Pope Francis Places Family Front and Centre

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
20 Nov 2014

Chris Meney Director of the Life Marriage and Family Centre with Pope Francis at the Vatican's recent General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family

Last month's Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of the Bishops on the Family convened by Pope Francis is an initial step in a much longer process to place the family front and centre in terms of the Church's wider engagement, says Chris Meney, Director of the Archdiocese of Sydney's Life, Family and Marriage Centre.

One of four lay representatives from Australia and one of the 16 experts invited to attend the two-week Synod, Mr Meney says this week's Vatican-sponsored interreligious conference on marriage, and specifically on the "Complementarity of Man and Woman" is also part of the Holy Father's focus on family and the vital role family plays in creating a vibrant and stable society.

On Monday, in his opening address to the three-day Conference, Pope Francis told delegates from   14 religious traditions and 23 countries, that "family is the foundation of co-existence and a remedy against social fragmentation."

He called family "an anthropological fact… that cannot be qualified based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history," and insisted every child had the right to be raised by a mother and a father.

Thirty three years after the World Synod on the Family Pope Francis convened an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family

"The Conference is another contribution to that broad canvas on which the Pope is shaping his enterprise to reach out, encourage and pastorally accompany people on their journey, especially families," Chris says.

For the next 12 months, he believes the Holy Father will continue to encourage the world's dioceses to engage in further conversation around the family and Chris points out that the theme for next year's Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of the Bishops will again highlight and explore the importance of family.

"The Vocation of Mission of the Family of the Church and the Modern Family," is the theme Pope Francis has chosen for the three week Synod to be held at the Vatican in October 2015.

Pope Francis is building on St John Paul II's 1981 Familiaris Consortio on The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World

Reflecting on his experience as an attendee at this year's Synod, Chris describes it as a remarkable chance to see the Universal Church up close and engaging in robust debate.

"The Synod of the Bishops was a forum that gathered bishops, lay people and advisers from all parts of the world, and gave them the opportunity to consider different ways by which the Church can reach out and further engage with people, and pastorally support families better," he says.

During the first week of the Synod he listened to diverse addresses from more than 180 speakers and explains that although the majority of the speakers were Cardinals and bishops, each morning the Synod would hear from a lay person or lay couple, and it was this that would set the scene for the day.

"Pope Francis was there throughout and he led the prayers each day," Chris says, and explains that prayer was a crucial part of the two week Synod and was the basis for the Church working through all of the considerations brought forward for discussion.

"Pope Francis responds warmly to people and mixes easily with them. When he asks for prayers and you see him in the chapel you sense that he is very much aware of the importance of prayer for responding adequately to the challenges ahead," he adds.

The second week of the Synod on the Family saw attendees broken up into separate language groups to further the discussion not only on the challenges facing families in today's fast-changing world but about new ways of dealing with these pressures as well as possible solutions.

Chris Meney and his wife Mary Clare with the couple's nine children

"It was a much-layered enterprise and one in which the final statement by Pope Francis reflects his sensitivity to the breadth of opinion given, and the significance of the Papacy as a point of unity in the universal Church," Chris says.

In many ways, the focus on family by the Holy Father and the recent Synod not only echoes but suggests a desire, evidenced in the choice of theme for the 2015 Synod, to build upon "Familaris Consortio," the 1981 Apostolic Exhortation of St John Paul II entitled: "The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World," he says. "I don't think the full wisdom and teachings of the Familaris Consortio have been fully unpacked yet. There is still a lot more work to do. But I believe Pope Francis is challenging us to get serious, and last month's Synod on the Family is just the first step in stressing the importance of the family as well as encouraging Church communities to reach out and look for ways to support others on their faith journey." .

The founding Director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family and bio ethics scholar and author, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP together with Cardinal George Pell were responsible for establishing the first Life Marriage and Family Centre in Australia.

Next year's Synod of the Bishops will focus on the Vocation of Mission of the Family of the Church and the Modern Family

An initiative of Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Anthony during the years he was Auxiliary

Bishop for the Archdiocese of Sydney, the Centre remains a forerunner with more such centres not only established in other dioceses across Australia but in dioceses worldwide.

"Initially the Archdiocese had a Life Office and a Marriage and Family Office but a few years later the two were combined to become the Life Marriage and Family Centre," Chris says.

As President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne represented Australia's bishops at the Synod. Along with Chris Meney the other three lay people invited to attend the Synod were Ron and Mavis Pirola, strong advocates of traditional marriage and  Joint Chairs of the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council, and Joan Clements, the Melbourne based long time teacher and now co-director of the World Organisation of the Billings Ovulation Method.