Back to Basics: Humility and Compassion

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The news about the institutional dimension of the Catholic Church has been persistent and devastating.  Crimes, cover-ups, accusations, bizarre and power-hungry behavior on the part of so many in positions of authority: it’s all been too much for so many.   For people around the world, the Church has lost all credibility and moral authority.  Why should anyone care what we have to say about anything?  As Paulist Father Frank DeSiano observed in a recent column, we still have a mission “to evangelize in difficult times.”  But who will listen?

People are done with words.  Words have too often proven to be false.  Words have too often proven to be hollow.  Words have too often proven to be shadowy caverns of deceit.

It’s past time for action.  Our collective examination of conscience must include thorough investigation, honest analysis, and concrete plans of action and reform.  Pope Francis reminds us that all of our institutions, from parishes through the papacy, need to be reformed constantly so that our mission of spreading the “Joy of the Gospel” may be effective in our own day.  Never has this call for radical reform been more obvious.  Where to start?

Certainly, all of this must be done, and done immediately.  We can’t go on like this.

We must get back to basics.

 1.  “Master, to whom shall we go?”

JoshuaLast weekend’s scriptures focus on the fundamental relationship of the Christian with the Lord God.  Joshua challenges the people to “decide today” which God they will follow, and a forlorn Jesus asks his own followers if they too will walk away from him, joining those who found his teaching on the bread of life “too hard to accept”.  Peter, speaking for the rest of us, responds, “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of everlasting life!”

Today, we must concentrate  on that fundamental relationship.  The Profession of Faith states it unequivocally. “Credo” refers to the giving of one’s heart.  “I give my heart to God, the Father Almighty. . . I give my heart to Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. . . I give my heart to the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life. . . .”   Everything else builds on that; without it nothing else matters.

“Decide today!”

 2.  Build From the Bottom: The View of One Who Serves

140417192103-pope-francis-feet-washing-easter-horizontal-large-galleryWe claim to follow Christ – and Christ emptied himself for others, challenging us to do the same.  If our Lord came “not to be served but to serve” how can we do otherwise?  St. Paul reminds the Philippians that they should “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) In Jewish theology, “humility” is the opposite of “pride”: the truly humble person would never exert abusive power over another.  The Christian looks up from washing the feet of others into the eyes of Christ on the cross gazing back.

The reforms we need right now start from that perspective of humility, compassion, and service, and the Church must be one which is in a constant state of reform, renewal and conversion.  The world’s bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Council taught:

Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of human beings here on earth. Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated — to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself — these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.

— Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio, #6

Now is the “opportune moment.”  More than that: this is the essential moment.

“Decide today!”

 3.  Religion: Binding Ourselves to God

people-out-perspThe word “religion” refers to binding ourselves to God.  And the letter of James read this weekend should inspire us all in our reform: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  Our religion should be known first and foremost for how we care for those most in need, not by our vestments, our grand churches, our rituals or the brilliance of our teaching.  When people think of Christianity, may they come to think first of the thousands upon thousands of selfless people – laity, religious, and clergy – who pour their lives out in service at home and around the world.  I have a dream that someday when a person googles images of “the Catholic Church” the first pictures shown will not be of St. Peter’s and the Vatican, but of advocates working humbly, tirelessly and fearlessly to meet the needs of others: teachers, medical professionals, volunteers, and yes, spouses and parents giving their all for each other and their children.

Christianity should be about the way we love God and others, about being a “sign and instrument” of intimate communion with God and with the whole human race (Lumen gentium 1). Clergy exist only to support, encourage, and serve the rest in doing that. As Bishop Augustine of Hippo preached so long ago, “For you I am a bishop, with you, after all, I am a Christian.  The first is the name of an office undertaken, the second a name of grace; that one means danger, this one salvation.”

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This is a “crisis” point for our Church: a turning point.  Who are we as the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit?  The choices we make now are as critical as those made by those holy women and men before us who faced their own challenges to reform the Church to respond the needs of their time.

