As the only American couple serving as “auditors” (observers) at the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome, Tony and Cathy Witczak of Wayne, Pa., say they’re mainly there to listen.

Still, the couple will have an opportunity, possibly on Friday, to tell the entire synod about their own marriage and their experience with Worldwide Marriage Encounter (WWME) — and they’ve discovered that the synod fathers have been pretty good listeners, too.

The Witczaks learned they’d been selected to serve at the Synod only about a month ago. Until last year, they served together with a priest on WWME’s international ecclesial team and in that role were involved in the ministry’s work to gain lay-movement status in the Church. Involved in WWME for 30 years, the couple now serve on its Philadelphia team. 

The Witczaks, selected to participate in the synod for their leadership in WWME, will likely give one of the “interventions,” or short talks, which contribute to the pool of ideas at the synod, as it explores the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world. They plan to talk about their 48 years of marriage and their experience working with couples, as well as offer suggestions for helping couples, reinforcing their belief that the Church needs more ongoing programs for engaged and married couples.

“We bring a couple’s perspective to the discussions,” said Tony, adding that the synod fathers are also interested in feminine views, since there are relatively few women at the synod.

“But, also, they want to know the couple situation,” Cathy said, “the light and dark in the picture of marriage in the world.”


Rich Small-Group Dialogues

During this second week of the synod, the couple said their “language group” (small-discussion group) reflection of the synod’s marriage and family theme through the word of God has been especially rich, although they are unsure whether texts produced by their group — one of 13 groups conducted in different languages by synod fathers and others — will become part of the final synod pastoral guidelines.

Controversial topics related to divorce and same-sex “marriage” have emerged in the Witczaks’ language-group discussion, but they don’t think there will be further action on them until the final part of the group’s work next week.

In the Witczaks’ group are Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and cardinals and bishops from Africa, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Fiji, along with other members from different countries. 

“It’s really an interesting process, because we all go through the same document; and all those reports, those 13 different suggestions that come from each group, have to be gone through by another group, so it’s a long process,” Cathy said.

Along with their participation in the synod, the Witczaks said they’ve appreciated getting to know other international ministry leaders.

“We’ve learned a lot just listening to all the different people, what’s going on in their part of the world,” Cathy said. “We recognize how different the Church is … and the different problems the Church faces in different parts of the world.”


CUA’s Prof. John Grabowski

Another American serving as an “expert” (called upon to provide resources to the synod fathers), Catholic University of America professor John Grabowski, agreed that the discussion this week in both the assembly and the language groups has been “fairly positive and fruitful.”  

Grabowski, a moral theology/ethics professor at the Washington-based university, also noted that there is uncertainty within the synod about what the Holy Father plans to do with the assembly’s fruits.

Grabowski said he was honored to be asked to serve at the synod, although he wasn’t completely sure at the outset what his duties would be. Overall, he sees his tasks as listening to and summarizing the synod fathers’ general assembly interventions, serving as a resource in language-group discussions, assisting bishops in drafting related texts and assisting in the development on the final pastoral guidelines. He and the Witczaks are in different language groups.

Grabowski will not give an intervention at the synod, as only synod fathers and auditing couples give them, he said, adding that he frequently speaks in his language group, expressing his opinion on the topics at hand.

“My impression of what Pope Francis is aiming for with these synods is: How can we better minister to families and the wounds that they have both internally and as a result of the culture in which we live, so that families can be equipped, not just to pass on the faith internally, but to be agents of the New Evangelization in the culture?” Grabowski said.


Couples Need Help, And Give Help

Both the Witczaks and Grabowski share the hope that synod fathers will recommend more formation and support for married couples.

Many couples need help, the Witczaks noted, though they are at the same time helping the Church. “So many couples are struggling but doing wonderful things to help make the Church what it is today,” Tony said.

Grabowski said he is hopeful the synod fathers will focus on the “big picture” in the Synod documents regarding forming families for the New Evangelization.

“I do think the outcome of all this is that we’re going to get both encouragement and direction concerning families’ role in passing on the faith, but I think it’s going to not just be parents passing on the faith to their children, but families themselves being agents of evangelization in the wider culture.”

Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.