Breaking down diocese’s responses to the latest synod questionnaire

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

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FALL RIVER, Mass. — In October of 2014, the Synod of Bishops entered into the formation of small groups and ended with a concluding document, “Relatio Synodi,” found in its entirety on the Vatican website, and which addresses “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” through three comprehensive parts. 

“At the Extraordinary General Assembly of October 2014, the Bishop of Rome called upon the Synod of Bishops to reflect upon the critical and invaluable reality of the family,” reads the document’s introduction, “a reflection which will then be pursued in greater depth at its Ordinary General Assembly scheduled to take place in October of 2015, as well as during the full year between the two synodal events. ‘The convenire in unum around the Bishop of Rome is already an event of grace, in which episcopal collegiality is made manifest in a path of Spiritual and pastoral discernment.’ These were the words used by Pope Francis in describing the synodal experience and indicating the task at hand: to read the signs of God and human history, in a twofold yet unique faithfulness, which this reading involves.

“With these words in mind, we have gathered together the results of our reflections and our discussions in the following three parts: listening, so as to look at the reality of the family today in all its complexities, both lights and shadows; looking, our gaze is fixed on Christ to ponder, with renewed freshness and enthusiasm, what revelation, transmitted in the Church’s faith, tells us about the beauty, the role and the dignity of the family; and confronting the situation, with an eye on the Lord Jesus, to discern the ways in which the Church and society can renew their commitment to the family founded upon the Marriage between a man and a woman.”

A questionnaire was sent out to dioceses across the globe, with the responses to be addressed at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family’s concluding “relatio.” In February, Claire McManus, director of the Faith Formation Office of the Fall River Diocese, was tasked with promoting the questions and helping make it available for those wanting to participate. 

This was the second time the synod had decided to reach out to the Catholic community in this way — the first was in 2013 — and McManus said she once again found herself taking the heavily-worded questions and breaking them down into more easily digestible pieces of information.

“I didn’t change the wording too much,” she explained. “The wording was difficult but I kept it as close as possible. This time around there were 44 questions and to understand the questions you had to read the document that came out of the first synod. I gave a link to the document, gave a link to the actual questions as they were written, and then gave the summarized questions to be answered through a Google document form to be sent through electronic form and sent back to me.”

There was a slight hiccup in the promotion when the link McManus put forth in The Anchor didn’t work.

“It only worked if you received it electronically and could click on it, so when people tried to type that into their browser it didn’t work,” said McManus. “I got an email from someone accusing me of trying to make it difficult to respond. Some people have this sense of a conspiracy and that no one wants their information, and that’s hardly the case.”

The situation was rectified, and even as people began to respond, they struggled to comprehend what they were reading while trying to answer the questions.

“I had a wonderful email who saw the [original] questions and the edited version and said, ‘I can’t answer these the way they’re written,’” recalled McManus. “I wrote back to her and told her to give me your story that you wanted to say, because something drives people to answer these questions. In that respect, I would say that the people who did respond had a story to tell.”

There were a variety of responses to the questions; some individuals sought change while others did not. There were some that saw the laity and clergy in agreement, though there was a difference in how each group wanted to address the issue.

One of the questions that received the most heartfelt responses was regarding people who have been divorced and remarried, but have not gone through the annulment process and therefore could not receive Communion, “and everybody wanted them to be able to come to Communion,” said McManus. “There was not one person who felt that these people should remain undeserving.”

The different strategies from the laity and the clergy to address a solution came through in the responses, said McManus. “The clergy had a better sense of the annulment process so they were of agreement that we need to speed up the annulment process, don’t let these people wait so long. It’s cruel; it’s rare that someone is denied annulment. 

“A couple of the lay people who had personal experience with this said that the time that they waited to have the Sacrament was a prayerful time — it was almost like Lent — and they knew their annulment was coming and this wasn’t a permanent situation. They actually welcomed the time that they didn’t go to Communion, and when that time came when their annulment went through, they experienced joy returning to the Sacrament. A couple of people responded that way, and I was really moved by that response.”

The questionnaire was broken into three major parts, with part one focused on “Listening: The Context and Challenges of the Family,” so the synod could hear about the challenges families are facing and respond to them.

A question that McManus addressed, listed under the subsection of part one, was “The Importance of Affectivity in Life,” with the question asking, “How do Christian families bear witness for succeeding generations to the development and growth of a life of sentiment?”

