Jeff and Alice Heinzen are just days away from heading to Rome, as one of 14 married couples from across the world — and the only American couple attending — who were invited to participate as auditors during the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops gathering Oct. 5-19 to discuss “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”
Jeff, president of the McDonell Area Catholic Schools in Chippewa Falls, Wis., and his wife of 34 years, Alice, director of the Office for Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., offered the Register their thoughts about participating in the synod, as well as what they believe to be some of the pastoral challenges of the family in the United States and around the world. They will blog during the synod at their diocesan website, DIOLC.org/synod.
Describe how you received your invitation to the synod and your reaction upon being asked to participate as lay auditors.
Alice: The invitations came in two separate envelopes. I received mine first, on a Friday. After reading its contents, I was both confused and surprised. I called Bishop William Patrick Callahan, who already knew that the possibility existed for the Heinzens to attend the synod. He was delighted with the news and asked if Jeff also received a letter. I shared that he had not. Fortunately, on Monday, Jeff’s letter also arrived, confirming that both of us would be traveling to Rome.
What will your participation consist of during the synod, both as lay auditors and as presenters? What will you speak about in your address to the entire assembly?
Jeff: Our official role is as auditors. Our input will be offered in small language [based] groups or in the plenary sessions. We have been asked to present our witness to Chapters 1 and 2 of Part I of the working document; our comments will address the pastoral programs for the family and the pastoral challenges that families face. In our comments, we will provide personal and professional experiences that are pertinent to the proceedings.
Pope Francis desires for the extraordinary synod to unpack “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” During your years of working in marriage-and-family ministry, and after reviewing the working document for the synod, what have you found to be some of those challenges that are especially present in the United States?
Alice: We recently conducted a review of our remote, proximate, immediate and the “after care” of marriage programming in our diocese. From that review, numerous challenges surfaced —many of which are also found in the working document for the synod. These challenges include the inability of many Catholics to explain or defend the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and family life, a growing number of Catholics who have lost sight of marriage as the natural foundation for the family, an increasing acceptance of self-admiration, which makes it very difficult to portray authentic love as something more than sentimentality, and a general lack of confidence amongst parents to be the primary educators for their children in matters of love and life.
What are you most excited about heading into the synod? What are you most apprehensive about?
Jeff: The most exciting element is the reality that we will be meeting Pope Francis. We have seen only one other pope, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and can hardly wait to actually meet our current Vicar of Christ. The most apprehensive concerns are being present in the room with so many leaders of the Catholic Church and the humility that prevails upon us as representatives of the United States and the universal Church. We continuously pray and ask all who we come in contact with to pray that we be filled with the Holy Spirit at the synod, allowing him to work through us for the good of the Church. On a personal note, we are also concerned about being away from our family for such a long time.
Why do you think a synod on the family is particularly important in our present time and culture?
Alice: Pope St. John Paul II gave us a beautiful quote in Familiaris Consortio over 30 years ago. In Paragraph 86, he said, “The future of humanity passes by way of the family.” This is as true today as it was then. Few people would dispute the fact that families across the globe are struggling. The issues range from extreme poverty to excessive consumerism; from isolationism to information overload; from disrespect for women to New Age feminism. One must commend the Catholic Church for orchestrating this worldwide study of the state of the family and for committing so much time and effort to the development of practical strategies that will renew God’s plan for marriage and family life on earth.
How can laypeople here in the U.S. support you, the other auditors and experts and the bishops attending the synod?
Jeff: The most simple and powerful way to support all of us is to pray the prayer for the synod that is found in the working document. We know that the USCCB [the U.S. bishops’ conference] has asked all parishes to pray this prayer on Sunday, Sept. 28.
Katie Warner writes from California. Her website is CatholicKatie.com.