What are you and I prepared to do about all of this?  This isn’t about bishops, cardinals or even the Pope: we the Church are a communion of disciples, and our response must involve all of us.

“Decide today!”

A Shepherd’s Voice: One Diocesan Bishop’s Pastoral Plan for Implementing “Amoris Laetitia”: First Look

 

Wuerl         Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Cardinal-Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC has just released Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family: A Pastoral Plan to Implement Amoris Laetitia.  You may access the full document here.  This may be the first parish-centered pastoral plan on this subject in the United States, and I thank Deacon Greg Kandra for posting about this significant event.  This has personal implications for me,  since I am a deacon of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC so the new document has particular personal and ministerial relevance; Cardinal Wuerl is my bishop!

I think it is important to note from the outset that Cardinal Wuerl is a master teacher and a faithful, precise theologian.  Indeed, long before he became a bishop, he was well-known to be a skilled catechist, gifted teacher and respected author.  This catechetical perspective informs his entire approach to ministry, so it comes as no surprise that he would create a pastoral resource for the clergy, religious and laity of the Archdiocese, and that this resource would be grounded in a faithful presentation of the teaching of the Church on marriage and family life.  He provides clear guidance and direction for all Catholics of the Archdiocese, which should serve to prevent confusion while also serving wuerlsynodas an aid for everyone seeking to strengthen their own marriages and families, and the pastoral ministers who are supporting them.  These initial comments can only skim the surface of what is a much more substantive document, and I encourage everyone to take the time to read the Pastoral Plan in detail.  Let’s take a closer look.

More than fifty pages in length, the Pastoral Plan consists of a preface, some introductory reflections, five “parts”, a conclusion and an executive summary.  The five major sections are: Amoris Laetitia’s Teaching, the Way of Faith and Contemporary Culture, the Way of Accompaniment, the Importance of Parish Life, and finally, In Service of the Ministry of Accompaniment, which consists of an extensive list of resources available to pastoral ministers.

The contributions of the Pastoral Plan revolve around several key themes: context, accompaniment, conscience, and practical care.

CONTEXT

The document’s first significant contribution is context.  In the Preface, Cardinal Wuerl makes clear that the Plan incorporates not only the teaching of Amoris Laetitia itself, but also the two Synods which preceded and inspired it.  For me this is a most important reminder.  Far too frequently, observers have attempted to read and comprehend the pope’s Exhortation without this context, and that, in my opinion, is not only inadequate VaticanSynodofMarriageandFamilybut dangerous.  “Text” always requires “context”, and the Cardinal makes this clear: to understand and to implement Amoris Laetitia, one must situate it within that broader global synodal process.  Amoris Laetitia, precisely as a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, reflects not merely the personal teaching of the Holy Father himself; it is that, certainly, but so much more.  The work of the preceding synods involved representatives of the world’s episcopal conferences, extensive consultation and research over several years, and intense discussions during the synods themselves.  All of this reflected both the importance of the challenges facing contemporary families and the diversity of pastoral responses needed to help them.  As Cardinal Wuerl notes, “Many collaborators have worked to provide elements of a pastoral plan to implement this expression of the Papal Magisterium that follows on two gatherings of bishops, the 2014 Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization and the 2015 Synod on the Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World” (Preface, 3).

There is a sense in which the right understanding of the work of both the 2014 and 2015 synods and their fruit, Amoris Laetitia, depends upon the recognition of this interactive dynamic between teaching, experiencing the teaching, and the living out of the teaching in light of how it is understood and able to be received. This recognition is perhaps the most challenging aspect of Amoris Laetitia. It calls for a conversion of heart. The minister is called to recognize that beyond the assurance of doctrinal statements he has to encounter the people entrusted to his care in the concrete situations they live and to accompany them on a journey of growth in the faith.

