VATICAN CITY — In synod discussions last week, the Baltic Sea nation of Latvia caught the attention of many synod fathers, who were keen to hear why the number of divorces among that Catholic population is so low.

“In Latvia, it is a pity, but we have the highest number of divorces: 86% of marriages are divorced civil marriages. But when our civil mass media started to check how it is in the Church, they discovered that we just have 16%, and they asked why,” Archbishop Zbigņevs Stankevičs of Riga told CNA Oct. 9.

Archbishop Stankevičs explained that such a low number of divorces inside the Church is due in part to “serious preparation for marriage, because we have an obligatory course for persons who want to get married in the Church.”

On the other hand, the archbishop explained that, although there is naturally a greater sense of responsibility among people who seek sacramental marriage, “people who have faith don’t resign when they meet the first difficulties during their married life.”

“For this reason, also, they are fighting for the survival of their family,” he observed.

Other bishops who listened to Archbishop Stankevičs’ report, which he gave to the synod Oct. 8, said they were at first saddened by the study’s initial report of 86% of Latvia’s marriages ending in divorce.

However, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told journalists at an Oct. 8 event in Rome that his ears perked up when the archbishop spoke of the findings in phase two of the study, which revealed the low number of divorces among Catholics in Latvia.

Cardinal Dolan recalled the archbishop’s speech, saying that in it he explained that, after the second set of results were released for this study, Latvia had a “renewed sense from people who never give the Church a nod.”

People who never said much good about the Church or only looked at the matter with a sociological or economic perspective were suddenly telling themselves, “Maybe we ought to look at what they’re doing. They have success here,” the cardinal recounted.

In this context, questions were raised among other synod participants as to what the Church in Latvia is doing to prepare married couples, as well as what specific characteristics the couples bring to their marriages that make so many of them last, while those of many outside of the Church “are crumbling.”

Also present at the event was Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, who said he was also a bit surprised by the high number of lasting marriages in the country.

The numbers are compatible with numerous sociological studies exploring the advantages of being a religious, practicing individual, particularly in the Church.

Despite the various issues that families currently face, including divorce, finances, etc., there are no long faces in the synod hall, Cardinal Pell explained.

“There’s no handwringing; there’s no feeling that we’re beaten or done,” he observed, especially given the resources the Church today has in comparison to past times of great persecution.

“I always think of the ancient Roman Empire, which was immensely more hostile to Christianity than our present situation,” he said. “They had none of the advantages that we have, no great colleges, etc., and they didn’t do too badly.”

Marta Jimenez contributed to this report.