“I think what they were saying in the report is that this is a different generation,” said McManus, “that people actually care about their feelings and their feelings need to be developed over time. Some of the questions about Marriage were referring to practices that take place all over the world; for example, arranged marriages. So if you’re a modern person who cares about love, feelings and emotional maturity, then throwing you into an arranged marriage is counter to a more modern way of thinking.”

The second part of the same question provided additional fuel for thought: “How might the formation of ordained ministers be improved?” a spin-off of questions asked during the first synod, addressing priest formation. 

The first synod questions had responses which stated people felt that priests were not being properly formed in the seminaries to understand the way people change over time in a Marriage, and that they themselves are not being given time for their own emotional maturity, explained McManus: “All this came out of that first synod, so this question (the second time around) made sense, but taken out of context it didn’t make sense, so I reworded it so that it got to the nut of what I felt it was asking.”

The second part of the questionnaire, “Looking at Christ: The Gospel of the Family” was purely focused on being theological and catechetical, with the questions centered on how dioceses are presenting the Church’s teaching, and then asking how are dioceses teaching this? Part two saw McManus write in the report what is being done in the Fall River Diocese, what’s being done in various parish programs, and she also incorporated the results in the first synod questions sent out in 2013.

Part three, “Confronting the Situation: Pastoral Perspectives,” was looking for “specific action. The clergy were able to respond to this, and some of the lay people answered and one was the mother a priest,” said McManus.

The question, “How is the family emphasized in the formation of priests and other pastoral workers? How are families themselves involved?” triggered an unexpected response from that mother.

“She said, ‘We weren’t involved at all. In fact, I got the feeling to not be involved,’” said McManus of the woman’s answer. “So I put it into the report. I talked to some people about that response, and they said that part of the formation is to have them be separate from their families; it’s not to keep the families away. I talked to a Sister of Mercy and she said, ‘We were cut off and not to connect with the family; that was part of our formation.’ I surmise it’s basically for them to build a reliance on Christ and not the family. 

“Maybe that [approach] is not giving them enough of an interaction with family. It depends on which seminary they went to. One of the priests who trained in Rome said he was sent out into the parishes to work with families, so he felt they did have a lot of interaction. That’s what’s wonderful about sending [the questions] out there, you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

The answers to the questions about Marriage ministry programs will also act as a guide for McManus and her office to help address their Marriage programs: “Getting the responses that I did, told me a lot about what we need to do better,” said McManus. “When you say Marriage prep, you think about that one-day Marriage preparation program that we have, so what was coming out of the response is the couples are not given enough preparation and so my visceral reaction is we’re not doing enough.

“Then you realize that Marriage preparation should not be a one-day process, it should really be a part of the life of the parish. A lot of the questions asked that, asking how people in the parish are utilized to help form these couples? There were a lot of good ideas that came out [of the responses], including there be mentoring.” 

Because there are beautiful destinations for Marriage within the diocese, said McManus, many couples prefer that the Marriage preparation take place in a parish that is close to where they want the wedding to be held as opposed to the parish that they will call home. 

“It’s not going to be where they’re going live and to raise families so there’s a disconnect, and they don’t feel connected to parish life,” said McManus. “The guys down at the Cape do a wonderful job; some of our parishes there do 40 weddings a year, and they do all the prep and focus, meet with the couple. They’re doing a lot of work for couples who may not be part of the life of the parish, and some feel it’s pointless. I think that’s an area we can work on, that maybe the responsibility of formation stays within the couple’s parish even if they go to a destination. [The couple] can make their formation about the Marriage, not the wedding.”

McManus said she did not cherry pick the best responses and gloss over other answers; “In the report, [the people] should know that when there was a divergent response, that went into the report as well,” she said. “I didn’t pick the responses that fit the agenda, I said very specifically that the majority of people felt this way but I also said that people felt like this and this.”

She added, “People need to know that their response went into the report.”

Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., has already seen the final report for the Fall River Diocese, and now it will head out to the USCCB, where they will put together a report that will be sent to the Synod Fathers, who will read those reports and address the responses this coming fall.

Even though the deadline has passed for answers being part of the report sent to the Vatican, McManus encourages people to respond “because it will inform us when we sit down with the bishop, we can say that a lot of people felt the same way about this issue.”

For clergy, the link is: and for laity, the link is

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