Today’s post is written by a guest blogger: Deacon Ray Dever of St. Paul Catholic Church, Tampa, Florida.
In recent months, a steady stream of documents, talks, and other communications from the Catholic Church have been issued on the topic of the family–all in anticipation of and preparation for the World Meeting of Families that will take place in Philadelphia in September and the subsequent Synod of Bishops on the family to be held in Rome in October. Pope Francis, the Pontifical Council on the Family, and various associated organizations and individuals in the Church have been engaged in an ongoing catechesis and wide-ranging discussion on the family.
Like many of us, I’ve done my best to keep up with and to reflect on these almost daily pronouncements. And as I do so, it’s been difficult to not become disheartened by what seem to be recurring themes that focus on a narrow ideal of the Catholic family, and that ignore or devalue the reality of the diverse, faithful families that comprise the Body of Christ today. And the ongoing discussions and debates about what will and will not be on the meeting agendas, and who will and will not be allowed to participate in the meetings, unfortunately seem out of touch with the lived reality of families today.
As any Catholic clergy or lay minister can tell you, the families that one encounters every day in pastoral ministry in the Church are enormously diverse. The idea that there is some kind of ideal Christian family that comprises the majority of our congregations is quite simply a fiction. And with my own situation as ordained Catholic clergy, married with a transgender daughter and with two other daughters who are strong LGBTQ allies, I would definitely count my own family among that diversity. So as I add my thoughts to these ongoing reflections on the topic of Catholic family, my perspective is both pastoral and deeply personal.
I wonder what people envision when they hear Pope Francis speak about heroic families, as he did in his general audience of June 10, 2015. In that address, Pope Francis lauded the heroism of parents who work during the day to support their families and then continue the work of selflessly caring for their families at night, dealing with sick children and all the other exhausting, daily challenges of family life. It’s easy for most of us to identify with that scenario, as that is the reality of life in any loving, faithful family.
But who exactly does the Church think these heroic families praised by the Pope are? Are they only ideal families headed by a Catholic man and a Catholic woman, whose first and only marriage took place in the Catholic Church? The answer to that question is self-evident to anyone who is part of the faithful families that comprise our congregations. Of course not! Of course there are a wide variety of heroic families in the pews every Sunday, heroic in every sense of the Pope’s words – faithful families headed by the divorced, the remarried, unmarried couples, couples of different faiths, and single parents. And yes, even families like mine with LGBTQ children, and families headed by same-sex couples.
These families certainly aren’t perfect, but it would be useful to remind ourselves that none of the families in the pews are perfect (including the families of deacons). But we should also be mindful of our foundational belief that the members of those families are all created in the image and likeness of God, and that all have an inherent value and dignity as a result. Jesus didn’t spend his time on earth only ministering to perfect Jewish families – he ministered emphatically to everyone. All faithful families deserve a seat at the table if the Church is going to be serious about addressing the reality of family life in the Church today.
Pope Francis has made quite clear his vision of Church as a field hospital, healing the wounds of all the faithful. And he has challenged those who minister in the Church to be like shepherds who smell like their sheep, shepherds whose hands are dirty from dealing with the reality of the messy lives of the faithful. I don’t see how the Church can follow this vision and get to know, evangelize, and minister to the families that comprise its flock, if most of them are left outside the closed doors of the meeting rooms in Philadelphia and Rome.
As I reflect on all this from the context of my own extended family, I can’t help but think of my own father, who passed away in 1965 when I was still in high school. He was a hard-nosed, fun-loving, athletic Irish-American, who was fiercely loyal to his family, the Catholic Church, and his country. He served on an attack transport in the Navy in World War II, in both the Mediterranean and the Pacific, participating in some of the bloodiest island invasions in the war.
I sometimes wonder what he would think of all the changes in society and the Church that have occurred since the 1960s. As foreign as many aspects of life today might have been to him if he could see them, there is one thing that I know for certain. If anyone were to suggest to him that my family had some second-class status in the Church, or was even unwelcome in the Church, because we have a transgender daughter whom we love and support, or if anyone had anything negative to say about his transgender granddaughter, he would have been in their face in a heartbeat.
I know that kind of passion runs deep in the committed, loving families that are doing their best, week in and week out, to follow the faith, and if the Church chooses to exclude or demean them, it does so at its own peril. I pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire the Church to open the doors and to truly have a world meeting of all families.
–Deacon Ray Dever, St. Paul Catholic Church, Tampa, Florida
Previous Bondings 2.0 blog post by Deacon Ray Deaver:
December 28, 2014: “LGBTQ Children in Catholic Families: A Deacon’s View of Holy Family Sunday“