The role of the woman in the family, in society and in the Church, cultural differences, concerns regarding ethics in medicine, the situation of persecuted Christian families and the testimonies of those engaged in family catechesis were main themes of the interventions by auditors in the Synod Hall during the general congregations of Thursday 15 and Friday 16 October, published today.

Heart of the family

The national president of the Catholic Women Organisation in Nigeria, Agnes Offiong Erogunaye, reminded the Synod Fathers that African women are known for taking care of their families with or without the contributions of their spouses, and the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria indicates the strength and role of “a typical woman and mother determined to keep her family together in the face of helplessness and calamity”. She added, “From my experience with women in this difficult moment, I can boldly say that although the man is the head of the family, the woman is however the heart of the family, and when the heart stops beating the family dies because the foundation is shaken and the stability destroyed. In Nigeria, Catholic women are not just homebuilders. They are a strong force to be reckoned with when it comes to spirituality and economy, and growth in the Church”.

Women in service

Sister Maureen Kelleher from the United States of America quoted the paragraph in the Instrumentum laboris that states, “The Church must instil in families a sense of 'we' in which no member is forgotten. Everyone ought to be encouraged to develop their skills and accomplish their personal plan of life in service of the Kingdom of God”. She called upon the Church, “my family”, to “live up to the challenge to instil in our family the Church a sense of 'we', to encourage each person – male or female – to develop their skills to serve the Kingdom of God”. She added, “I ask our Church leaders to recognise how many women who feel called to be in service of the Kingdom of God but cannot find a place in our Church. Gifted though some may be, they cannot bring their talents to the tables of decision making and pastoral planning. They must go elsewhere to be of service in building the Kingdom of God. In 1974, at the Synod on Evangelisation, one of our sisters, Margaret Mary, was one of two nuns appointed from the Union of Superiors General. Today, forty years later, we are three”.

Single mothers

“The Church needs to listen to women … as only in reciprocal listening does true discernment function”, emphasised Lucetta Scaraffia, professor of Modern History at the University of Rome. “Women are great experts in the family: leaving abstract theories behind, we can turn in particular to women to understand what must be done, and how we can lay the foundations for a new family open to respect for all its members, no longer based on the exploitation on the capacity for sacrifice of the woman, but instead ensuring emotional nourishment and solidarity for all. Instead, both in the text and in the contributions very little is said about women, about us. As if mothers, daughters, grandmothers, wives – the heart of families – were not a part of the Church, of the Church who encompasses the world, who thinks, who decides. As if it were possible to continue, even in relation to the family, pretending that women do not exist. As if it were possible to continue to forget the new outlook, the previously unheard-of and revolutionary relationship that Jesus had with women”.

“Families throughout the world are very diverse, but in all of them the women play the most important and decisive role in guaranteeing that their solidity and duration. And when we speak about families, we should not speak always and only about marriage. There is a growing number of families composed of a single mother and her children. It is almost always women who stay by their children's side, even when they are ill, disabled or afflicted by violence. These women and mothers have seldom followed courses in theology, and often they are not even married, but they offer an admirable example of Christian behaviour. If you, Synod Fathers, do not pay attention to them, if you do not listen to them, you risk making them feel even more disgraced as their family is so different to the one you focus on. Indeed, you talk too readily of an abstract family, a perfect family that does not exist, a family that has nothing to do with the real families Jesus encountered or spoke about. Such a perfect family would almost seem not to be in need of His mercy or His Word: 'I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance'”.

Mixed marriages

The issue of mixed marriages also attracted attention, as mentioned by Rev. Fr. Garas Boulos Garas Bishay, pastor of St. Mary of Peace in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, who expressed his concern for a socio-cultural phenomenon widespread in tourist areas such as that of his parish: “mixed marriages between Christian girls and women from Russia and Europe, with Muslim boys and men (indeed, Islamic Shariah only allows Muslim men to marry women of other religions and never the contrary). Certainly this phenomenon, along with the mass demographic shift and a growing number of refugees and migrants who tend to settle in Europe, does not only affect countries with an Islamic majority or tourist areas, but will inevitably also affect the West and is therefore worthy of study and serious consideration. These are families with mixed morals and a dual cultural and religious affiliation. … It should not be forgotten that Islamic law permits polygamy and the Koran obliges the parents to the provide an Islamic education for the children. There is a profoundly different cultural and religious anthropology that may easily give rise to serious crises within the couple, even leading to irreparable fractures and grave consequences for the children”.

