MENOMONIE – Alice and Jeff Heinzen are not only serving as auditors for the Oct. 5-19 Extraordinary Synod on the Family at the Vatican, called for by Pope Francis, they are also making a presentation before the general assembly at the historic event.Alice and Jeff Heinzen of Menomonie, in the La Crosse Diocese, pose for a photo as they arrive for the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 7. The couple are auditors at the synod. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In their main role as one of 14 married couples – and the only Americans – from around the world selected to serve as auditors for the synod, the Heinzens, members of the Diocese of La Crosse, are observing all of the general assembly sessions, and participating in group discussions with English-speaking delegates.

“During the general assemblies, we will be listening and observing,” said Alice Heinzen, in an interview with the La Crosse Times, newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse, shortly before they left for the synod. “We may only speak during these sessions if requested. Our input will mainly be shared during the small discussion groups.”

In July, Alice Heinzen replaced her husband as director of the Office for Marriage & Family Life of the Diocese of La Crosse, when he became president of McDonell Catholic Schools, Chippewa Falls. Her previous position was as diocesan Natural Family Planning coordinator. 

Between them, the Heinzens have spent more than two decades in the Office for Marriage & Family Life, and they combined that experience with their experiences of growing up in Catholic families, as a married Catholic couple, and as Catholic parents when they addressed the general assembly, Oct. 7.

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They have been married for 34 years and have three adult children and three grandchildren.

Existing diocesan programs and Catholic organizations aimed at helping Catholic families fulfill their vocation clearly are not strong enough to meet modern needs, they told the Synod of Bishops, during a four-minute testimony.

The Heinzens said they recognize their parents’ example and their family life growing up were major factors in their continuing to be active today; Alice said she remembers seeing her father leave early to go to Mass before work, praying the rosary together during the month of May and attending Sunday Mass as a family.

“To all this we can add our mothers who reminded us to always love our siblings, to use our best manners with others, and to save our pennies to help those less fortunate,” she said. “Our homes were schools of love and virtue and our parents were the primary educators.”

But many young people today have no similar experiences and, instead, suffer the pain of seeing their parents divorce or are raised by a single parent who was never married.

The church is not confused or in a state of crisis about its teaching on marriage and family life, she said. But there is “a crisis of methodology. How do we as a church effectively share what we know to be true in practical, simple and convincing ways?” she asked.

Since accepting the pope’s invitation to participate in the synod on families this summer, Alice Heinzen said she and her husband have been busy preparing for their roles.

“Trust us – the preparation for this synod has been extensive,” she said. “We have consulted Bishop (William C. Callahan) and will continue to do so right up until the synod begins. 

“We have also talked with the good folks at the USCCB [United States Conference of Catholic Bishops] regarding their thoughts on our participation. Jack Felsheim (diocesan director of communications) has provided us with a basic course in communications so that we properly manage the deluge of media requests that come in every day. And we are reading lots and lots of articles and related documents that may be explored at the synod. 

“Most importantly, we are praying and fasting in preparation.”

The Heinzens said they and other participants will tread into sensitive waters, as family issues within the church – including views on traditional marriage, divorce, children, cohabitation, contraception and others – have come under fire from the secularized society and from within the church itself.

“We both hope that all that we do and say is pleasing to God,” Alice Heinzen said. “That requires us to be open to the Spirit’s promptings. We know that some of the topics that we will be exploring are tough and somewhat contentious. Thus, we must remain clearheaded and faithful as we listen, reflect and discuss each matter.

“Our expectation is that the synod participants will provide Pope Francis with meaningful and practical recommendations that will strengthen sacramental marriage and the domestic church across the globe. We know that this is not a democratic convention where the majority gets to decide. This synod is a gathering of 250-plus persons from around the world who have a deep desire to get God’s plan for love and life into everyone’s heart and mind,” she said.  

The Heinzens, who departed for Rome on Sept. 30, are in awe of their situation – of all the Catholic couples in not only the United States, but in the world, why has this pair of family life professionals from Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley been chosen to participate in this historic undertaking? It is a question they have been asked – and have asked themselves – a number of times. Alice Heinzen said she may have found the answer in a conversation with a media member across the globe.

“Both of us are still asking why we have been chosen,” she said. “I spoke with an NBC affiliate in Rome … and he asked me why we were chosen. I told him that the answer to that question is a mystery for both he and I. Then I said, ‘Are you asking because we are such a low-profile couple?’ He said, ‘Yes, no one knows much about you two.’ And then he said, ‘I think that is what Pope Francis is all about, bringing the church to the common people.’  

“We are not offended to be labeled ‘common’ because that is what we truly are. We anticipate growing closer to God through this experience, and, we are really looking forward to being in Rome together. Perhaps we will have time to squeeze in a dish of gelato and a glass of red wine on a delightful piazza while in the Eternal City.”