Faithfully Listening to the Assembly of the Faithful

It’s been one of those “be careful what you pray for” weeks for me.

Last March, just before the opening of the most recent papal conclave, I shared a few thoughts about what a “Lutheran-Elector” might look for in a new pope. The great task of the new pope, I wrote, will be community building, and the key pastoral and theological gift I see as most necessary for the new pope to possess is “the ability to carry on a conversation”:

Good conversations are acts of community building, as each participant views the others as gifts from God. Good conversations require that we both listen with openness to the thoughts of others and also plumb the depths of ourselves to offer our thoughts, our prayers, and our insights in return. Great conversations change all who take part in them, healing our brokenness and giving us renewed hope for whatever lies ahead. On the other hand, poor conversations not only leave us in our brokenness, but can add to the pains.

What the Roman Catholic church needs — what the whole Christian church needs — is a pope who loves being part of great conversations.

I think I got what I asked for.

On October 18th, Francis had a document sent to the bishops, asking them to help him listen to the church. Said Monsignor Ronny Jenkins, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, in his letter communicating this to Cardinal Dolan,

The synodal reality is manifested with the most effective participation of the world episcopate under the governance of the Holy Father, who wishes to strengthen it for a better exercise of collegiality.

After the recent meeting of the Ordinary Council of the Synod, the Holy Father, who presided over it, decided to convene an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops next year, from 5 to 19 October, on the theme: Pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.

During this meeting, the Members of the Council drafted the Preparatory Document, which you will find enclosed.

I would be most grateful if Your Eminence would distribute the Document to the Dioceses, and ask them to share it immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received regarding the themes and responses to the questionnaire, as well as any helpful statistics, for the preparation of the Instrumentum laboris.”

Despite what some have said, this is not a poll. It is a questionnaire that asks for data, but does not seek to measure how many people agree or disagree with various documents or positions of the church. It does not put these matters to a vote, and may the highest number of responses prevail. Instead, the document asks for descriptions of life in the parishes and dioceses around the world. It asks the church to reflect on how it goes about proclaiming good news.

As part of the PrayTell community, I was struck in reading through it how much the document connects with the liturgical and sacramental life of the church, as in the questions below:

2: Marriage according to the Natural Law

d. In cases where non-practicing Catholics or declared non-believers request the celebration of marriage, describe how this pastoral challenge is dealt with.

4: Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations

a. Is cohabitation ad experimentum a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage?

b. Do unions which are not recognized either religiously or civilly exist? Are reliable statistics available?

c. Are separated couples and those divorced and remarried a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage? How do you deal with this situation in appropriate pastoral programmes?

e. What questions do divorced and remarried people pose to the Church concerning the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation? Among those persons who find themselves in these situations, how many ask for these sacraments?

g. . . . How is God’s mercy proclaimed to separated couples and those divorced and remarried and how does the Church put into practice her support for them in their journey of faith?

5: On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex

c. What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of unions?

d. In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?

6: The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages

b. How do parents in these situation approach the Church? What do they ask? Do they request the sacraments only, or do they also want catechesis and general teaching of religion?

d. What is the sacramental practice in these cases: preparation, administration of the sacrament and the accompaniment?

7. The Openness of the Married Couple to Life

d. What is your experience on this subject [the teachings of Humanae Vitae on responsible parenthood] in the practice of the Sacrament of Penance and participation at the Eucharist?

The manner in which these questions are posed is critical. They are inviting conversation, not trying to check on the faithfulness of the bishop, pastors, or laypeople to see which dioceses measure up to some standard and which do not.

And these are questions of liturgy: How does the Church proclaim grace? How does the Church administer the Sacraments? When it comes to Baptism, the Eucharist, weddings, and funerals, how does the Church deal with the multiplicity of family configurations in its midst? How do these families deal with the Church? How does the community gather — in all its diversity, with all its warts and blemishes — around the promises of God? How does the Church, and in particular its leaders, deal with the presence of disagreement within the community?

