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Pope asks laity to help frame discussion on family

File photo of Pope Francis
Flickr | Christus Vincit

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Pope Francis has 39 questions for his flock. A few hundred St. Louis Catholics who work or volunteer in ministry to families have begun filling out his survey. At most St. Louis Catholic churches, parishioners are waiting for their pastor to receive the survey and determine how they can respond. This is a historic first: a Vatican survey that includes the laity.

To see an English translation of the survey click here

“He is looking for ways that we can show the beauty of our teaching,” said the Most Rev. Edward Rice, the St. Louis archdiocese's auxiliary bishop said Wednesday. The survey name shows its focus: “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in Context of Evangelism.”

To clarify any misunderstanding about the survey, Francis recently explained that he is not polling, not taking a vote, to see whether Catholics wish to change church doctrine.

Instead, he’s scanning the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics for fresh, best-case practices for “merciful” and effective pastoral care of Catholic families. He wants to help them in be better Catholics through 21st century challenges. The questions probe how the church can help families nurture the faith, particularly among children. And ask about ways of reaching out to children in all kinds of families including unmarried couples with children and same sex couples with children.

In addition to the laity, he is consulting sisters, brothers, ordained deacons and priests. The survey results will be used next October by bishops who will examine how the church works with families.

Abandon complacency

Francis told Catholic leaders to open wide the doors of ministry when he that they should “abandon the complacent attitudes ‘We have always done it this way’.”

Those words appear in first solo teaching document since becoming pope called “Joy of the Gospel” – “EvangeliiGaudium.” In this recently released paper, he also put thumbs down on what he called “rules which make us harsh judges.”

October’s gathering, called an extraordinary synod, will be the first bishops’ synod focused on the family in 34 years. The synod preparatory document underlines that many children do not see their parents receive Holy Communion because parents, sometimes grandparents, are banned from the sacraments for what church doctrine sees as “living in sin.”

In mid-October Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, who runs the Vatican office that organizes synods, sent the survey to the presidents of each nation’s bishops’ conference. Unlike conferences of some nations – England and Wales, Belgium for example -- the national U.S. conference office is not tabulating answers. Each U.S. diocese will work out how to collect the answers.

Ten days before Thanksgiving, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson oversaw the first St. Louis distribution of Francis' survey to about 200 members of the St. Louis Archdiocesan Pastoral Assembly, lay leaders representing most of the archdiocese 180 parishes. Rice found the assembly bursting with enthusiasm.

“They were wowed, very excited,” Rice said. “Many said that they think it is great that Pope Francis is asking them for their ideas, experiences. People are honored to be asked, to take part and are taking the survey very seriously.”

Participants left the assembly promising to return the survey on paper by Dec. 13 to allow ideas to be complied by the end of the year and sent to the Vatican.

“But anyone can reply,” Rice said. “It’s best if they do it through their pastors.”

Carlson has given Ed Hogan, a lay theologian, the job of tallying the St. Louis results and condensing fresh ministry ideas and Hogan, said he welcomes individual responses.

“Absolutely all Catholics are welcome to reply, that is what Pope Francis wants,” said Hogan, director of the archdiocese’s adult pastoral and theology education program, last week from a highway rest stop en route to Thanksgiving in Omaha.

Not all parishes the same

Rice expects effective ideas from leaders and volunteers at the archdiocese’s Office of Laity and Family Life. It administers the Pre-Cana conferences for engaged couples, programs for couples challenged by marriage problems and other family-centered programs. Some pastors have indicated that they will consult their parish councils and other lay leaders before submitting their parish survey answers.

The Rev. James J. Byrnes, pastor of Cure of Ars Parish in Shrewsbury, is eager to receive the survey.  He expects to sit down with his elected parish council and let them decide how to gather ideas about family ministry from the parish’s 400 households.

Byrnes said his parishioners are extremely enthusiastic about the new pope and likely will be warmly taken with anything he is asking.

“I haven’t met anyone who does not like him,” Byrnes said.

Polling across the U.S. show that 70 percent of self-identified Catholics rate Francis favorable and 58 percent of non-Catholics rate him favorably, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Rev. Timothy M. Foley, pastor of Christ the King Parish in University City, read the English and Welsh National Conference of Bishops version of the survey on line. They have framed 46 questions, mostly true and false or multiple choice, that can be answered on line. Its simpler format will be quick for a computer to tally.

Foley is eager to see the unmodified Vatican format that the St. Louis Archdiocese will send to parishes. There’s enthusiasm as well at his parish.

Maronites and Sisters of St. Joseph

Monsignor Jibran BouMerhi, rector of St. Raymond’s Cathedral, the Maronite rite Catholic church in the LaSalle Park neighborhood, said Catholics who know about the survey are pleased.

“The laity should see this as a good step to realize the challenges we face when children don’t talk, don’t take time to listen to their parents,” he said. “I saw it even at Thanksgiving dinner, they all have iPhone, iPad or tablets and say they are too busy -- (texting) friends to listen to their parents.”