VATICAN-POPE-AUDIENCEACCOMPANIMENT

The Cardinal outlines the approach of his Pastoral Plan in terms of accompaniment, which is of course, a major theme of Amoris Laetitia itself.  The theme of pastoral accompaniment is, indeed, the foundation and the goal of the entire Plan.  The Cardinal writes,

Not every marriage, however, goes forward with “they lived happily ever after.”  In fact, for many, in our heavily secular culture today, there is little understanding of the true nature of love, marriage, commitment, and self-giving which are all part of the Catholic vision of love. Yet, while their lives and experiences may have drawn many far away from the Church’s message, we are all the more called to reach out to them, to invite and accompany them on the journey that should help bring them to the joy of love that is also the joy of the Church.

He reminds us that we must approach everyone “with humility and compassion,” remembering that all the baptized are members of Christ’s body, and that we are all brothers and sisters to one another, regardless of circumstance.  He recalls the invitation of Pope Francis “to value the gifts of marriage and family. . .  (and) to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy” (AL, 5).

The Cardinal directs that the implementation of Amoris Laetitia  in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC be based on the following points.

  • First, it must begin with the Church’s teaching on love, marriage, family, faith and mercy. In particular, he points out that a key insight of the pope’s teaching was a proper understanding of the family “as the site of God’s revelation lived out in practice.”  To this end, the Cardinal joins with Pope Francis in exhorting all ministers of the Archdiocese to a deeper knowledge and formation on marriage and family life.  The richness of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family is a gift to be treasured and shared, especially in light of the many challenges faced by people in today’s world which can distract or even alienate people from each other and from loving commitments.  However, the Cardinal points out, “our task is not complete if we only limit ourselves to faith statements. The goal is the salvation of souls and it is a far more complex effort than simply restating Church doctrine.”
  • Therefore, “it is essential to recognize that our teaching is received by individuals according to their own situation, experience and life. Whatever is received is received according to the ability of the receiver, to paraphrase Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. This is our starting point for pastoral ministry.” The Cardinal points out that this “interation” between the proclamation of the church’s teaching and the lived experience of those who hear that teaching was a critical insight from both of the synods.

There is a sense in which the right understanding of the work of both the 2014 and 2015 synods and their fruit, Amoris Laetitia, depends upon the recognition of this interactive dynamic between teaching, experiencing the teaching, and the living out of the teaching in light of how it is understood and able to be received.  This recognition is perhaps the most challenging aspect of Amoris Laetitia. It calls for a conversion of heart. The minister is called to recognize that beyond the assurance of doctrinal statements he has to encounter the people entrusted to his care in the concrete situations they live and to accompany them on a journey of growth in the faith.

Here we see the master catechist at work.  The Cardinal expresses the Church’s constant tradition that at the heart of our faith lies a relationship with Christ, and that one does not establish or nourish such a relationship without the conversion of the human heart.  Teaching alone, as central as it is, will be heard and received within very different life situations, and he challenges all of us who minister “to encounter and to accompany” the people we serve where they are in their journey.

CONSCIENCE7889200

Central to Amoris Laetitia and to this pastoral plan is the role of conscience.  St. John Paul II referred to the conscience as “the ultimate concrete judgment” in Veritatis Splendor 63, while the Catechism of the Catholic Church (both of which are cited by Cardinal Wuerl) describes conscience as “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (CCC, 1796).  Therefore, stressing always fidelity to the Church’s teaching on marriage and family along with the pastoral awareness of how that teaching “is being received or even able to be perceived,” there is something more.  “An equally important part of our Catholic faith is the recognition that personal culpability rests with the individual. We have always made the distinction between objective wrong and personal or subjective culpability.”  The Cardinal continues:

          Our personal culpability of any of us does not depend solely on exposure to the teaching. It is not enough simply to hear the teaching. Each of us has to be helped to grasp it and appropriate it.  We have to have “experiential” and not just “objective” moral knowledge, to use the language of Saint John Paul II. . . .  Our consideration of our standing before God recognizes all these elements. We cannot enter the soul of another and make that judgment for someone else. As Pope Francis teaches, “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL, 37).

