VATICAN CITY -- As an unprecedented Vatican interfaith conference on marriage closed Wednesday, a spirited leader of the Black Church in America roused participants with revivalist soul-searching.
Watched over by an impressive medieval icon of the Madonna and Child and sitting on the podium of Synod Hall with two Catholic archbishops, Rev. Eugene Rivers called out, “Praise the Lord!”
Many of the conference-goers responded in kind.
The expression of joy was a cheer for the release of a new, poetic affirmation on marriage, a conference they described as “maximal experience” and interfaith bonding that left them optimistic that it was a beginning of a new interreligious movement for marriage.
Rivers elicited laughter, and even some vocal responses of “Amen,” when he described as “a very Pentecostal environment” the Vatican-convened event formally titled “Humanum: An Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman.”
He wasn’t making a denominational statement. Instead he was describing his feelings of joy. He made a direct analogy to the biblical account of the Day of Pentecost, when people from around the ancient world gathered in discussion, were anointed by the power of the Holy Ghost and then left to return back into their homelands “with the faith and confidence that they could change the world.”
Rivers and his wife Dr. Jacqueline Cooke-Rivers, director of the Seymour Institute in Boston, were given the honor of formally closing the conference by jointly presenting to the participants a document called “A New Affirmation on Marriage.”
The 672-word document opens by asking, “Why do weddings still move us?” Then it provides an almost poetic narrative of how generations are connected through the kinship bonds exemplified in the marriage of a man and woman.
It also makes strong declarations. For example, it says, “Anywhere marriage recedes, we lose the transcendent and material goods that all human beings should enjoy.”
The affirmation includes statements about current social conditions that come with an edge, such as, “Today, however, the homes that marriage makes are exposed to an army of distractions, and to the thief and the enemy who comes to steal and destroy. Weddings are rarer and children fewer. Where poverty erodes, marriage feels out of reach. Where war afflicts, families are crushed.”
The precise authorship of the affirmation was not clear, even to several formal participants interviewed by the Deseret News.
Although shared as a kind of culmination, it was clearly not a negotiated communiqué intended to represent the collective mind and will of the participants. It is not directed to any specific body, it bears no signatures and seems to have no clear precedent.
Still, its reading did elicit a standing ovation from most in the audience and will become the script for a new short film, similar to the six highly polished films shared during the conference.
Although Pope Francis formally opened the Humanum colloquium, he did not attend other sessions.
On Wednesday morning, however, many colloquium participants attended the pope’s audience on St. Peter’s Square. Under sunny skies, surrounded by thousands of pilgrims thronging the square, Humanum conference-goers were seated specially and clearly energized by the pope’s specific acknowledgement of the conference’s work.
Pope Francis said everyone is called to holiness in their own state of life
“Always and everywhere you can become a saint, that is, by being receptive to the grace that is working in us and leads us to holiness,” he said. “Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by passionately teaching your children or grandchildren to know and follow Jesus. And this takes a lot of patience, to be a good parent, a good grandfather, a good mother, a good grandmother, it takes a lot of patience and this patience is the holiness exercising patience.”
After the papal audience, all of the marriage conference’s business happened in an abbreviated afternoon. It included a discussion of Hindu scripture and Hindu wedding customs that emphasize the compatibility of man and women, how compatibility is actually facilitated by the differences of the sexes, and the vital importance of children as a part of their union.
It also included the premiere viewing of a final video titled “Marriage, Culture and Civil Society.” The film contained more of an argument than the previous five videos, which were largely celebrations the beauty and benefit of opposite-sex marriage, as it explored some of the intersection of the intersection of marriage with the broader culture.
This final film, for example, spent time exploring the natural-law genesis of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, with its emphasis on the family as a basic right, and then argued that the language of human rights has been co-opted by special interests.
The Most Rev. Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, also gave conferees a preview of events of the Eighth World Meeting of Families to be held in Philadelphia in September 2015. Pope Francis announced Monday at Humanum that he would be a part of that meeting, heralding his first visit as pope to the United States.
Chaput said that “if the pope didn’t come, we would probably have 10,000 to 15,000 people. Since he is coming, we are going to have more than a million. His presence makes a huge difference.”
Chaput also shared that the speakers at the conference will be international. Topics of discussion will include the family and poverty, creating real intimacy between husband and wife, the challenges of raising children, supporting the elderly and the disabled, the role of grandparents, the loss of a spouse and health and wellness in the family.
Although most presenters will come from the Catholic Church, 24 presenters will come from Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and Latter-day Saint faith traditions.
‘A maximal experience’
It was notable that Chaput began his remarks with a statement of extraordinary praise for the work of the colloquium.
“I have been a bishop for 26 years, a priest for more than 40 years, and this is the most interesting colloquium I have been to in my life!”
Not only was his statement met with consensual applause, but that sentiment was repeated over and over as dozens of participants lingered in Synod Hall swapping business cards, handshakes, hugs and farewells.
“I think it was an encouraging conference,” said the Rev. Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “A group of us who have differences on all sorts of things, are united on what the family is and that marriage matters. So I am very encouraged. Old friendships renewed and new friendships forged.
“I think we see the beginning of a very healthy movement.”
A teacher of economics and Catholic social thought at Ave Maria University, Dr. Catherine Pakaluk, reflected on the conference in the following way:
“I am always somewhat concerned about interfaith gatherings, and a little skeptical, if you will, because of the tendency of interfaith gatherings to reduce the sharing of faith experiences to the lowest common denominator.
“This gathering, in part because of the tremendous participants and the real depth of faith in everyone who came, was not at all that kind of least-common-denominator experience. It was, instead, kind of a maximal common denominator.
“What we saw in this colloquium was people with very deep faith understanding each other because they understand deep beliefs. They understand what it means to hold something deeply. Which is why I think it was a maximal experience instead of a minimal experience. We all did come away enriched and encouraged and able to connect more deeply with the traditions that came with.”