China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2015/Oct

What do families need?

The wisecracking American baseball player and coach, Yogi Berra, once said: “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

This October, the world’s bishops, together with experts and 18 married couples, 17 individual auditors (among them 13 women) as well as fraternal delegates from other Churches gathered at the Vatican for the Synod on Family Life. This is part two of the assembly that first met in 2014 – to do three things:

.Listen to the challenges to the family

.Discern the vocation of the family

.Send into the world (or mission) the family of today

Why does a meeting of bishops matter to us? It matters because 99.99 per cent of the Church is made up of people who have, or live in a family.

And today’s families face daunting challenges, whether they live in cities or villages, whether they are rich or poor, whether they are migrants in search of work and security, or people fleeing wars, or stuck with no place to go.

In some places, owing to demographic trends, government policies or socio-economic environment, people struggle for the means to form a family, provide for their young, or care for their elderly ones.

And then what are the vital elements of a marriage? Is it to love and to care? What is being done to nurture love amidst many demands and distractions? And who is doing the nurturing?

The Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness, for when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words (Romans 8:26).

That is why together with the Holy Spirit we are at the heart of the Synod on Family Life. We pray that participants who hold in trust the hopes, dreams and cares of families from many lands speak freely and truthfully.

Pope Francis exhorted his brother bishops to ask the Holy Spirit to draw shepherds who are “capable of standing in the midst of the flock,” who are “watchful, not someone who is afraid of questions, contact, accompaniment.”

May we have pastors who remain “vigilant by helping people to lift their gaze at times of discouragement, frustration and failure.”

Family snapshots on the mainland

A congregation of sisters known for their stellar work caring for children with disabilities has expanded their ministry to care for the marital relations of the parents.

Because of the stigma traditionally associated with having children with disabilities, some families choose to give away or abandon these children. Those who opt to care for them do so with little support. The physical and psychological hardship they face can be a big strain on domestic relations.

The sisters provide workshops where couples can have time to themselves (a break from their harried roles as parents and caregivers) and affirm Catholic and non-Catholic families alike in their courageous decision to choose life.

At these retreats many couples learn for the first time practical skills of communicating and how to show tenderness to each other.

Marriage Encounter and Cana are some initiatives that help families renew the grace of the sacrament of marriage.

One couple, both professionals, shared about their family’s conversion. In one exercise, husband and wife each drew a graph of their life-experience, plotting the high points and the low. They were amazed when they compared the graphs. The highs and lows in their life together did not always match. Sometimes they were worlds apart. But where the family was in sync, there was great joy.

The Church in China, with support from Catholic families overseas, is slowly introducing family ministries in diocesan formation. Priests and religious who walk alongside couples also deepen their own vocation of love.

The odds against

The divorce rate is about 30 per cent nationally. The rate is higher in urban areas (Beijing 39 per cent, Shanghai 38 per cent, Shenzhen 36.25 per cent, Guangzhou 35 per cent). Divorce is rarer in rural areas (12 per cent). However, with many couples living apart, often as one spouse seeks higher-paying work in cities, rural families are also impacted on.

Catholics are not immune. Pastoral workers cite factors such as immaturity, ignorance about the sacredness of marriage, the lack of or inadequate pre-marital formation, Internet distractions and extra-marital relationships.

China’s government imposed the one-child policy in 1980 through enforced abortions and sterilisations.

Young people, when asked if they wanted siblings, typically answer: “I don’t want to have siblings because if I had a brother or a sister I would have to share. It would be difficult to get a good education” or “I want to have a brother or a sister because being a single child is so lonely. I want to have someone to play with and grow up with.”

Narcissism and a deep loneliness seem to pervade younger generations. Perhaps they are at the root of other social problems.

Fewer births mean an ageing society, fewer young workers and a slower economy. Some estimate that in 10 to 15 years the government will run out of money to pay for pensions and healthcare for seniors.

The government recently relaxed the population policy, allowing a second child if both parents are a single-child. So far not too many couples have taken up the offer.

The Church and the family do not have the power to change government dictates. But Christ’s followers have the power to heal the sick, wash the unclean and restore life.

Scripture also teaches us that the redemption of a people can begin with a homemade basket and the life-giving gestures of three women (Exodus 2).

In Hong Kong

Because of One Country, Two Systems, China’s one-child policy was not imposed in Hong Kong after reunification. Yet the fertility rate here (1.17 births per woman) is lower than in China (1.7 births per woman).

Economic pressures, long working hours, small living spaces and late marriages are some of the factors eroding healthy families.

.The number of working poor households surged 10.6 per cent compared with five years ago (Oxfam Hong Kong 2015 report)

.One in four children and one in three elderly people in Hong Kong live in poverty (Legco Subcommittee on Poverty 2014)

.Hong Kong’s top 10 per cent own 77.5 percent of the total wealth; income inequality is the highest in developed economies (Credit Suisse 2014 Global Wealth)

.Median household income rose 24 times from 1971 to 1996, an annual increase of 13 per cent. The 2014 figure of $23,300, adjusted for inflation, shows no increase since 1997.

.Average home price per square foot is over $10,000; monthly rent for a subdivided flat of under 6.96 square metres can reach $3,500.

Many Christian families are giving heroic witness to the gospel in an environment that one researcher describes as not family-friendly.

In providing social services to the poor – the Church excels as a servant leader. Can the Church assume a more prophetic role – advocate and help to bring about policies that are more family-friendly?

Last February, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong circulated a questionnaire prepared by the Vatican for global consultation.

How many did or could answer the 46 rather opaque questions? Edinburgh created Giving Our Families a Voice – 26 questions in everyday language – that set an example of humbly speaking and listening. Maybe we can borrow a page?

.What is being done to help families cope in the midst of great social changes? What more could be done, especially in helping them to understand those changes?

.What is being done to ensure that governments support marriage and the family in every way possible? What more could be done?

.What is being done to help families in trouble? How might troubles be prevented? How effectively is pastoral care being offered to families “on the periphery”?

.What needs to be done to equip ordained ministers and others to work effectively in the area of marriage and the family?

.Does the encounter with Christ shape pastoral care in the area of marriage and the family? How well is scripture used in the pastoral care of couples and families?

.What values are in fact most important in the area of marriage and the family in the eyes of young people and married couples? What counter-values are evident?

.How can the family be helped to become the domestic Church with a missionary vocation? How can we help develop a family spirituality?

.Do we need to shape a new language in the area of marriage and the family? If so, how?

.How effective is the marriage preparation that is being offered? How might it be more effective?

.Do we need to do more to support couples in the early years of married life? If so, what?

.What are the challenges of mixed marriages and interreligious marriages? How can we meet them more effectively?

.How can we respond compassionately to people in irregular unions while remaining faithful to the teaching of Christ and the Church?

.Does the process of declaring nullity need to be simpler, less difficult and less costly?

.How can we respond better to people of same-sex attraction and their families?

.What more can be done to promote a sense of parenthood as divine vocation? What more can be done to help parents in their educational mission, especially in transmitting the faith to their children?

.How can we encourage adoption and foster parenting as signs of fruitful generosity?

.What more can we do to prevent abortion and foster a genuine culture of life?

.How can we help all people see that no one is beyond God’s mercy? 

Pope Francis reminds us to deepen the covenant between the Church and the family. A covenant is not a code of laws, nor a suite of programmes.

Rather, it is a commitment to love and to help each other keep faith – as a missionary Church and a missionary people.

As the synod session ends and the Church and family get down to work, what good news does the Church proclaim to families? What good news do we proclaim to the world?