The Cardinal’s treatment of “conscience” is, for me, a highlight of the pastoral plan, since it is at the level of conscience that our pastoral activity will be centered, and I hope that everyone will study this section reflectively and carefully.

Many will be curious about the question of the possibility of divorced-and-remarried persons receiving Communion, so let me address this in more detail.   This question itself is not specifically addressed in the Plan.  However, much as the treatment of the subject in Amoris Laetitia, I do not find this particularly troubling, for the following reasons.  Traditional Catholic teaching has always stressed a balanced approach between objective moral principles and subjective moral culpability.  There is nothing new in this, and the current Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats it clearly (see, for example, paragraphs 1857-1859).  What prevents us from receiving communion ccc-photois being in a state of mortal sin.  The tradition holds that for a sin to mortal, “three conditions must together be met: grave matter which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” The Catechism continues, “Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: ‘Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and your mother. . . .”  But mortal sin is more than an objectively grave act.  “Mortal sin [also] requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice” (CCC, 1857-1859).

What Cardinal Wuerl has done is to echo this traditional teaching.  How one forms spiritual directionone’s conscience is a complex matrix involving experience, formation, and discernment guided by one’s pastor.  Objective moral principles are one thing, but a person’s moral culpability for those acts or omissions is another, since “full knowledge” and “complete consent” are subjective issues.  The state of one’s soul before God, then, is deeply personal between the person and God, which again is the traditional teaching of the Church.  The decisions a person makes under the guidance of a pastor are matters of a deeply internal spiritual nature and can vary from person to person.  The responsibilities of a pastor in these matters are most crucial and weighty, and the Cardinal stresses all of this in the document.  No one answer will suffice in every case.  He writes, “Here Amoris Laetitia confirms the longstanding teaching of the Church and encourages pastors to see through the lens of Christ’s mercy and compassion rather than through a rigorous legalism.”  He continues:

Pastoral dialogue and accompaniment involve the development of conscience and also the expression of a level of support or confirmation for the judgment the individual is making about the state of his soul or her soul.  That judgment is the act of the individual and is the basis for their accountability before God.

In practice, this means that while some may be secure in their understanding and appropriation of the faith and the call of the Christian way of life, not all of our spiritual family can say the same thing. Even how we receive and understand the faith and its impact on our lives varies according to our situation, circumstances and life experiences.

While some people might prefer that both Amoris Laetitia and this Pastoral Plan might more directly “answer the question” about the reception of communion, such a response would not respect the primacy of the individual conscience under the guidance of the Church’s pastors, and the traditional understanding of moral decision-making in the Catholic Church.

PRACTICAL CAREwuerl3

Finally, as suggested by all that has gone before, the Plan offers very concrete resources for all those in pastoral ministry.  A primary “resource” is, of course, the parish itself.  The Plan suggests myriad ways in which various people within the parish might catechize, encourage, and accompany each other.  The parish is “the home of pastoral accompaniment, where we can all experience the love and healing mercy of Jesus Christ.”  The Cardinal directs that “Our parishes, as the place where people most experience the life of the Church, must be places of welcome, where everyone is invited, particularly anyone who might be disillusioned or disaffected by contemporary society or even by our faith community. The Church assures all that there is a place for everyone here in our spiritual home.”

7-Church-Walk           The section on the parish is extremely practical, with suggestions on how the various members of the parish and pastoral team might create this “culture of accompaniment” for others.  There are paragraphs for pastors and other priests, parish leaders and staffs, youth and young adults, engaged couples, newly married couples, young families, older couples and adults, and families in special circumstances.  It is only here that I would have wished for just one addition to the text.  Deacons are not mentioned in any context, and yet deacons, who are generally married with families of their own, are frequently engaged in ministries to couples preparing for marriage as well as other forms of family-related ministry.  In one sense, of course, the words of encouragement offered by the Plan to pastors, priests and parish staffs can – and do! – apply to the deacons.  Still, it does seem a missed opportunity to develop specific ways in which the diaconate, given its unique features within marriage and family life, might contribute to these ministries.