I am not a Roman Catholic, let alone a Catholic bishop, but these are my questions as well, and I am glad to see them raised by Pope Francis in so pastoral a fashion. As a Lutheran, I have had conversations like these with Roman Catholics, but most often it is with Catholic lay people who come to me for spiritual care, when their local priest cannot or will not engage them on the questions that they wrestle with. For far too many of them, what they tell me they get is “Here’s the rule — take it or leave it.” That’s an edict, not engagement. It’s the end of a conversation, not the beginning.

At the very end of that post from last March, I wrote “For the sake of us all, I pray for a pope who loves great and holy conversations.” At the time, I prayed those words for the College of Cardinals, that they would elect a pope like that. Today, I pray those same words for Francis, that he would have the strength and wisdom to carry these great and holy conversations forward.

For the sake of us all, I invite your conversation here.


  1. Actually I found two different questions not included above as the most interesting liturgically.

    3. The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelization

    a) What experiences have emerged in recent decades regarding marriage preparation? What efforts are there to stimulate the task of evangelization of the couple and of the family? How can an awareness of the family as the “domestic Church” be promoted?

    b) How successful have you been in proposing a manner of praying within the family which can withstand life’s complexities and today’s culture?

    I think we need to take liturgy beyond the church door and into homes and family gatherings in the following ways:

    a) a Divine Office that is suitable to families

    b) revive the ancient practice of an agape or ritual meal that would go from simple forms like our present meal prayers to more complex celebrations

    c) blessings and prayers for a wide variety of family occasions (I know there is a book of blessings which I suspect few laity know or use, I have a copy which I have never used).

    All of these should be put together in a liturgical book for the “domestic church”that would 1) emphasize these liturgical prayers as belonging to the laity, 2) be constructed ecumenically so that they can be used with other Christians especially of the liturgical churches, 3) and encourage creativity within broad formats.

    About 60% percent of Americans pray daily buy only about 30% go to church weekly. Liturgical churches are losing a great opportunity by not creating a liturgical book for the family. A lot of the family traditions were ethnic , but today ethnic and denominational families are declining.

    Failing to foster liturgical prayer in families and defining “church going” but not daily and family prayer as being religious invites people to become “spiritual but not religious” and to respond “None” when they are asked their religion. I suspect these two groups of people will become the majority of Americans in the not too distant future giving the increasing tendency to define religious in terms of church attendance.

    I would see this book as mainly an American book that addresses our American cultural situation.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #1:
      I share your thoughts in general on this, but didn’t include these two questions in my post because I was thinking of parish liturgical life rather than family-centered liturgical practices. Both are necessary, of course, but I was more focused on the parish because of the general leanings of this website toward discussions of the worship practices of communities (i.e., parishes, dioceses, and grand papal celebrations).

      But to take your comment/ideas a step farther . . . what if we reframe the last question of 3a a bit: “How can the communal worship of the parish promote an awareness of the family as the “domestic Church”?”

      1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #6: some data for the discussion

        Church Attendance and Daily Prayer

        From the General Social Survey (1972 –Present)


        Over the last four decades Americans who FREQUENTLY (2 x a month or more) attended religious services steadily decreased from slightly less than 50 percent to slightly less than 40 percent.

        At the same time period Americans who RARELY (once a year of less) attended religious services increased from slightly less than 20 percent to slightly less than 30 percent. Most of that increase occurred after 1990.


        Unlike FREQUENT Church attendance DAILY Personal Prayer has stayed between 50 and 60 percent of Americans for the last four decades.

        The percentage of American’s who NEVER pray has risen to about 10 percent since the year 2000 from a baseline close to zero. This may be related to increases in the percentage of people who RARELY attend religious services, and the percentage of people who say they have NONE when asked their religious affiliation.

