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Abbot Peter NovokoskyAn enriching synod

In Canada, talk on coffee row this past month was likely dominated by the recent federal election, with the defeat of Stephen Harper and the election of Justin Trudeau.

However, among church groups, talk on coffee row was likely to centre on the synod of bishops on the family, which concluded in Rome on Oct. 24.

Likely both types of conversation centred on hopeful signs for the future, new possibilities, new attitudes, new policies.

In Rome, the final report was passed with full consensus. Only one of the 94 paragraphs came close to not passing — the one dealing with divorced and remarried Catholics. It received only one vote more than the two-thirds required.

Some media view the synod as a battleground for winners and losers. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, called the report “an embarrassing defeat” because it did not specifically authorize the pope to approve communion for the remarried and for his “liberalizing agenda.”

Pope Francis has repeatedly said this was not the focus of the synod. It was a synod on the family. True, many members of the Catholic family are involved in broken marriages. The pope is well aware of the pain many families live with every day. He is asking for a change in how the church responds.

In his closing remarks at the synod, Pope Francis called on the church to practice mercy toward struggling and broken families. In strong language, he told the bishops to avoid using church doctrine as “stones to be hurled at others.”

In a related development, two of the 13 language groups contained apologies: one for ways in which a lack of pastoral care may have contributed to the breakdown of marriages and one for "harsh and merciless" attitudes toward unwed mothers and their children, the divorced and homosexuals.

In his speech, Pope Francis outlined his approach: “The church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord.”

The synod, he said, was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the problems and uncertainties facing families today, but studying them carefully and fearlessly “without burying our heads in the sand.” He again reaffirmed the church's teaching of marriage as a permanent union between a man and a woman, calling the family the "fundamental basis of society and human life."

Referring to the lively discussion and disagreements among synod members, the pope said it showed “the vitality of the Catholic Church, which is not afraid to stir dulled consciences or to soil her hands with lively and frank discussions about the family."

In a reference to those who fear he is changing doctrine, the pope said the true defenders of doctrine "are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness.”

The report has been accepted. We look forward to the details the pope will spell out in a followup document. No doubt, it will feature signs of hope.