270 parishioners of St. Noel responded to the Vatican survey on Family Life.
This is Fr. George’s letter in light of the responses:
Bishop Richard Lennon
1404 East Ninth Street
Cleveland, Ohio 44114
December 17, 2013
Dear Bishop Lennon:
I am writing to provide you with my response for the World Synod of Bishops on the Family.
Included in my answers are the comments of 270 parishioners who participated in an online survey. Time and again, I found their opinions supported my own observations after almost 40 years of pastoral service. I sincerely believe that the responses attached are an accurate reading of the experience and faith of the pastor and people of St. Noel Parish, Willoughby Hills, Ohio.
Fr. George Smiga
Pastor, St. Noel Parish
THE ANSWERS BELOW ARE THOSE OF REV. GEORGE M. SMIGA, PASTOR OF ST. NOEL PARISH IN WILLOUGHBY HILLS, OHIO. INCLUDED IN HIS COMMENTS ARE THOSE OF 270 PARISHIONERS (REFERRED TO AS “RESPONDENTS”) WHO EXPRESSED THEIR EXPERIENCE THROUGH AN ONLINE SURVEY CONDUCTED ON THE PARISH WEBSITE.
The vast majority of my parishioners report that they are familiar with the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family (98% of the respondents asserted that they were very or somewhat familiar with the teaching). Overall, I sense in my own experience and from my interaction with parishioners that the Church’s teaching is known and valued. 58% of my parishioners noted that they participated in programs about these teachings frequently or occasionally. 54% saw the teaching as relevant or helpful. Although most parishioners felt that our society was only minimally receptive to Church teaching (52%), there was a much wider acceptance among the respondents.
This generally positive attitude, however, stands in marked contrast to the experience of Catholics in my parish in following the teachings. 74% of respondents admitted that they were unable to integrate Church teachings into their lives. The overwhelming difficulty in doing this was in the area of artificial contraception. There were some lesser expressions of difficulty in regard to the Church’s approach to divorce.
It is my pastoral experience, supported by the comments in the survey, that most of my parishioners would welcome an adaptation of Church teaching on artificial contraception which would take into account the difficulties of following it in married life.
I believe that the majority of my parishioners (65% in the survey) accept the natural law understanding that marriage is an exclusive and life-long union between a man and a woman. A significant minority (35%) were open to adjust this teaching.
62% felt that their marriage preparation was at least slightly helpful. An overwhelming majority (87%) felt that the Church had been helpful in providing them with opportunities for prayer. 78% felt satisfied in their ability to pass on their faith to their children. 73% admitted that they had been inspired by the example of others giving them a credible and holistic idea of Christian marriage. Only a slight majority (54%) felt that the Church had provided support for married couples in difficult situations.
My experience in preparing couples for marriage tells me that co-habitation before marriage is very common. Respondents on a survey reported the same belief (75 %). Divorced Catholics form a significant segment of our parish. As pastor I welcome them to participate as much as they are able. For those who have remarried without a resolution to their previous marriage, I encourage them to pursue a canonical process. Fewer and fewer people are choosing to do this, either because they feel the cost is excessive or that witnesses are unavailable. This leaves many with only minimal access to parish life and has caused some to leave the Church entirely. This difficulty was recognized in those who took the survey. Only 28% scored the Church’s pastoral care for the divorced as helpful or somewhat helpful. This is despite very visible efforts on the part of the parishes of our area to provide support groups and assistance to the divorced members of our congregations. Many people expressed their concern that the Church was losing very good and faithful people because of the difficulty of resolving their previous marriage. I believe that a much simpler annulment process would go a long way to rectifying this situation. The vast majority of respondents (90%) agreed that a simplified annulment process would help.
The law in the United States is rapidly changing to accept the legality of same-sex unions and to equate them with civil marriage. The majority of the respondents (68%) expressed acceptance towards those in a same sex union. This squares with my own observation. Although most of my parishioners would not be in favor of “same sex marriage,” most would be open to some recognition of a “same sex union.” There were also a majority of parishioners who would support a welcoming attitude to same sex couples who wish to participate in parish life. There was an overwhelming majority of respondents who expressed that the children raised in such families should be welcomed and given full participation in parish life.
There are a great many children in our parish who come from single-parent or divorced situations. Our policy is to welcome them and assist them in full church participation. This is supported by the majority of the respondents.
I believe that the Church’s teaching of Humanae vitae is known and understood. (91% of the respondents said they were at least minimally familiar with it.) 56% said they were aware of programs that support natural family planning. This understanding, however, does not seem to lead to acceptance. The vast majority of respondents recognized the responsibility of planning the size of a family but felt that not having access to artificial contraception was “unreliable” and “brought fear into the bedroom.” I am convinced that the teaching against artificial contraception is largely ignored in my parish. I remember it being confessed only two times in my ministry. The question must be asked what is the purpose of the teaching when most Catholics find it impossible to follow.
There was a general agreement of the importance of the family in shaping a healthy individual. Challenges to the family include divorce, substance abuse, domestic violence, pornography, commercialism, and the pressure of time.
I believe that we are in a crucial period of the Church’s life. What is at stake is our Church’s credibility. The Church must be a beacon of truth and express its best understanding of God’s will. But it must also take seriously when its teachings are not followed by honest and sincere Catholics. The example of Pope Francis is important. We must try to put first what is first: the love of God for us and the good news of our salvation. When this center of the gospel is clearly preached and understood, it will give light to all else.