Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
As you no doubt are aware, this week in Rome the fourteenth Ordinary Synod of Bishops is more than half over. This event happens every three years, as the Holy Father gathers a representative group of bishops from around the world to deliberate together on a set topic of concern to the church.
This year, you may recall, the topic is “the family,” especially evangelizing for faithful families in the context of worldly rejection of family values. As you know, families are under social and spiritual attack, because the glorification of the individual and his appetites, and a false sense of freedom which does not love, are not really compatible with the essence of family life.
If the individual is supreme and expresses this by making personal choices as “the only one that matters,” then the needs and hopes and desires of others, even of others as close to one as husband, wife, or children, can be disregarded. If this is accepted as true, the pursuit of one’s own desires can always be justified, regardless of the suffering it causes to others, or even to oneself.
Thus, for example, it is inconceivable to the worldly that contraception could be either morally wrong or spiritually harmful, since it greatly increases choice and freedom, “liberating” people from those “old-fashioned” values about not choosing sex before marriage, or outside of it.
All the other cultural rejections of the value of marriage work in a similar way. Fidelity in marriage limits choice if one’s shallow, selfish happiness in exploiting one’s spouse fails; thus, easy, no-fault divorce. Chastity inhibits one’s “natural” desires; thus, promiscuity and pornography are the order of the day, both before and even during marriage.
The Supreme Court has imposed same-sex marriage on the country; can polyamorous marriages be far behind? We are trained daily in our interactions in the world that all these deformations of love are simply the way things are, unchangeable, unquestionable – despite the fact that they have all come to be “normal” only in the past 85 years, a single life-span!
But God wants to teach us a better way. Christ came into the world to die for us sinners, not to condemn, but to save and heal. Christ’s love for the church from the cross is the paradigm of all human love – total, free, sacrificial, transforming.
It is because we understand Christ crucified as the perfection of the love to which we aspire that we cannot simply shrug and accept the world’s sad state. To turn our backs on the world because it is sinful would be to deny Christ. And so our mission, the mission of the whole church and the point of convoking the Ordinary Synod, is not merely to think about the family abstractly, but to serve the needs and healing of the family, every family, concretely.
Now, as all of you who are parents know so well, to serve the needs of your children means sometimes saying yes, and sometimes no. So it is with the church.
There are things about our modern culture which the church accepts and agrees with, for example, commitment to universal human rights, to justice and equality, to freedom of opportunity, and so forth. There are also things about our modern culture which the church cannot accept and to which we must clearly say no. If we fail to be clear and consistent in telling the world (and ourselves) why and how moral evils are in fact evil and harmful to people, then we fail in our prophetic role in following and imitating our Lord Jesus Christ, and we fail in loving those whom we would thus abandon.
In doing this, the church does not seek to condemn people. Clear definitions are necessary, but not sufficient. Like our Savior’s, the church’s negations of wrong and harm must also be invitations to right and healing. Pope Francis has likened the church to a field hospital after a battle. The sacraments are the healing medicines we are supposed to apply to all those wounded by sin.
The task of the Ordinary Synod, then, is far from easy. In faith, we know what is right and wrong, what tends to true human flourishing, and what are false illusions that lead to the slavery of sin. But the problem of the modern Western world is precisely the absence of faith. Our culture glorifies choice, but ignores the wisdom of how to make good choices; it sets the individual on a pedestal, but ignores all the other people needed to support that pedestal securely.
In the order of charity, the first thing we need to do is offer to others a reason for believing. And really, this boils down to only two possibilities: hope and joy.
Hope is a gift because it causes a person to look beyond the circle of the individual’s raw choice. This becomes a reason for faith when what we see looking back at us is the reality of another person, with equal power for choosing, with equal dignity and rights. To recognize another person as more than an object of one’s own will is the first movement of faith, because it implies how both together must rely on something still larger, ultimately for their very being, thus ultimately on God their creator.
Joy is a gift because it shows the shallowness of mere worldly pleasure, the shallowness of mere satisfaction of what we want. Joy becomes a reason for faith because it satisfies that part of us that no created thing can, the part that longs for union with God because we just are from God and destined to return to him.
To offer joy and hope to the world is to evangelize the world for Christ. Faithful families know hope and joy. Children who grow up in such families have hope and joy built into their social and cultural formation. Spouses who make such families happen know hope and joy in their Christ-like love for each other. This is one of the gifts to the world that the family is properly meant to be.
We seek to build up again a culture that appreciates the beauty and value of families faithful to the basic patterns of Christ’s love. To do that, we need to be faithful families ourselves, and then share our hope and joy freely with the world. I see so many faith-filled families in our diocese. Thank you for your witness and be assured of my continued prayers.
Please pray for all the bishops participating in the Ordinary Synod on the Family, and for all families, especially those suffering from pursuit of worldly illusions. Know that I pray daily for all of you, in your victories and in your struggles. May God bless you all most abundantly and increase your faith.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City
P.S.: Thanks for your support of the Denver Broncos; they need it, and so far, it’s working!