        The rise in NEVER praying has entirely been due to a decline of at least 10 percent of Americans who SOMETIMES pray. In fact since about 1990 the SOMETIMES prayers seem to have lost members both to the people who pray DAILY as well as to those who NEVER pray.

        We make a great mistake in defining “religiosity” in terms of CHURCH ATTENDANCE, especially if we limit “good” church attendance to those who go every week or almost every week since that has been steadily declining in contrast to DAILY PRAYER which has remained constant

        It is far wiser to adopt an INTEGRATED definition of religiosity which has a social dimension (CHURCH ATTENDANCE of a least 2 or 3 times a month) and a personal dimension (DAILY PRAYER).

        Liturgical churches have a disadvantage in the social dimension since the liturgical year promotes lesser CHURCH ATTENDANCE that averages out closer to 2 or 3 times a month. However the liturgical churches may have an advantage in the personal dimension if they begin to promote domestic and personal forms of liturgical prayer.

        As a sociologist I think PERSONAL PRAYER rather than CHURCH ATTENDANCE is the main battle ground of evangelization. If PERSONAL PRAYER is biblical and/or liturgical the USA will remain Christian, if it is not, then we will become “Spiritual but not Religious” as PERSONAL PRAYER becomes breathing exercises and mindfulness. “Mindfulness” is being given a solid scientific basis and will become a solid competitor for traditional prayer in the next several decades as we expand the notion of keeping in shape to mental as well as physical activity.

        Liturgists should adopt the INTEGRATED definition of religiosity and promote domestic liturgy as indicated above in comment#!. Liturgists should stop standing at the church door with the key in their pocket telling people they are only religious if they come to church, rather they should be welcoming “if you pray daily, come worship with us this weekend.”

      2. @Jack Rakosky – comment #10:
        Let’s turn your data around for a moment.

        What does it say about “being church together” that personal prayer has remained constant while corporate expressions of faith (gathering with others for worship, for instance) has declined? This looks like what one might see from those who disagree with something promoted by the church [pick your issue] or actions taken (or not) by those in authority that they disapprove of [the handling of clerical child abuser by bishops, for example]. The result is that people have absented themselves from worship more often, even while retaining in some fashion their personal prayer life.

        One thing I don’t understand from your comment, though, is this: “Liturgical churches have a disadvantage in the social dimension since the liturgical year promotes lesser CHURCH ATTENDANCE that averages out closer to 2 or 3 times a month.” I’m not sure I follow you here. How does the liturgical year depress attendance? Are you saying that without a liturgical year, every Sunday feels as important as every other Sunday, so people attend more often?

      3. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #11:
        “being church together”

        My sociological word for church is network. I am Catholic because I grew up in and maintain Catholic networks which were and are first of all family and friend networks and only secondarily parish, diocesan and international networks. Reminder: American Grace says that family, friends and small group networks are essential for the benefits of parish life and worship.

        My early personal prayer traditions were family traditions. My mother prayed every night before going to bed, and taught me my bed time prayers (e.g. the Lord’s Prayer). My mother’s family did not have a tradition of grace at meals, but my dad’s family did have that tradition. My mother prayed the rosary and taught me how to pray it. As a preteen, before my discovery of the Divine Office, I prayed the rosary at several family funerals (largely to have something to do).

        Of course people sometimes discover prayers on their own as I did with the Divine Office by purchasing the Short Breviary in a religious good store.

        I suspect the vast majority of people develop their prayer life through their family, some may discover prayer traditions through friends or reading. Few likely take up prayer as a reaction against religion although some may be attracted to prayers from other religious traditions as an expression of their dissatisfaction with their own tradition.

        My advocacy of family liturgical prayer is to take up the slack from declining family and ethnic prayer traditions and to counter the many spirituality “prayer” products that are now becoming available.

        Incidentally some of these prayer products are group as well as personal. The Little Bible Study sold by Liturgical Press includes “Conversational Prayer” for small groups. In interviewing people for parish Bible study I found some of those who liked this form of prayer (as being more personal and spontaneous) used it in their families with their spouse and/or children.

