U.S. couple at Synod: The pope is with us, and by extension with the families in his care

American spouses Alice and Jeff Heinzen from the Diocese of LaCrosse, Wisc., say they are “definitely being heard” at this Synod of Bishops. The couple, who work in marriage ministry for their diocese, are participating as auditors at the synod.
In an interview with ZENIT this week, they address, from their expertise, what is needed in marriage preparation and how struggling spouses can save their marriage. They also share how the Church is engaged in helping the family and how the synod assembly is “on the same page.”

ZENIT: Please describe your roles and background for our readers, and what you are tasked with at the synod. What does it mean to be an ‘auditor’?

Mr. and Mrs. Heinzen: Jeff is the president of the McDonell Area Catholic School System in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Alice is the Director of the Office for Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisc. We have been married for 34 years and we are blessed with three grown children who are all married. They have given us the joy of four granddaughters.
At the synod, we are auditors with the role of primary observation and listening to all of the interventions. In addition, we were provided four minutes in the general session to present our testimonial. During the second week when we move to small groups, we will assist the synod fathers in our assigned language group as needed in their thorough examination of the pastoral challenges of the family.

ZENIT: What has surprised you most about what is taking place in the synod discussions?

Mr. and Mrs. Heinzen: We are not surprised by the actual synod process. But, we are pleased to see the sincerity of the Synod assembly to address the pastoral challenges of the family. For example, we did not expect the Holy Father to be with us every day of the first week. His presence in the assembly emphasizes the importance that the Vatican has placed on this topic. Using an analogy, the Holy Father is the chief executive officer — the CEO — of the Catholic Church. He cleared his calendar for a week to address the issues facing families in the world. If you think about this –how many CEOs actually do this in their respective organizations? Most leaders will ask a team of mid-managers to work on the problem and then submit a report. This is not what Pope Francis has done. He is with us and, by extension, he is with the families under his care.

ZENIT: Do you believe certain changes or reforms are needed?

Mr. and Mrs. Heinzen: It is important to remember that all of the synod assembly is on the same page – all of us are striving to ensure that marriage and family life follows God’s plan. The Holy Father believes families need more support in today’s culture. That is why he has asked for the extensive study of the issues. It is important to remember that this Synod is just one step in the full investigation and response. The process began one year ago when all dioceses were asked to submit a report on the state of marriage and family. This step (i.e. the Extraordinary Synod) is looking at a synopsis of these reports and opening the discussion on what can be done to make the plight of the family better. In October 2015, another group of Synod Fathers will come together to provide us with a report. We have confidence in the process that has been chosen. And we are grateful for the depth of faith and openness of the Synod fathers to the animation of the Holy Spirit.

ZENIT: Do you feel your opinions and expertise are being appreciated, “heard,” in the midst of these synod discussions, particularly by the cardinals and bishops participating in the dialogue?

Mr. and Mrs. Heinzen: The Synod Fathers are actively listening to the auditors. Our lived experiences as married couples are of great interest to them. They are asking us questions and engaging us in dialogue. We are definitely being heard.

ZENIT: What needs to be realized about marriage preparation, in order to lead to permanent marriage/life-long commitment?

Mr. and Mrs. Heinzen: Marriage preparation that takes place between the engagement of the couple and the wedding day is adequate in many dioceses. However, there is a concern that the remote and proximate preparation for marriage is lacking. Remote preparation is defined as the time in a child’s life that begins at birth and ends in grade school. During this time, a child learns about marriage from the witness of his or her parents. If parents are living a sacramental marriage, the child will most likely see matrimony and family life as positive and good. The reverse is also true. Children raised in homes where the witness of marriage is irregular or difficult will have a diminished understanding of the joy that God intends to bring to a husband and wife living the married state. The proximate preparation begins in adolescents and goes through the time of engagement. This is when youth see marriage in a larger scope. It is the period when catechesis on marriage is more formal. The Instrumentum Laboris and the discussions during the first week of the synod highlight a need to examine what can be done to help couples offer their children a strong and vibrant witness to the married state and what type of formal catechesis on marriage and family life is needed in the youth and young adult years.

ZENIT: If a couple is struggling, what, from your experience, would be the best way for them to “make it work?” What’s the secret?

Mr. and Mrs. Heinzen: Your question seems to mirror the second reading from Mass today (Sunday). St. Paul talks about the “secret” to being joyful in both times of abundance and need, ease and struggle. In marriage, the most obvious “secret” to making it through struggles is to stay focused on God and his plan rather than to focus on one’s own needs and desires. This is easy to say and difficult to do because when a person enters into a time of conflict, the likely response is to protect one’s own interests, not to focus on the good of the other. And, yet, that is what needs to be done.
In our experience, each married couple’s struggle is unique. There is no cookie cutter approach that works across the board. Rather, each couple needs to have the support of a priest and/or a team of lay persons who can help them refocus themselves on God’s plan rather than on their own needs. This takes time. It is usually not a quick and easy process. Thus, those in support roles need to be patient and persevere as they walk with the struggling couple.

ZENIT: When families or spouses face challenges, do you believe solutions are only in the hands of those affected loved ones? Or do you think the church needs to get involved?

Mr. and Mrs. Heinzen: Let’s take a look at the type of support couples having difficulties need. In some cases, family members may be able to provide what is needed to get the couple back on track. In other cases, the couple may need a special program like Retrouvaille to make it through the situation. Other difficulties may require spiritual and other interventions from a priest. Still other couples may need professional services from counselors or medical doctors. The level of support is dependent on the issue and the couple’s ability to deal with conflict.

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