“What will they be like in 10 years?” BouMerhi said. “They will have no knowledge of the Gospels, of the church. I say this from the pulpit all the time.”

Tuesday the three-member Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet leadership team -- Sister Laura Bufano, Sister Francine Costello and Sister Susan Hanes -- emailed all their congregation sisters urging them to share their expertise working with families as teachers, social workers, and parish administrators on the survey.

Thanksgiving dinner discussion

The survey was part of an engaging Thanksgiving dinner conversation among three adult generations of the Sanner family in St. Louis Hills.

“They are pleased that Francis is going to the people in the pews, to find out how to reach out to families as they raise the next generation,” said Susan Sanner, a grandmother who works for Dominicans Order’s Central Province and is a member of Pius V Parish on South Grand. She read the survey on line but has not been asked to fill one out.

“There are so many more of us, laity, than there are of clergy. Pope Francis wants to know how to help and appeal to the families,” she said. “He wants to know what he can be saying to them to help them meet challenges,”

One of her sons-in-law, a former Missouri Synod Lutheran who became a Catholic, said he was particularly impressed by the survey and reassured by Francis’ efforts to make the church more transparent.

Like many America Catholic families, Sanner laments that her family has young members who currently don’t attend Mass. Even though they went through Catholic grade schools and high schools, two of her grandchildren are disaffected. One whose mother died of cancer and whose had college friends recently were killed in an auto accident has many questions about heaven. Another says he’s an atheist.

“I’m like Monica praying for her son Augustine but he is not bad like Augustine was,” Sanner said. “He’s a good person.”

Hadn’t heard of it

Leaving a daytime Mass, Anne Carleton said she hadn’t heard of the survey but she was encouraged.

“Except for the pope we don’t have anyone who speaks for the laity at the Vatican,” Carleton said. “This is a long time coming. In many ways things have gone backward since Vatican Council under (Post Vatican II) bishops. I see fewer women serving (as acolytes) at Mass. Some pastors don’t encourage it. Some parishes don’t have parish councils.”

She is eager to see the survey and hopes to answer it.

Open to ideas

Francis, the first pope from the Americas, who leads the world in Twitter followers, is open to fresh ideas about how his church can pass along Gospel value, Hogan, the lay theologian said.

Francis wants to hear about effective ways leaders have evangelized Catholic faithful in the pews, welcomed back baptized Catholics who only have foggy notions of church teachings and rarely attend Mass and for unchurched who are looking for a relationship with God, local leaders said.

The Questions

Many survey questions are riffs on this: “Jesus Christ reveals the mystery and vocation of the human person. How can the family be a privileged place for this to happen?”

Other questions ask about how to encourage couples to have more children and if they understand Pope Paul VI teaching “Humanae Vitae,” which opposed artificial contraception. That was included after leading lay Catholics from several nations were consulted and pressed for it. In the U.S., surveys by secular pollsters and Catholic groups have shown that Catholic widely ignore that artificial birth control teaching.

The survey asks about Catholics who remarry without church permission after divorce. Many know divorced Catholics who struggle with the church’s ban against remarriage and find life without a partner difficult, Hogan said. “Do they feel marginalized or suffer from the impossibility of recovering the sacraments?” the Vatican survey asks.

Other questions are about the pastoral care for Catholic adults living together in arrangements recognized by neither church nor civil authorities and about the Christian education of those couples’ children. The survey asks about those living in same sex partnerships and about the Christian education of their children.

Clarifying teachings

Hogan thinks many Catholics have rigid ideas about the church that mostly come from secular sources. “The first thing I do when teaching a class is to find out what the students know,” Hogan said. “Often they misunderstand even basics.”

The survey may point up issues that the clergy need to teach more clearly, he said. Many Catholics don’t know much about the marriage annulment process, he said. They especially don’t know that they can proceed if their spouse refuses to cooperate in the church tribunal, court, investigation, he said.

“I think Pope Francis, he bishops could imagine a way to streamline the annulment process,” he said. Catholic church law courts can take two or more years to examine marriage annulment cases.

Rice thinks the questions show that the pope knows about modern life

“He reflects his background, from the Americas, from a Third World country,” Rice said. “All popes reflect their backgrounds.”

Bishop Rice wonders whether the St. Louis Archdiocese will get “300 or many thousand” completed surveys.

When he reads the surveys, Hogan is ready to be objective and pass along any fresh ideas, even ones that might seem bizarre. He is not a judge, he said.

“Francis wants new ideas in how to evangelize,” Hogan said. “I can do that. When I teach world religions (at Kenrick Seminary in Shrewsbury) I teach things I don’t agree with.”

“Part of what Catholics have to understand is that this survey is not about changing doctrine but how we can change the way we reach out to people.” Hogan said. 

Patricia Rice is a long time religion writer. The two Rices, the bishop and the writer know of no common ancestor.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.