees approached Jesus and asked about the legality of divorce. “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” We have to keep in mind that in the understanding and practice of that time and place, divorce was permitted in Deuteronomy 24: 1—4, “where Moses declares that a man who becomes displeased with his wife because he finds in her ‘something objectionable’ may write her a bill of divorce and hand it to her and dismiss her from his house. The meaning of the Hebrew term used here had long been debated by the rabbis. In the time of Jesus, some important teachers, like Shammai, interpreted it strictly, as meaning only [infidelity], whereas others, like Hillel, thought it allowed even for spoiling a dish.” (Barbara E. Reid. Abiding Word: Sunday Reflections for Year B. © Order of St. Benedict, 2011. Liturgical Press, St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville MN.) Needless to say, there was never even any provision for wives to legally divorce their husbands.
Instead of addressing the question, to which the Pharisees already knew the answer—they were perhaps looking to see if Jesus would tell them to disregard Moses altogether—Jesus reminds them of God’s plan from the beginning, quoting that passage in Genesis 2 where God gives Adam, a suitable partner, Eve, who was to be by his side (a play on the word “rib,” which literally means “side”). “The man’s exclamation in v. 23 affirms that she corresponds to him exactly. She is strong just like him (‘bone of my bones’), and weak like him (‘flesh of my flesh’).” (ibid.) Jesus does not disparage those who resort to divorce, whether for legitimate or frivolous reasons. He does tell them that Moses allowed it because of “the hardness of their hearts.” But their hardness of heart did not push them beyond God’s reach. And neither does it take away from the ideal that God set up for human beings to strive for.
Jesus teaches us that from the beginning of creation, God made husband and wife to share in God’s own life reflected in the unity of body, mind and spirit. A bad marriage is a poor reflection of God’s life. Instead it is a reminder of what is human in us. Marriage according to God’s design is a lofty ideal, and few who strive for it will be a perfect reflection of its reality. But the weakness and limitation of our human nature should never lower the bar. The church believes that God calls us to something nobler, something holier, something more beautiful than we can achieve on our own. And when I find married couples striving for this ideal, I give thanks to God, that we are given a share in such a noble, holy, and beautiful gift. The rest I try to help move along, encouraging them, strengthening them, challenging them. The church needs healthy and holy marriages and families that it might preach the gospel effectively. For from these marriages and families, God invites young people to the commitment of church ministry, lay and ordained, and the commitment of marriage and family. And we will always encounter challenges. That, too, is part of God’s plan. Some will achieve success, some will struggle, but we are all called to persevere, to do our best, and to trust in God’s promise of healing and salvation. No one is beyond God’s reach. And despite our struggles, our limitations, and the hardness of our hearts, God’s design is not altered.
The church has a wonderful opportunity in these days to affirm God’s plan and extend God’s care so no one is excluded. Do we welcome those on the fringes, or do we turn our backs on them? Do we seize this opportunity, or do we ignore it?
Rolo B Castillo © 2015