VATICAN CITY — Observers told the Synod of Bishops on the family to discourage Christian women from marrying Muslim men, urge priests not to tell women to return to abusive husbands, share the truth of church teaching about marriage, and embrace single mothers who are alienated from the church.
The proposals were offered by more than a dozen observers -- married couples and individuals -- in their brief presentations to the synod assembly Oct. 16. The Vatican released copies of their texts Oct. 20.
Father Garas Boulos Garas Bishay, who serves the migrant Christian community at the Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, told the synod that mixed marriages between Christian women from Russia and Europe with Muslim men is "a profound worry and concern."
The differences between the two faiths, including Islam's acceptance of polygamy and the obligation to teach children Islam, create "serious crises" for such couples, he said, including "irreparable rifts" and serious consequences for the children.
The priest asked why Christians seem to give up more readily their cultural and faith community and take part in "without realizing it and with tremendous superficiality, the realization of the Islamic plan of 'demographic invasion.'" He urged the church to see what it could do to help these families and "these women, often deceived and abused," and the children who are often "disoriented and disturbed."
Sister Maureen Kelleher, a U.S. member of the Sacred Heart of Mary Sisters, said a large number of people she works with are victims of domestic violence. She called on the church to prepare priests in their formation "so they might accompany these families and not tell the woman to go back home."
Sister Kelleher, a lawyer, helps migrant farmworkers in South Florida. She asked the synod to "recognize how many women who feel called to be in the service of the kingdom of God cannot find a place in our church. Gifted though some may be, they cannot bring their talents to the tables of decision making and pastoral planning."
She noted there continued to be very few religious women appointed to the synod, saying that at the 1974 Synod of Bishops on evangelization there were two women from the International Union of Superiors General, and "today, 40 years later, we are three."
Lucetta Scaraffia, a professor of contemporary history and coordinator of the Vatican newspaper's monthly insert "Women, Church, World," said the church will find the right way to respond to today's needs if they listen more to women's changing roles and expectations.
However, the synod's texts and contributions "say very little" about women. "It's as if the mothers, daughters, grandmothers, wives, that is, the heart of families, were not a part of the church, of that church that understands the world, that thinks, that decides. As if one could keep pretending -- even when talking about the family -- that women do not exist" and forgetting the "revolutionary" approach to women Jesus had.
The number of single women heading a household is growing, she said, as it is the women who "always remain by their children, even if sick, disabled, the fruit of violence. These women, these mothers, have nearly never taken a course in theology, often they are not even married, but they give an admirable example of Christian conduct," by caring for new life, she said.
Scaraffia told the synod fathers that unless they turned their pastoral attention and listened to these single mothers, "You risk making them feel even more disgraced because their family is so different from what you are talking about," a concept of a family that seems too perfect and abstract and not like the ones Jesus met with and spoke about.
Jadwiga and Jacek Pulikowska, who advise the Archdiocese of Poznan, Poland, about the pastoral care of families, said that they consider themselves to be a normal family, but that they have been saved from crises because of prayer and receiving the sacraments.
The synod needs to encourage spouses who are faithful, large families and responsible husbands, but families in crisis do need greater care, they said, adding that the best way to care for people who are not living according to church teaching is to lovingly tell them to "go and sin no more."
Patrizia Calabrese, a mother of 12 children on mission with the Neocatechumenal Way in Netherlands, said she is grateful for the church being a "mother and teacher" and for Pope Paul VI's "Humanae Vitae."
"It has not been a burden to live conjugal fidelity and openness to life," she said, adding that carrying out her vocation to follow God's will has led her to feel "happy and fulfilled as a woman, wife and mother."
As she and her community work to share the Christian vision of family with so many people who are suffering, she said, "if families are helped to recognize the truth of 'Humanae Vitae,' we will respond to the crisis of the family because we have experienced that the Christian community saves the family and the family saves the church."
Agnes Offiong Erogunaye, national president of Catholic Women Organization of Nigeria, highlighted in her talk, the irreplaceable role of mothers that must be supported.
"We make sacrifices beyond comparison in the care of our children and families," she said, and most women are taking care of families "with or without the contributions of their spouses."
This total "self-giving" for her family helps women share "the blessings of the power of the cross."
The Boko Haram insurgency is presenting additional hardship, she said, as women and mothers must work even harder to keep their families safe and united. Throughout this calamity, she said, "though the man is the head of the family, the women is, however, the heart of the family, when the heart stops beating, the family dies because the foundation is shaken and the stability is destroyed."