        There are two problems with “popular” prayers. The old fashioned type like the rosary tend to be limited to denominations and are not easily adapted to mixed marriages and mixed extended families. Well done ecumenical liturgical prayers could take care of that problem. The new fashioned popular prayers, e.g. “conversational prayer” have so little intrinsic biblical or liturgical content that they could easy become just another form of talk therapy.

        Of course talk therapy has migrated in recent years to faith sharing groups such as RENEW. In our parish I offered a RENEW for music lovers group supplementing the materials with my collection of liturgical music. The people who signed up for it were music lovers who also did not like the “talk therapy” aspect of RENEW. One was a retired social worker who did not want to get back into the business! These people who were not eager to share their personal problems were delighted to discuss their deep religious and emotional experiences to liturgical music! BTW one of the major criticisms of RENEW in both national and local research has been its lack of content and tendency to become simply process. I prefer Bible Study and liturgical music because they put the content back into the process.

      4. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #11:
        Catholicism promotes two wide extremes:
        – the minimal engagement required for continuing membership (and getting married or buried) is once a year
        – an obligatory attendance 55 to 60 times a year

        There are opportunities in large Ash Wednesday crowds that keep surprising us and that we don’t examine carefully. People are willing to make meaningful commitments and be drawn more deeply into faith. They will attend church on a day they are not required to attend. And yet they miss Mass Sunday after Sunday.

        Perhaps it is time to jettison “obligation” from public use. Especially if it is so meaningless.

        Huge thumbs up to Jack’s suggestion for a Family Office. I sense he’s right that the key point of engagement is prayer outside of church. There’s a lot worth thinking about on that.

    2. @Jack Rakosky – comment #1:

      Jack, have you seen the book ‘Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers” which is published by the USCCB? It is more oriented toward family events and circumstances than the Book of Blessings. I have one at home as well as in my office, and have found it useful both places. It doesn’t include the Divine Office, but it does have prayers that are adaptable and flexible.

      1. @Terri Miyamoto – comment #14:

        Yes, I am pretty sure that I have a copy and it is likely downstairs in my basement library with the Book of Blessings because I have not used either. Neither were the easy to regularly use books that I would like, and both seemed more adjuncts to clerical or pastoral staff use than the user friendly book that I could use and recommend to people who participate in small groups.

        Ideally a domestic liturgical prayer book would be developed from the ground up by seeing what works probably through a user friendly website similar to and a network of participating parishes, associations, groups and families that could give feedback and make suggestions.

        Hopefully the website would become a permanent tool making things available for download both from a large permanent collection as well as constantly evolving experimental collection. The approved book which I would hope would also be revised every five or ten years would contain mainly the essentials, be easy to use, and beautifully done, something to set on one’s bookshelf next to the Bible, and a Missal.

  2. Thanks, Peter……our parish adult education committee is thinking about using this survey and questions in one of our monthly presentations. You frame this well – especially your *conversation* or *with Francis – encounter* and your emphasis that this provides data, experiences, etc. (rather than a vote or survey that results in a vote). Finally, your framing this with a liturgical context is a good insight. Will use this in our committee – might be an excellent way to invite, introduce, and get folks to share their thoughts.

  3. I have not had a chance to read the questions previously so thank you Peter for presenting them here. They are quite fair and do indeed probe and stimulate a conversation. Honestly, I am relieved that they are not, as Peter says, checking on faithfulness or more importantly, asking whether you think things need to be changed? I was concerned about some sites rallying their minions to “stuff the ballot box”.
    When I lived in Chicago the old saying on election day was “vote early and vote often”!

    1. @Dale Rodrigue – comment #3:
      Oh, I think they are definitely opening the door to responses that suggest changes.

