Given that this is the first Ordinary Synod on Family since 1980, some of us decided to come out to Rome to stand on the fringes, in solidarity with families, as the bishops reflect on our vocation and mission. We started the day at the side of the Basilica of St Peter, ready to greet bishops on their way in to the Synod hall for another day of small group conversations. A good number greeted us in return, especially Cardinal Vincent and Bishop Peter, who had driven in from the English College, their residence for the duration of the Synod.
Next on our agenda was a pilgrimage to the offices of the Pontifical Council for the Family, close to the Basilica of Santa Maria della Trastevere, where a Christian house-church was founded in 220. This church (the current one!) was also once the titular church of the Cardinal Duke of York, Henry Benedict Stuart (1725-1807), brother to Bonnie Prince Charlie. Today it’s better known for its association with the Sant Egidio community who serve the poor and the interests of peace.
At lunchtime we had the privilege to meet Dr Maria Harries AM, one of the lay auditors at the Synod. Maria is a social work consultant in private practice, an adjunct professor at Curtin University and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia, having worked with a number of state and national organisations involved with mental health, child, adult and family welfare. Once we had established a common ancestral link with Yorkshire we bonded over tea, despite the milk being warm. It was really heartening to know that a woman with expertise on domestic abuse and mental health issues as well as the needs of families on the margins, is part of this Synod process.
The kind of meeting we had with Maria is what international gatherings are all about – the opportunity to exchange experience and situations and learn about different cultures and approaches. We had some of that in Philadelphia and even before that at the INTAMS conference (Faithful Voices, Discerning Hearts: Marriage & Family in Church & Society) in Rome (Fontana di Trevi Conference Centre, September 10-12), but the Synod is truly international. Maria is part of a language group that represents 21 different countries, so the consensus of the group has to embrace all those different realities and concerns, an awesome task. We came away inspired – and not a little overawed – that she would take on such an enormous responsibility. Please keep Maria and all the bishops in your prayers.