As you will no doubt be aware, over the past three weeks the fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops has been meeting in Rome. The Synod of Bishops “is a group of bishops who have been chosen from different regions of the world and meet together at fixed times to foster closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world” (c. 342). It is their role to discuss specific questions, outlined in a document called the Instrumentum laboris or working document, but neither to resolve them, nor themselves issue decisions without the express permission of the Pope himself (c. 343). During this most recent meeting the delegates discussed the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world.
At the opening of the Synod, the Holy Father acknowledged the many challenges that beset the Church in the area of the family today, and gave parameters for engaging in this dialogue. Amidst cries for the Church to submit to the scrutiny of this world, he affirmed that it is the duty of the Church (and so all of us), “to carry out her mission in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions”; that is, to present to the world the unchanged, unchanging, and unchangeable revelation of Christ, the law of the kingdom of heaven, so all might come to know Christ as he really is and, knowing him, be drawn into his gift of salvation. It must be said that despite the Holy Father’s appeal, this basic principle of truth was perhaps not always clear to see in the presentation of the deliberations of the past few weeks. Delegates of the Synod spoke openly of divisions that arose between them, even concerning fundamental elements of doctrine and discipline. There was even division about whether there was in fact division! Indeed, the Holy Father alluded to this in his final discourse yesterday afternoon, when he said of the meeting, “different opinions […] were freely expressed—and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways.”
What are we to make of all of this and how, in faith, are we to respond? The first response is of course that based on our natural reaction. When we hear an inaccurate report or read an insincere remark, particularly in the area of Church affairs, it is instinctive for the faithful Christian to recoil, both in defence of ourself (and perhaps also of those for whom we have some care or responsibility) and in order to show our displeasure at the comment itself. A well-formed conscience and a sound knowledge of the faith can, should, and does change our outlook. Thus it is not, in and of itself, wrong for us to be frustrated or displeased, either with error or with the persons or situation that has brought it about. Where this risks becoming problematic, though—even to the point of being sinful—is when that natural reaction, albeit based on a well-formed knowledge of the faith, is where we stop. It is insufficient to respond to such a situation in a simply natural way. Instead, by virtue of the grace which calls us to seek that knowledge in the first place, our response must be one founded on supernatural, and not simply natural, principles.
Practically speaking this means that our instinctive natural reaction must become a catalyst for giving ourselves more freely over to the will of God, and to the means of his grace in our lives. It means, to use a rather belaboured phrase, that we must “offer up” our trials, and seek to draw from our natural instinct a desire for the comforting peace that comes only from the supernatural source of our strength: God himself. This does not mean setting-aside our concerns, nor seeking to ignore the things of the world in a spiritual equivalent of running for the hills. We are not called to be naive by our Christian faith. On the contrary, it means engaging with our concerns and displeasure, but doing so in the light of our knowledge of God, according to the fullness of the person whom God has called us to be, and trusting in his care for us and for his Holy Catholic Church.
This response is not, of course, limited to dealing with ecclesiastical affairs! It is as true of our personal relationships, with work colleagues and family members, even—dare I say it?—the driver in front of us in beltway traffic. This spiritual response to the frustration and trials of our daily lives is a necessary means, not only of resolving the concerns themselves, but of seeking to avoid a cycle of behaviour that risks our separation from God and from the source of his saving grace.
And we see all of this, in a particular way, in the person of Christ and in his sacrifice for us on the cross. Indeed, when we come to the Eucharistic altar it is that self-same sacrifice that is re-presented before us, albeit in an unbloody manner, so that we might join ourselves to his eternal prayer to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, and learn here the manner of our own sanctification. In the Eucharistic celebration we become children, humbled before the throne of our God and King, schooled in the means of our holiness. Here we see in the sacrifice of Christ the rich fruits of taking upon ourselves those wounds that are designed to inflict pain and suffering. And here, too, we see how, through obedience to the will of the Father, those scars are healed, and those weapons of torment are turned into instruments which resound to the glory of God: an affront to our enemies, but the source of our hope and, what is more, of our joy! Here, and likewise in a supernatural response to trials and disappointment, we see Christ the suffering servant crowned as Christ the King.
It is in that supreme gift that we find our consolation—not in idle gossip, nor fighting-talk, nor polemical rhetoric, nor even in mere academic debate, but in giving ourselves more and more to the person of Christ, our King and our friend, and in offering ourselves more and more freely to him within his sacrificial life. Here we not only gain a share in his crown, the gift which is offered to us through such fidelity to his way, but we are equipped with the armour that protects us from the assaults we face, and the supernatural means to overcome those things which threaten us and which, ultimately, risk our eternal happiness by bringing about a course of events at odds with the new and living way given us in Christ.
May this and every offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice bring about a renewed knowledge of this reality for us. May we see here the model of the life to which we are each called. And may our prayerful participation in this divine action strengthen us to live now, here in this earth, the supernatural reality of the life of the kingdom of heaven, that “happy home” for which we long and which, in the end, is the only thing that really matters.