      Looking at question 7c, for instance, I would imagine that an honest response from any US bishop would be that a very high percentage of Roman Catholics have at some point practiced (and a lesser but still sizable majority continue to practice) birth control in forms that are prohibited under Humanae Vitae, and many of these same Catholics present themselves for the Eucharist as well. (A 2011 survey puts the figure of RC women who are using ordinary birth control at 68%, with only 2% using natural family planning methods.)

      Those facts would point to the need for something to change, because the practice of the faithful and the pronouncements of the bishops are clearly in conflict, and I suspect that some of those who offer their responses will be quite clear in what they believe needs to be changed, from “I’ve read HV and have believed for almost fifty years that it is wrong and needs to be changed like this . . . ” to “I believe HV is right and we need to change the way we talk about it so that more people follow it.”

      Entering a conversation — either as the one who initiates it or the one who engages with that one — demands that one be open to being changed, because an honest conversation changes everyone who takes part in it.

      1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #4:
        Peter agreed, but I was concerned that the questions would ask “if” change is needed rather than data collection questions. I can see some responding, no nothing needs to be changed, or, enforcement is needed or a much smaller more faithful “remnant” Church is needed…

  4. Great conversations can always benefit from good information. Here’s some of the latest from the Census Bureau about the nation as a whole:

    2012 American Community Survey
    US Households 115,970,000
    Unmarried partners
    Male-Female 6,262,000
    Same Sex 696,000

    Women Age 15-50
    Living w/ Unmarried Partner 5,315,000
    Baby in past 12 months
    Yes, had baby 415,000
    Did not have baby 4,900,000

    1. @Jeff Rexhausen – comment #5:
      The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate also does some good, RC-specific research. In Unmentionables?: Faith and Sex, Principle and Practice” CARA puts forward the kind of good data-driven discussion that this questionnaire might be looking for.

      At the top, they open the discussion with this:

      Other than “lust” (“disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure”), all sins related to sex outlined by the Catholic Church involve actions rather than matters of the mind alone. Survey data indicate that Catholics of all orientations are often challenged by the Church’s teachings on these matters. For example, the Church instructs that sex should only be something that a husband and wife share, while being open to the children that may result from this. Consensual sex between adults under any other circumstances is considered a sin for those involved. This remarkably simple teaching exists in a complex social world. As a standard, it is something that many Catholics fail to live up to (some later address this through the Sacrament of Reconciliation). The media likes to portray the Church as only a place of judgment in these matters, often ignoring its extraordinary capacity to forgive and welcome as well.

      At the end, after working through the data they’ve collected, they write this:

      The Church is not going to change its teachings to condone sex outside of marriage (…no matter what any American polling finds or how many times a jounralist scolds it for being “out of touch”). But the Church may choose to more intentionally emphasize that judgment is not all it has to offer to those who struggle to live up to the Church’s principles at all times in their life. Forgiveness and compassion are other hallmarks of the faith.

      In between is some very good data-driven discussions of beliefs and practices.

  5. Making the home and whoever lives there a center of prayer and devotion is essential and I think what has been lost in the decline of active church attendance and ambivalence toward institutional religion or fragmenting church to a Sunday only experience and more in terms of consumerism.
    In my experience, the ones who have maintained the “domestic Church” or rediscovered it are two groups, the charismatic covenant communities (or the new movements in general) that need to be lay associations and those who homeschool. Others certainly do, but these two groups seem to be very intentional about it. While they may not pray the Liturgy of the Hours, although they may, they have an abundance of popular devotions, such as the Holy Rosary and newer ways of praying either alone or in community, such as the charismatic experiences and the charisms they believe the Holy Spirit gives them. As far as charismatics go, they tend, like most evangelical Christians, to be very conservative and traditional in Church doctrine and discipline as well as their secular politics imbued with their Christian beliefs. In this sense they do what Vatican II calls the laity which is the call to holiness and making their Catholic lives an ethos in the world. They would be more freewheeling in terms of liturgy and the horizontal but appreciate traditional methods of prayer and liturgy too. It seems to me that traditional “ghetto”(in the positive sense) Catholicism of the pre-Vatican II era in this country, especially in Catholic enclaves where parishes were actually neighborhoods and small in geography, that the same thing was accomplished and the home life of Catholics was reinforced by prayer and religious discipline, especially fasting and abstinence as a community experience, but also popular devotions done at home or church.

