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To be Seen and Heard: Children, the Synod, and the World Meeting of Families

“To be Seen and Heard: Children, the Synod, and the World Meeting of Families”

Mary M. Doyle Roche
College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, USA

To the urgent questions raised in The First about who has been included and left out in the Synod on Marriage and Family, I add, “Where are the children?”  Most of the world’s children are rarely included in decisions that impact them (is there an issue that does not impact the well-being of children?).  The Extraordinary Synod in its preparatory documents and in statements released after the gathering demonstrated deliberate pastoral concern for children whose parents are in “irregular” situations: all children should have access to religious education, sacramental preparation and reception regardless of their parents’ access to the sacrament of marriage and/or Eucharistic communion.  Children experiencing the separation, divorce, or remarriage of their parents require sensitive pastoral attention.  Moreover, raising children is challenging in situations of both poverty and affluence, parents too need ongoing support.  Perhaps the Synod is focused too much on families with young children and not enough on families comprised of adults and elders. Synods are meetings of adults. But how is the Church’s concern for children framed?

Nearly twenty years ago Todd Whitmore noted a “lacuna” in Catholic social teaching when it came to children and childhood, who are subsumed into teachings on family in general and on the role of women, as mothers, in Church and society.  Children are not considered moral agents with needs and contributions in their own right and that cannot be neatly equated with family life. Children’s distinctive vulnerabilities and interdependence must be recognized and respected.  More recently, Ethna Regan has highlighted the paucity of attention to children in Catholic social teaching documents and the natalism that seems to predominate in the Church’s approach.  Cristina Traina has repeatedly underscored the impoverished view of children’s moral agency and the complex roles and relationships that children have in families and society: as recipients and givers of care, as wage earners, mediators and translators, and even as heads of families.  Too often, concern for children is based on their presumed innocence rather than on their intrinsic human dignity.


I might be inclined to be more hopeful about the inclusion of children at Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive, the upcoming World Meeting of Families Congress (WMOF), held every three years since 1994. Prior to the October 2015 Synod, the Church in the United States will host the eighth such Congress in Philadelphia. The WMOF website features photos of happy intergenerational families, diverse in ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds. It is clear the whole family is invited, though the welcome that young children and youth receive is tempered by conditions regarding their behavior.   

The adult meeting of plenary speakers and breakout sessions will be held separately from the corresponding Youth Congress, “an interactive congress with all kinds of programming where young people can build, create, play, listen, serve and embrace the Mission of Love that brings Families Fully Alive.”  The youth program offers in preparation of the event a catechism to be used in parishes and schools to help “build excitement” and to bear witness to a vibrant church full of enthusiasm for the teachings on family life. However, the programs for children and young people do not seem oriented toward listening to children’s lived experiences, their questions and contributions. The small portion of the site dedicated to the Youth Congress thus far includes a “Youth Code of Conduct,” with instructions to “project an image of consideration,” to wear modest dress, refrain from inappropriate touching and activity that might cause damage to property, to be aware of “noise levels” in the convention center.  The youth are asked not to bring weapons, do drugs, engage in any form of sexual activity or harassment, or distribute pornography; those who violate the code of conduct may be reported to local authorities or removed. 

For WMOF, children may not be so innocent after all.  The language of the Synod and other documents about children’s innocence and the hope they represent is replaced by suspicion: children need to behave, to be seen and not heard. Their participation is structured around adult desire and fear. 

Alternately, my sister and I wondered together about really listening to our teenage daughters, that is, with love, hope, and concern without imposing adult fears, desires, and judgments.  This kind of listening to our children is critical for honoring their dignity in the present and for their becoming adults.  The Synod and WMOF offer families and the Church unique opportunities for solidarity with children and with all of the joy and pain that being fully alive implies. I hope we will not squander it.