Women and Children: Pastoral and Material Assistance to Mothers, Single and Married

Look at the blog post title above and you’ll see a weighty topic broached. Perhaps indeed too weighty for this blogger’s limited theological and sociological capacities.

But when my editor Elizabeth Scalia invited all of the members of the Patheos Catholic Channel to be a part of a special Symposium to anticipate the Extraordinary Bishop’s Synod on the Family and the 2015 Celebration of the Family to be held in Philadelphia and threw out a list of potential topics, this was the one that grabbed me personally.

Perhaps that’s because I spend most of my working days relating to mothers around the globe via my apostolate work at CatholicMom.com. In the past few weeks, I’ve done my best to work my way through the Instrumentum Laboris document promulgated at the end of June. As I studied the findings of the Instrumentum Laboris, I read it both from the vantage point of a Catholic wife and mother, and as one who routinely corresponds with other Catholic moms.

First a word from the document itself on what it is:

The Instrumentum Laboris is based on the responses to the questions in the Preparatory Document which was divided into 8 groups of questions on marriage and the family. After its publication in November, 2013, this document was distributed worldwide. A great number of detailed responses to the questions was submitted by the synods of the Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris, the episcopal conferences, the departments of the Roman Curia and the Union of Superiors General. In addition, other responses — categorized as observations — were sent directly to the General Secretariat by a significant number of dioceses, parishes, movements, groups, ecclesial associations and families, not to mention academic institutions, specialists, both Catholic and non-Catholic, all interested in sharing their reflections. (from the Introduction)

The survey responses and findings we read in the document point us to the vast number of issues the Synod fathers will have on their plates when they convene in a conversation that will extend over the next few years. Despite what the popular media may like for us to believe, this will not be a “sound byte” Synod, neatly wrapped up next Fall or the following year in Philadelphia and immediately offering the answers to all of our perceived problems. I feel that it’s important for us to understand this and to help our loved ones and neighbors who may expect that when the Synod meets, there will be immediate and sweeping change.

The Synod and Mothers

Of the many paragraphs that strike me in the Instrumentum Laboris, there is one that I’ve read multiple times. You’ll find the following words in Paragraph 88 under the heading “Teen Mothers” in Chapter III (Difficult Pastoral Situations):

The responses give particular attention to mothers who have no husbands and who, alone, must care for their children, a situation which is often the result of much suffering and, very often, abandonment. Above all, they are to be esteemed for the love and courage with which they welcomed the life conceived in their womb and now provide for the upbringing and education of their children. They deserve from society a special support which takes into account the many sacrifices they are facing. The Christian community is also called to provides a care which permits these mothers to see the Church as truly a family of God’s children.

A full symposium article on the impact of this Synod upon women in general and particularly upon mothers could pull several such quotes from the Instrumentum Laboris. For the sake of brevity, I’ve chosen this one because it opens a great conversation on how the word “family” is perceived in today’s Church.

There is not an easy “one size fits all” definition of “family” today. There just isn’t.

The above paragraph was written with single young mothers in mind. But the truth is that its prescription relates to every mother, every father, and indeed every person who belongs to a “family”: “They deserve from society a special support which takes into account the many sacrifices they are facing. The Christian community is also called to provides a care which permits these mothers to see the Church as truly a family of God’s children.” (emphasis mine…)

So Many Moms, So Many Issues…

My email inbox folder labeled (for want of a better title) “mom problems” offers a small peek into the challenges faced by any mother endeavoring to raise her family in today’s Church. The notes I receive on daily basis that find their way into this file (to be prayed over, since I rarely have great solutions) include the following:

  • The mom who attends Mass weekly with her children on her own because her spouse is either non-Catholic, non-practicing, or more interested in golf
  • The mom raising her own teenagers and her grandchildren, all of whom live with her
  • The single mom who has valiantly chosen life after an unplanned pregnancy and now finds herself the target of gossip and exclusion when she attends Mass with her baby
  • The mom who works outside the home and spends every weeknight ferrying her children to sporting practices and feels that the parish’s religious education requirements for her children to receive the sacraments are unreasonable
  • The mom who is beyond retirement age and caring for a child with severe disabilities who will never be able to live independently
  • The mom whose husband is physically or verbally abusive and who feels too afraid to speak to her pastor about the situation
  • The mom who is battling end stage cancer and wonders if what she has taught her children about their faith is enough
  • The mom raising her grandchildren in the faith because her children no longer attend Mass
  • The mom whose dearly beloved son recently married his same sex partner and is beginning a family
  • The mom who has lost four children to miscarriage and cannot sustain a pregnancy
  • The mom who is being asked to plan a non-sacramental wedding for her daughter who was educated in Catholic schools
  • The mom whose husband is cheating on her but is too afraid of abandonment to rock the boat and confront him or seek help
  • The mom who desperately desires to have a child but struggles with infertility – she is a “spiritual mother” to many but longs to hold a child of her own in her arms some day
  • The mom whose prayer life feels dry because she is so busy caring for her family that she has no time or energy to nurture her own relationship with Jesus Christ

This list could go on and on. Seriously. When I scan over the contents of this email folder and prayerfully ask for God’s intercession in these women’s lives, I am struck by the enormity of the task that lies ahead for our Synod fathers.

So much pain and struggling.

So much need for love and compassion.

I won’t speculate on what the Synod may eventually decide in the way of new or progressive solutions for ministering to today’s Catholic families. I know that they will be covering not only the issues above but also the cares and concerns of mothers worldwide living in abject poverty, or subject to religious persecution or sexual bondage. And obviously my male and single and childless readers could create a list of needs and concerns similar to the ones I’ve spelled out above and we would all agree that those issues have merit and demand consideration as well.

Today, I offer no answers. With a heart made at times very heavy by the knowledge of so many moms in pain, I will be fervently praying for the Bishops who will take on this vast challenge and for families around the world. Their task is daunting.

But I’m also clear on the fact that when you and I live up to Christ’s teachings, we have a great capacity as Church to minister right now — today, even before the Synod — to many of these heartbreaking issues. For the gospel calls us to love one another, to serve one another, and to be fully present and engaged in one another’s lives.

We don’t need a Synod to remind us that at times, the answer to a mom’s pain and suffering is within our own capacity to address. As Catholics, we are a family made up of many and varied members.

And a family cares, acts and above all else loves.

This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Catholic community here.

About Lisa M. Hendey

Lisa M. Hendey is the founder and editor of CatholicMom.com and the bestselling author of The Handbook for Catholic Moms and A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms.


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