  6. Agreed with Jack. The Book of Blessings is a nice resource. But families on the fringe of a prayer life aren’t likely to use a dictionary-sized book.

    I’m not sure a book would be the ideal format, at least not exclusively.

    That domestic prayer book could be developed as a smart phone or pad application, which is really the simplest, easiest way to navigate the Office, especially for a newbie. But what I think would be best would be a regular one-week cycle with minimal intrusions. One challenge is that the tradition of daily prayer is too rich for a small community to begin it from scratch. To note: the students in my parish organized Night Prayer for the end of Holy Thursday adoration. They used regular Thursday Compline. I think they’re totally unaware of much beyond the four week cycle of Shorter Christian Prayer.

  7. This comment of mine appears as a letter in this week’s Tablet

    Urgent questions TABLET 09.11

    That a request for worldwide views on family matters has come from Rome is indeed to be welcomed, but it comes with a health warning. We must ask who designed this text, what advice was sought from professional survey groups, expert in the construction of such surveys, and further, was the opinion of married couples taken into account in this formative stage or is this just the result of clerical consideration in the Vatican?

    Many of the questions are convoluted and unfocused, with nests of questions under one heading. How the responses will be analysed is a whole new area of concern, given that there is a very short period of time between now and the meeting of the synod. In its present format, it allows scope for selective views to be considered.

    Yet we are caught between a rock and a hard place. If there is little response, the offer might not come again. We cannot afford to ignore it. The issues raised are too important.

    Please, can someone put a degree of rationality into the 42 pages that havebeen offered and enable a family-based, life-experience comment to be made that is both meaningful and valid?

    Chris McDonnell

    Little Haywood, Staffordshire UK

  8. Jana Riess, a Mormon, reviews a new book Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Through the Generations over at RNS

    The key quotes:

    The good news is that despite all the cultural hand-wringing about “the decline of the family” and “the erosion of parental influence,” statistical evidence suggests that parental guidance remains the strongest single factor in determining the religious lives of their adult children. In fact, kids are still more likely to stay in the religion of their parents than they are to leave it.

    4) Be explicit and intentional about modeling your faith for your kids. This is not going to come as a surprise to most Mormon families, who hear all the time about the importance of family prayer, family Scripture study, Family Home Evening, etc. But such efforts appear to be working, because Mormons, evangelical Christians, and Jews had the highest rates of successful religious transmission among any faith traditions in Bengtson’s study.

    Whether the whole family is sitting down to watch a General Conference broadcast or a Passover Seder, the important thing is that they do it consistently and all together. It’s the families that “outsource” religious instruction and rarely engage in intergenerational religious activities that have the least chance of passing on the faith.

    So we all need to take a step back from all those programs and all those ideas from the church experts, and begin talking to the families in our parishes about their family experiences first and their institutional experiences second.

    Take the focus off the religious programs in your parish because this research suggests that are not the most important thing. Tell them research suggest that families are still most important transmitters of religion.

    I always ask three simple questions about any topic:

    First, from their own experience growing up, and from their experience with their children and perhaps even grandchildren, where and how do they see religion being passed down in and by the family

    Second, from their experience where and how do they see religion failing to be passed down in and by the famliy.

    Third, what do they think that families should do differently?

    If I were facilitating the above discussions, I would try to keep the discussion family focused rather than church institution focused whether it be praise or blame. However after I had finished all the above I would come back to each of the data sets and ask how they saw the institutional church being a help or a hindrance to the family or what the institutional church should do differently to assist families.

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