Siena Symposium hosts well-timed workshop on family

| Bridget Ryder | August 24, 2015 | 0 Comments
Deborah Savage, left, co-director of the University of St. Thomas’ Siena Symposium for Women, Family and Culture, and Jake and Shannon Voelker of St. Joseph in West St. Paul discuss St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Families.” Shannon is holding their daughter, Siena. Bridget Ryder/For The Catholic Spirit

Deborah Savage, left, co-director of the University of St. Thomas’ Siena Symposium for Women, Family and Culture, and Jake and Shannon Voelker of St. Joseph in West St. Paul discuss St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Families.” Jake is holding their daughter, Siena. Bridget Ryder/For The Catholic Spirit

While protestors gathered at Planned Parenthood on University Avenue in St. Paul Aug. 22, approximately 70 people came together at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul for a workshop on St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Families.” The Siena Symposium for Women, Family and Culture hosted the workshop.

“Our colleagues are fighting evil by protesting, and we are building something good — that’s the mission of the Siena Symposium,” said Deborah Savage, co-director of the symposium and professor of philosophy and pastoral ministry at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.

The workshop looked at the insight the saintly pope offered for building up the family.

In her introductory remarks, Savage said that although organizers decided to focus on St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Families” in honor of the upcoming World Meeting of Families and the Synod of Bishops on the Family even before the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this summer to legalize gay marriage in all 50 states, she saw the timing of the family-themed event as more than a nice coincidence.

“Our reflections this morning have been divinely ordained in a way and have added urgency,” she said.

She hoped participants would learn from the letter the deep love that the family engenders and also leave with renewed hope in the future of the family.

The workshop broke the papal letter down through three talks presented by Savage, Mary Lemmons and Heidi Giebel. Lemmons co-directs the Siena Symposium and is a philosophy professor at St. Thomas; Giebel is a member of the symposium’s advisory board and also a St. Thomas philosophy professor. The speakers discussed the family as the building block for a civilization of love, the family in its relation to Christ as the “Bridegroom of the Church,” and the context of the letter as a response to secular culture.

After each talk, participants had small-group discussions.

Lemmons focused on the importance of parents honoring their children by acknowledging their value as unique individuals created by God.

“The commandment ‘Honor your father and your mother’ indirectly tells parents: Honor your sons and your daughters. They deserve this because they are alive, because they are who they are. . . from the first moment of their conception. . . . Of themselves, rights are not enough,” she quoted from St. John Paul II’s letter.

“His idea here is that we are a rights-centered culture, but if you want to protect someone’s rights, you have to honor them,” she said.

Lemmons also said the love between spouses as the foundation for a civilization of love is “the most underappreciated point [of the letter] in our culture.”

She asked the participants to consider how parishes can help families form friendships of mutual support.

Giebel discussed the pope’s teaching of the tragic cultural consequences of a modern, Cartesian philosophy that sees the person as only his or her mind instead of a unity of body and soul.

“Thinking, ‘I’m this thinking thing’ leads to downgrading our bodily experiences,” she said.

When this happens, she said, bodies can easily be treated as raw material for consumption, as when fetal body parts are harvested for research — the situation prompting the Planned Parenthood protests.

Savage explained the context of the letter. “Note well,” she said, “that John Paul II wrote the letter in 1994 for the United Nation’s Year of Family and not for a commemorative year marked by the Church.” She pointed to the pope’s explanation for responding to the United Nations’ celebratory year.

He began his letter, “The celebration of the Year of the Family gives me an opportunity to knock at the door of your home, eager to greet you with deep affection and to spend time with you.”

Savage said this shows how much the Church has been working to provide Catholics with the intellectual understanding of the primacy of the natural family in society. It is also an example of the Church taking the opportunity to reach out to the prevailing culture when it is in a moment of self-reflection. In recent teachings on the environmental stewardship, such as Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si,’” the Church has also met the culture where it is at through the environmental movement, she said.

She also explained that though other documents on the family in the modern world have been promulgated since 1994, the “Letter to Families” is still considered the fullest and most beautifully expressed modern Church teaching on the family.

“It gives us everything we need to build a culture of life,” Savage said.

She encouraged everyone to read the entire letter.

The workshop concluded with a large group discussion during which each table shared a synopsis of their reflections.

“The family is the ‘Christianity for dummies,’” one group shared. “It’s where we learn to love. In other words, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.”

“The family is the living catechism,” another group said. “If children had to define marriage and the only raw material they had was us, how would they define marriage?”

Others shared the importance of not letting technology such as smart phones become an obstacle to making personal connections and the important role parishes can play in connecting to families and single people.

The Siena Symposium for Women, Family, and Culture hosts events throughout the year.

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