Cultural views of family

Maria Harries, Chair of Catholic Social Services in Australia, also spoke about cultural diversity, providing the example of the very marginalised Aboriginal people, which comprise many language groups and family traditions. “For most of them, the idea of the family as it is represented by our Church teaching is alien. For some, the matrilineal system means that they have many mothers. The child is reared in a kinship group, not by a mother and father. Women play a dynamic role in their kinship world and they expect them to be visible. In the words of one of the aboriginal leaders, 'By not having women visible on the Altar and in the life of the Church, we are concealing our mothers, our sisters and our daughters from view'. In welcoming the Gospel, they ask not to be recolonised by our Church as they have been by our nation's forebears. The challenge for our Church is to formally and institutionally incorporate cross-cultural dialogue and adopt systems with indigenous Australians that honour and do not violate their culture”.

Harries, who has worked for forty years with people who have experienced sexual abuse in the family and for the last twenty with those who have been abused by members of the clergy, affirmed that “all sexual abuse is connected to the abuse of power. … The horrific evidence of abuse of children in families and institutions and our failure to respond adequately to this has left the Church in Australia and of course elsewhere in very deep pain. … In the words of Pope Francis, as we all pray for and 'receive the grace of shame', we need local and collective ways of meeting all these victims and their families and each other in our garden of agony and to listen deeply, very deeply. From our failings and the accompanying pain, we have the opportunity to learn collectively and perhaps even doctrinally, and to re-engage with and accompany the thousands of families whom we have lost”.

A generation avoiding marriage

Brenda Kim Nayoug spoke of what is referred to in South Korea as the “Sampo generation”, or rathe r, the generation that chooses to forego courtship, marriage and childbirth. “Many of the young generation have given up these three things because of their social pressures and economic problems. There are so many young people who are suffering due to unemployment, they unfortunately postpone their marriage, and forget that marriage is a calling given by God. Dear Fathers”, she exclaimed, “married life is a long journey. There might be lots of possibilities to get lost or to be wounded on their journey of life, therefore the Church should open up and truly accompany us at the various stages of our married life, so that we do not give up but instead find for ourselves the beauty of the Christian family”.

Married sexuality and ethics

A recurrent theme in the interventions was that of married sexuality and ethics in medicine. The Peruvian paediatrican Edgar Humberto Tejada Zeballos remarked that “there are couples who believe that having a child is a right, without considering that children are a gift from God, and resort to measures that aside from violating morality, cost innocent lives, such as in vitro fertilisation, in which many embryos are eliminated, burned, frozen or sold. They also consider practices such as surrogacy and other means that … denying morality, cause the sacrifice of a great number of embryos without mercy or use them in experiments. Holy Father, I believe that in the working document, in paragraphs 140 and 141 these threats to life and to the family could be mentioned clearly, to transmit this knowledge to many Christians who commit these immoral acts out of ignorance”.

Family as bearers of hope

Massimo and Patrizia Paloni, a married couple from Rome and members of the Neocatechumenal Way, are the parents of twelve children and are currently in mission in Holland to announce the Gospel to the “existential peripheries of Europe”. They expressed their gratitude to Paul VI for the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which helped them understand that “responsible parenthood is not about deciding the number of children, but rather about being aware of the greatness of the vocation to collaborate with God in the creation of sons and daughters for eternity”, adding that “every day around us we see suffering, separations, abortions, and lonely people without hope. The world is awaiting the witness of the Christian family, and we are convinced that the salvation of humanity is through the Christian family. … The Christian community saves the family, and the family saves the Church”.


Sister Berta Maria Porras Fallas of Costa Rica insisted on the need for formation for “vocational realisation”, and proposed three priorities in youth pastoral ministry. “First, love in discernment, with the themes of formation for discernment and discerning the mission. Secondly, loving as a couple, man and woman, with the analysis of current issues. And finally, loving as sexual giving, with the theme of human sexuality as a gift, conjugal love and daring to love”. 

Persecuted families

Finally, the Marqus-Odeesho couple, on behalf of families in Iraq, told how the Christians of Nineveh have found themselves having to leave their homes, jobs, memories, possessions and schools overnight. “The new experience was very harsh”, they said. “Only the words of our Lord Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew – 'Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven' – condole us and relieve our wounds; thus we started to hear testimonies of some displaced families giving their experience, saying that despite the suffering and harshness of displacement, getting closer to the Church helped them lot and they started to feel that their faith was strengthening and maturing, and they began sharing in spiritual activities. … Today the challenges continue through events such as kidnapping, bombing, robbery and terror. But in spite of this situation there are still many families who are committed to their land and their Church, giving testimony to their faith without realising that this persecution will bring a lot of good to the Church of Christ, as it did for the early Church, in spreading the good news”.