The Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which wrapped up in Rome on Sunday, October 19, had 253 total participants, of which 192 were “synod fathers” and thus had voting rights. Most of synod fathers were bishops. The remaining 61 participants, including many lay men and women, were invited to the synod in various capacities due to their expertise. One of those invited was Holy Cross priest Fr. Arul Raj, C.S.C., the Director of Holy Cross Family Ministries in India.
“I was excited to get the invitation to the Extraordinary Synod from the Papal Nuncio to India. I could not believe it,” said Fr. Arul. “I was happy to go, especially because I am involved in family ministry. I believed the synod was going to be an extraordinary experience to listen to others about the pressing needs of families today, and it certainly was that extraordinary experience.”
Prior to assuming his current role with HCFM, Fr. Arul worked as the Executive Secretary for the Family Commission of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India from 2007 to 2011. Fr. Arul believes that it is this work with the bishops' conference that put him on the radar of Cardinal Oswald Gracias for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.
As part of his preparations for the synod, Fr. Arul participated in a consultation that the Catholic Church in India held in Pune in the beginning of September to harvest the input of laypeople. This two-day consultation was part of much wider efforts by the Church in the country to gather information and feedback from families to take to the synod in Rome.
“The consultation in Pune was a very good meeting. The families really brought out the need for the Church to listen to the voices of laypeople. They also said that the concerns of the Church in India, including the day-to-day problems of families, needed to be expressed to the wider Church. The laypeople were grateful that they were listened to and that the bishops and priests would be willing to share their concerns at the synod,” said Fr. Arul.
Fr. Arul mentioned that some of the concerns raised by the lay people in India included: the role of women in marriage and family life, especially as both parents begin to work; the lack of substantive marriage preparation beyond immediate preparations before the wedding; the lack of ongoing formation for couples and families; the rising problem of domestic violence, especially tied to substance abuse; the difficulties posed by increasing migration and movement of parents and families; and the weakening of the extended family.
Needless to say, as Fr. Arul put it, “There are lots of things affecting the family today. Although the time for consultation was short, given the synod’s quick timetable, it was very good to listen. We need to know the situations, even the hard ones, that families go through.”
During the extraordinary synod itself, which was held in Rome October 5-19, Fr. Arul served as one of the collaborators of the Special Secretary to the Synod. As part of his work, he helped draft the sections on marriage preparation and ongoing formation for married couples—two areas that Fr. Arul identified as key to sharing the Gospel of the Family with the world.
“There is this new emphasis on the Gospel of the Family. It relates to how families, all families, can live out and witness to the Gospel in their lives, including the aspect of mercy, compassion, respect, love, and forgiveness. The Gospel of the Family also means that we must make sure that we find happiness in our families, and the family gives testimony of its happiness,” said Fr. Arul.
Although some media reports portrayed the Extraordinary Synod on the Family as being contentious or divisive, Fr. Arul described it as a “quite positive experience. The Holy Father set the tone from the beginning in inviting the participants, especially the synod fathers, to listen to each other and to speak openly and honestly. The pope himself would arrive early each day and greet people. He was really sharing directly in what was happening.”
“The attitude of the Holy Father was very good,” said Fr. Arul. “He spoke of this whole process as a ‘journey,’ and that there is a real urgency to care for wounded families. While we recognize the beautiful witness provided by many married couples and families, we need to reach to broken families. The whole aspect of the pastoral dimension is essential.
“The Holy Father’s observation at the end was good. He called on us not to give in to the temptation to just say nice things. He also told us not to be rigid in our own views and tune out others. We need to listen. There is an urgent need to go in search of wounded families and reach out to them,” Fr. Arul said.
In terms of how the Church can accompany families, especially broken families, Fr. Arul said that one of his favorite parts of the synod was the emphasis on Jesus and his journeying with us.
“The Lord walks with the family; the Lord walks with us,” said Fr. Arul. “That whole aspect came out very positively in the synod. The family—we all—need to gaze on Christ. That is the root of any spirituality, including the spirituality of the family. We gaze on Christ; we imitate Christ, and then Jesus shines light on our lives as he is the way, the truth, and the life.”
The main work of the 2014 Extraordinary Synod was to prepare for the 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family that will take place October 4-25, 2015. Its theme will be: "The vocation and mission of the family in the church and the modern world." Nevertheless, this extraordinary synod already made Fr. Arul excited to return to India and continue his work among families there through HCFM.
“I am looking forward to going back and meeting with the various family movements that we in Holy Cross Family Ministries work with and seeing how they might also reach out and seek more the families who are broken and wounded. We have much hope to share with others,” he said.