Finally, the last section of the plan offers a kind of “bibliography” of sources available from a variety of places, including the offices of the archdiocese itself, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and various national and regional groups.  The resources identified cover the waterfront and there is something for everyone, in every kind of need.

          In short, this Pastoral Plan, while prepared for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, is an excellent resource for Catholics everywhere, and I hope that other bishops will follow suit with similar initiatives in their own dioceses.  This Plan reflects significant collaboration on the part of the archdiocesan staff as the Cardinal prepared this multi-layered pastoral response to Amoris Laetitia.  I encourage everyone to read it, study it, and use it!

ADW Seal

Dear Pope Francis: Thanks, and No One Is Confused

Dear Pope Francis,

Since so many people are choosing to write to you, I thought I would too.  Many of the letters you receive, at least those shared through the media, take you to task for one thing or another.  I am writing for two reasons: to thank you for your leadership and courage, and to tell you that — despite what some are complaining about — I do not think anyone is “confused” by your actions, your teaching, and your writing.  May I suggest that those who make that claim are using that language of “confusion” to mask the truth: that they just disagree with you.

Your writing and teaching are clear: you desire the Church to be an adult Church.  By this I do not mean a Church only FOR adults, but a mature People of God, Mystical Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit.  This should be a Church in which we deal with each other with compassion, maturity and an honest realization that people are generally trying to do the best they can despite the sometimes overwhelming challenges they face.  Mature human beings come to realize that one-size-rarely-fits-all, and that we must use our God-given freedom of will in the best ways we can.  Your Holiness, we all understand full well that there are absolutes in life, but we also understand that sometimes we are going to fall short and need to struggle on the best we can, always with the guidance of the Holy Spirit given to us all as children of God created in God’s own image and likeness.

No one is confused by this, Your Holiness.  Your call to a mature Christianity echoes the voice of the world’s bishops assembled in solemn Council:

Coming forth from the eternal Father’s love, founded in time by Christ the Redeemer and made one in the Holy Spirit, the Church has a saving and an eschatological purpose which can be fully attained only in the future world. But she is already present in this world, and is composed of men, that is, of members of the earthly city who have a call to form the family of God’s children during the present history of the human race, and to keep increasing it until the Lord returns. . . .   Thus the Church, simultaneously ‘a visible association and a spiritual community,’ goes forward together with humanity and experiences the same earthly lot which the world does. She serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God’s family (Gaudium et spes, #40.

There is nothing “confusing” in any of this, except for those who wish to be confused.  They seem afraid of the unknown, the sometimes grayness of life.  As Christ often chided his first followers, and your illustrious predecessors have often repeated, “Be not afraid”, and “Put out into the deep!”  As we sailors know only too well, this often means that while we want to steer a true course, we must often trim our sails and tack in order to take full advantage of the wind and sea.  My sisters and brothers who write to you of “confusion”, however, seem to long for a world — and the Church within that world — which has the clarity of a black-and-white photograph.  The reality of the world is color-full, however, admitting all the colors God created.  As the Council reminds us, we as Church have a “saving and eschatological purpose” which will only be fully realized in Paradise.  The Second Vatican Council (much like your own teaching) is accused by some observers for being “overly optimistic” or for using “ambiguous” language.  Nothing could be further from the truth of the matter, as you well know, Holiness.  This is not ambiguity but mature and conscientious adaptability; not naive optimism, but well-founded Christian hope.

And so I thank you again, Holiness.  Thank you for your clarity of thought and expression.  Thank you for your courage and strength of leadership.  Thank you for your joyful witness to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our lives as individuals and as Church.

Sincerely in Christ,

Deacon Bill

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Deacon William T. Ditewig, Ph.D., Archdiocese of Washington, DC

Commander, USN (ret.)

