Below is the testimony of Stephen and Sandra Conway, regional directors for Africa of the Reunions Movement (South Africa), with an introduction from the President Delegate, Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis.
The Sixth General Congregation of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, was held Wednesday in the Hall of the Synod, in the presence of the Holy Father, and continues the general debate, which is following a thematic order in correspondence with the Parts and chapters of the Instrumentum laboris.
The afternoon’s session — “Difficult Pastoral Situations” (Part II, chapter 3) — focussed specifically on these points: a) Family Situations; b) Unions between Persons of the Same Sex.
The rotating President Delegate, Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis, archbishop of Aparecida, Brazil, introduced the testimony of spouses Stephen and Sanda Conway from South Africa, regional directors for Africa of the Reunions Movement and present at the Synod as Auditors. Following is a translation of the texts.
Introduction of the President Delegate, Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis
In this General Congregation we will address the complex topic presented in Chapter 3 of Part II of the Instrumentum laboris, or difficult pastoral situations. They regard two types of reality: on one hand, difficult family situations, on the other, unions between persons of the same sex.
They are situations that call for support on the part of the Church in dealing with the persons involved, who live their experience as a profound wound in their humanity, in relations with others and with God. Responding to Pope Francis’ appeal, we want to learn together the art of accompaniment, to “give our path the healthy rhythm of closeness, with a respectful look full of compassion but that at the same time heals, frees and encourages to maturity in Christian life” (ED 169).
In regard to difficult family situations that require an urgent pastoral answer, the Instrumentum laboris refers to the following realities: living together (n.81); de facto unions (n. 83); the situation of the separated, the divorced, and divorced who have remarried (n. 86); children and those that remain alone (n. 87); unwed mothers (n. 88); situations of canonical irregularity (n. 89); access to the Sacraments in all these cases (nn. 93-95(; other requests (n. 96); the particular situation of the separated and the divorced (n.97); the simplification of matrimonial causes (nn. 98-102); pastoral care of difficult situations (nn. 103-104); request for the Sacrament of marriage on the part of non-practicing and non-believing persons (nn. 105-109).
In relation to unions of persons of the same sex, the discussion opens on the following topics: the civil recognition of such unions (nn110-112); the evaluation made by the particular Churches (nn.113-115); some pastoral indications in this regard (nn.116-120).
Far from shutting ourselves in a legalistic look, we want to reach down to the depth of these difficult situations to receive all those who are involved, so that the Church is the paternal home where there is a place for each one with his difficult life. We heartily thank the testimony of the Conway spouses, Stephen and Sandra, who come from South Africa and are Regional Directors for Africa of the Reunions Movement, and we listen to them attentively and with that openness of mind and heart that must characterize our pastoral ministry in today’s world.
Testimony of Stephen and Sandra Conway:
Good day. We are Stephen and Sandra Conway — the coordinators for Retrouvaille in Africa. Retrouvaille is an organization that helps hurting couples who often attend our program as a last resort, before separation or divorce.
We have been asked to share our experiences on difficult pastoral situations, in particular a) situations in families and b) concerning unions of persons of the same sex.
In 2008, after 21 years of marriage, our relationship had hit rock bottom. I went to my doctor, with no positive response. I tried talking to members of my family, who offered advice. I went to my priest, who listened to my hurt and handed me a Retrouvaille brochure. It is now six years later — I am a different person because of Retrouvaille and our marriage relationship has been evangelized. The church, through Retrouvaille, became the “house of the Father, with doors wide open, a place for us with our problems.”
Our three month program begins with a live in weekend followed by 12 post sessions. We are open to any couple, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Often we are approached by couples who have lived together for many years, have children but have not as yet married. Others have been married before and have a fear of making the same mistakes again. We also have couples on their second marriage, but fall into the trap of bringing the same problems from their previous marriage into the new one. The majority of couples, however, are in their first marriage but arrive at our weekend totally disillusioned and often on the verge of divorce.
What leads couples to our program? Financial difficulties, infidelity and family of origin issues are common problems which result in what we call “the singles married lifestyle” — couples married but two doing things separately. Often this single married lifestyle begins innocently but over time drives a wedge between the couple and they drift apart.
Our program looks at the four stages of marriage — romance, disillusionment, misery and joy. Most couples get stuck between the stages of disillusionment and misery. It is in the misery stage that many throw in the towel. It is our aim to equip couples with tools and techniques to get to the joy stage of marriage — where the emphasis is on US as opposed to the ME or I attitude found in the single married lifestyle. We explain that love is a decision, not a feeling; as is trust and forgiveness. We also encourage forgiveness setting the hurt party free. We use the Parable of the Prodigal Son to show that just as the Father forgave his Son, we too can forgive ourselves and each other the hurts of the past — we can come back to the Father’s house — the church and our homes. We can be the forgiving Father, by making the decision to forgive. We can also be the forgiven Son, by receiving forgiveness offered by our hurting spouse.
Children are greatly affected by an unhappy marriage. We have a few teachers on our team — they often share on the pain and hurt shown in the children of separated, divorced or unhappy marriages. We emphasize that the best gift couples can give their children is to decide to love each other; to put their marriage first; and to stand united in all decision involving the children. It inspires us when we receive letters from children, after their parents have completed our program, and thank us for their new Mom and Dad.
We have come across couples who are remarried and feel lost or aggrieved because they are unable to partake in the Eucharist. One example is that of a couple who married outside of the Catholic Church. The wife was non-Catholic and joined the RCIA to convert. As this was her second marriage, she had to apply to have her first marriage annulled. She became disillusioned with the church and both husband and wife left the parish, after being in RCIA for two years and not being able to have the marriage annulled.
If God is the ultimate forgiver and full of compassion then these couples should be forgiven for previous mistakes, however, they believe that they are constantly reminded and guilty of these past relationships or mistakes by not being able to partake in communion.
We have also had requests from same sex unions or couples to attend Retrouvaille. We do chat to these couples and try to show understanding and compassion to them. However, we explain that our program is presented by teams of husbands and wives and that our stories and experiences would not relate to those in a same sex marriage or union. We also have a list of professional counselors who offer their services to same sex unions and we pass this information on.
Retrouvaille has served the citizens of Durban, South Africa for 15 years, and communities round the world for 35 years. Approximately 10,000 couples attend our programs internationally every year, about 90 percent of these managing to turn away from divorce, some at the last opportunity. Thank you for your time.