Alice and Jeff Heinzen of the La Crosse Diocese are participating in the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. (Submitted photo)

Alice and Jeff Heinzen of the La Crosse Diocese are participating in the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. (Submitted photo)

Denis Downey
Special to the Catholic Herald

MENOMONIE – Alice and Jeff Heinzen are not only serving as auditors for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family taking place at the Vatican through Oct. 19, they will also make a presentation before the general assembly at the historic event.

In their main role as one of 14 married couples from around the world selected to serve as auditors for the synod, the Heinzens will observe all of the general assembly sessions and participate in group discussions with the English-speaking delegates.

“During the general assemblies, we will be listening and observing,” said Alice. “We may only speak during these sessions if requested. Our input will mainly be shared during the small discussion groups.”

In July, Alice replaced her husband as director of the Office for Marriage and 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 and Family Life, and they will combine that experience with their experiences of growing up in Catholic families, as a married Catholic couple, and as Catholic parents when they address the general assembly.

“We will be presenting a four-minute witness that will be part of the discussion on Part II, chapters 1 and 2 of the working document titled ‘Instrumentum Laboris,’” Alice said. “Our comments illustrate pastoral programs for the family in light of new challenges. To that end, we have submitted both a personal and professional assessment of marriage and family life.

“We begin with our account of what our mothers and fathers taught us about marriage that helped us become the married Catholics we are today. We close with our experiences working in the office for over 20 years. And, we humbly make a suggestion to study the why – not the what – that we do what we do as a church.”

Since accepting the pope’s invitation to participate in the synod, Alice said she and her husband have been busy doing their homework.

“Trust us – the preparation for this synod has been extensive … we are reading lots and lots of articles and related documents that may be explored at the synod,” she said.

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

The Heinzens know they and other participants will be treading into some 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. That is why they say it is important to seek divine guidance in not only their preparation for synod, but also as they participate in it.

“We both hope that all that we do and say is pleasing to God,” Alice 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 clear headed and faithful as we listen, reflect and discuss each matter.”

The Heinzens are still wondering why they were chosen to participate. It is a question they have been asked – and have asked themselves – a number of times. Alice said she may have found the answer in a conversation with a media member across the globe.

“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,” she said.

Editor’s note: Follow on Heinzens on the Web. Jeff and Alice Heinzen will be blogging about their experiences at the Synod for Families beginning Sept. 30. You can follow along at