Bishop Antoine Tarabay OLM of the Maronite Church in Sydney is no stranger to Rome, however, it is his first time visiting the eternal city as one of the Synod Fathers attending the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
For the past three weeks Bishop Tarabay has joined with His Eminence Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai, and Bishop Antoine Nabil Andari, in representing the Maronites in Lebanon and the diaspora.
Together with bishops, cardinals and representatives from around the world, he has been discussing the synod theme: ‘The vocation and mission of marriage and the family in the church and in the contemporary world’. While in Rome, Bishop Tarabay caught up with fellow Australian and photojournalist Fiona Basile.
You were in ‘English-speaking Group D’ for the synod; what was it like working in these small groups?
The small groups were divided into language groups and in my English speaking group, I was the only one from Australia. So from the beginning the thought was to provide a new experience for the synod fathers, to meet with new people from the different parts of the world and to discuss the theme with each other.
And when I think about the synod as a whole, it is an experience of the universalism of the Catholic Church on a large scale and then when it comes to the small groups, the ‘Circoli Minori’, it is the same experience, just on a smaller scale. You have bishops from Africa, India, the Middle East, from all the different countries, and we are all here discussing the many different subjects and challenges on this theme, from different angles.
Were there any particular difficulties or challenges in your group?
When it came to the approach, it really differed between one country and another, one mentality and another, and you moved from the very conservative to others who were very open to some new ideas. And in the beginning we were not sure which approach to take, what kind of methodology to use and what we were going to achieve. At the same time we were given a translation of the Instrumentum Laboris from last year’s synod and in some places, in some paragraphs, the translation was not accurate. Sometimes we had to go to the original text in Italian to understand the right meaning—there were some big discrepancies between the two texts in some paragraphs.
In particular, I had great difficulty in one of the paragraphs where they quoted the Holy Father talking about the Image of God. In the English translation, for example, they put the words of the Holy Father as: ‘Man alone is not the image of God. Woman alone is not the image of God. Man and woman are the image of God’, which is, from our understanding and from a theological perspective, wrong. So, ‘man alone is the image of God. Woman alone is the image of God, and both, they can be the image of God’. We checked the Italian translation and this is what it says. It means, the man by himself, is not only the image of God. Woman by herself is not only the image of God. They can be together the image of God, which is a big difference.
So how did the group practically work through all these issues and the theme of the synod?
There are three chapters in the Laboris Instrumentum from the synod last year. Each small group had to present a report to the General Assembly at the end of every chapter. We tried to follow the methodology that was followed in Instrumentum Laboris based on three words: See, Judge, Act. So it’s as if the first chapter is ‘See’, the second chapter is ‘Judge’ and the third chapter is ‘Act’.
So in the beginning we have to make a diagnosis of the situation. We noticed in our group that it was much more negative than positive, which we believed didn’t give a real picture about family life. Of course, we have the challenges, the crisis and the problems in family life, but at the same time we have the beauty of family life and we have big achievements when it comes to family life.
When it comes to ‘Judge’, the assessment of this situation and of the teaching of the church (the doctrine), there were some different views about some challenging topics especially when it comes to the divorced and re-married and communion for them. Or when it comes to irregular unions including cohabitation and same-sex unions.
In the final section, ‘Act’, we considered, how can we develop our pastoral approach as a Church towards the different challenges we face in the family. And I believe there is something very true when it comes to the Catholic Church, faith, and the family: when you have crisis in living the faith, you will have crisis in the family. They are very much linked. When the family is very keen to live the faith and its values and to progress in living this life with the sacrifices, with forgiveness, with understanding and with supporting each other, then I believe these values will help them live the faith, their commitment to the Lord and practice of the sacrament, much better.
What is the experience of families in the Maronite Church?
I don’t think that the Eastern Church, with its autonomy and presence, its family, liturgical, theological and spiritual traditions were very much taken into consideration in Instrumentum Laboris. These churches, their autonomy and presence are something that, as Saint Pope John Paul II used to say: ‘The church must breathe with two lungs: the east and the west—the Eastern and Western churches.’
And the experience of the Eastern churches when it comes to family and family values is that they are very much attached to the faith. They want to keep the values of the fathers and the traditional values of the Church. In discussions with the fathers in the Eastern churches, it is evident that they are very keen to keep the traditional teaching of the Church.
We know that in our churches we have cases of people who are separated, divorced and remarried and they’re asking if there is any way for them to practice the sacraments and receive communion. In Familiaris Consortio #84 it is clear that they are still members of the church. They can practice, they can pray, they can help, assist and do charity—so there are a lot of possibilities for them to be involved in the church. But when it comes for them to receive communion, the Church for all time, over the centuries, has upheld the teaching that we need to be in the state of grace to practice the sacrament. This also means that you will receive the grace of the sacrament if you are ready and reconciled and in a state of grace. So this is something the Eastern churches and the Maronite church is keen to maintain.
What are your hopes for the synod?
When we were talking with families and groups in the community, telling them that the pope had called for a synod of the family, I felt that they have very high expectations of what’s going to come out of the synod. And when I started this journey with the other fathers of the synod and we looked at the teaching of the church, I felt, ‘I hope we’re not going to let them down!’ So, it is for me, as a new bishop (two years), and for many others, a big responsibility.
We live very unique experiences of the universal church at the synod and this is something very amazing and beautiful. To have the fathers of the synod and this synod representing the Catholic Church, the universal Catholic Church worldwide, around the Holy Father. I believe this in itself is a unique experience—it’s amazing! You really feel that the Holy Spirit is working in the Church. I believe this is something that will impact me for the rest of my life in terms of that experience of this synod. Seeing the church, the bishops from all over the world coming together to discuss marriage and the family and to see how can we work together, to face the challenges, or to give teachings to our people and to give them some ammunition in terms of facing these challenges in today’s society.
Where to now?
Today is a good day, because it’s a day off! After two and a half weeks all of the fathers have they had the chance to present their interventions [3-minute speeches to the general assembly]—Of the 270 bishops, I believe at least 250 spoke! We also listened to the delegates of the other churches and to the 17 couples from different parts of the world. They spoke about their family experience, which was really beautiful. We had the work of the small groups going through the whole Instrumentum Laboris, discussing and commenting upon each section. And so we’ve finished all of that and the reward is a day off!
Now we will elect the council to prepare for the new synod and to make proposals to the Holy Father as to its title and theme. There will be three representatives per continent attending the next synod. The Holy Father might also appoint some people. On the final day, the draft final report, ‘the relatio finale’ will be voted upon paragraph by paragraph. And after that, it will be submitted to the Holy Father for him to decide what to do next, whether it will be published as an Apostolic Exhortation, or published as it is, or maybe he’ll prefer something altogether different! We’ll have to wait and see.
What special memory will you take home from the synod?
The four times that I spoke to the Holy Father and I’m not exaggerating! Two times it was by coincidence—I just happened to be there and he appeared. The other two times it was on purpose—I followed him!