Much of the interest in the Synod was generated by the bishops’ discussion about how to better support and welcome divorced and remarried members and men and women in same-sex unions and their children. As important as these particular questions are for the Church and for society, the overall emphasis of the Synod was the importance of strong marriages and families for every society, the challenges they face and how the Church can be a source of encouragement, support and sound guidance.

This Synod, a meeting of bishops from around the world, is a permanent institution of the Catholic Church and was established after the Second Vatican Council to discuss topics of concern to the entire Church and make recommendations to the Pope, who in turn accepts, modifies or rejects what they propose.

The Synod on the Family consists of two gatherings: the first one that just concluded and the second that will convene a year from now in Rome. The purpose of the first two-week session was to determine what the issues and questions regarding marriage and the family the bishops should address in their second session in 2015, at which time they will propose and vote on policy recommendations to the Holy Father.

What makes this Synod particularly significant is the overwhelming determination as expressed by Pope Francis and a majority of Synod bishops to strive to make the conversation on marriage and family life be a dialogue that is open, respectful and compassionate. While the Synod reaffirmed Catholic doctrine regarding the nature of marriage as a lifelong union of a man and woman characterized by fidelity and openness to life, the bishops of the Synod took seriously Pope Francis’ exhortation to “open wide the doors of the house of the Father.”

Thus, the starting point before anything else was to recognize the actual situation of families in their diverse circumstances, situations and difficulties. In its final document, the Synod bishops proposed to listen to the situation of contemporary families in all of their complexity; to look upon men and women and parents and children with the same love and tenderness as Jesus, walking with them with patience and mercy while proclaiming the demands of the Kingdom of God and discerning the ways in which the Church and society can renew their commitment to the family.

Some of the challenges faced by couples and by families are ones familiar to us here in Southeast Alaska: isolation, the burden of underemployment and student debt that discourages young people from marrying — and then there are the daily hardships faced by single parents. Other challenges noted reflected the international nature of this gathering, which noted the harm to families caused by war, terrorism and migration, whether because of political unrest or poverty.

During the upcoming year we will be reflecting on and discussing through the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska the questions raised this fall in Rome.

Our starting point, I think, should be the charitable tone of the documents and conversations in this first part of the Synod. The stress throughout was on the need for the Church to accompany people in a respectful way and to welcome them at whatever stage of life and of faith they find themselves. As we move forward in preparation for the next session in 2015, I am inspired and challenged by the words of Pope Francis in his concluding address to the Synod where he spoke of the urgency of being a welcoming Church, saying: “It is (my duty to remind) pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock — to nourish the flock — that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome — with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears — the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: (rather), go out and find them.”