Professor of Theology, and former Executive Director, USCCB Secretariat for the Diaconate and Interim Executive Director, USCCB Secretariat for Evangelization

 

 

 

Catholics and Immigration: Kneading the Dough with Pope Francis

global-migration-2INTRODUCTION

Few topics have so occupied the fears and attention of so many in recent months than the issue of immigration.  I almost wrote “in the United States” but caught myself in time: this is a global phenomenon, which some observers state is at its worst since 1945 and the end of the Second World War.  The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that there are 21.3 million refugees in the world, of which 10 million are reported as “stateless”; only 107,100 were resettled in 2015.  Almost 34,000 people PER DAY are forced to leave their homes, and of those 21.3 million refugees, more than half are under the age of 18.  Check out some additional statistics here.

Yesterday, Pope Francis addressed the International Forum on “Migration and Peace.”  You can — and should! — read the whole text here.  Immigration has been a constant concern for this Holy Father since his election (all you have to do is Google “Pope Francis and Immigration” to see his many statements on the subject), but it is also a concern he’s shared with his predecessors and, indeed, the papal magisterium is reflecting longstanding principles of Catholic social teaching.  In short, the pope’s concerns are migrants-and-pope-francis-2nothing new, although he has been particularly passionate in reminding the world of the moral principles involved.

In my last blog post, I repeated the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that we are supposed to be “a leaven and kind of soul” for society.  This means that we are immersed in the messy dough of human existence, helping each other find God in the rising.  In this post, I want to summarize and review the pope’s most recent teaching with a view toward how we might implement its provisions in our own concrete circumstances, our own doughy mess.

I should also point out that the pope has repeatedly re-affirmed the right, duty and obligation that countries have to protect their citizens.  Nothing he promotes would ever deny that, although some commentators have suggested this.  However, as we will see, legitimate measures to protect society at large must still take into account the moral obligations we have to all people and not simply our own citizens.

Finally, we realize that whenever any pope teaches on a volatile subject, such as immigration, reactions range from enthusiastic support to enthusiastic disagreement.  This instance is no different, which critics opining that the pope has no business talking about these things.  On the contrary, the pope has every obligation to address matters of faith and morals, perhaps most especially because people need to hear it even when they don’t want to, or when it makes them feel uncomfortable.  Just as parents must speak truth to their children even when the children don’t like it, so too religious leaders (not only the pope!) must be prophetic even when unpopular.

migrants-and-pope-francisTHE ADDRESS OF POPE FRANCIS

The outline of the pope’s address yesterday is a powerful statement in itself.  With seven major points, the pope offers an outline for pastoral action.  The pope observes:

Migration, in its various forms, is not a new phenomenon in humanity’s history. It has left its mark on every age, encouraging encounter between peoples and the birth of new civilizations. In its essence, to migrate is the expression of that inherent desire for the happiness proper to every human being, a happiness that is to be sought and pursued. For us Christians, all human life is an itinerant journey towards our heavenly homeland. . . .  Contemporary movements of migration represent the largest movement of individuals, if not of peoples, in history.”

Francis therefore speaks of an “urgency for a coordinated and effective response to these challenges,” a response marked by four verbs: to welcome, to protect, to promote and integrate.  After he discusses each them, he continues that we need to “conjugate these four verbs in the first person singular [‘I welcome, I protect, I promote, I integrate’] and in the first person plural [‘We welcome, we protect, we promote, we integrate’].  In this way we discover our own responsibility, our own duty, “a duty we have towards our brothers and sisters who, for various reasons, have been forced to leave their homeland: a duty of justice, of civility and of solidarity.”

Let’s take a closer look at each of these four responses with their related duties.

Pope Francis greets immigrants as he arrives at port in LampedusaTo Welcome

Francis pulls no punches, speaking of a rejection of others that is “rooted ultimately in self-centeredness and amplified by populist rhetoric.”  What is needed, he says, is a change of attitude which overcomes indifference and counters fears.  A changed attitude will be generous in welcoming those “who knock at our doors.”

For those who flee conflicts and terrible persecutions, often trapped within the grip of criminal organisations who have no scruples, we need to open accessible and secure humanitarian channels. A responsible and dignified welcome of our brothers and sisters begins by offering them decent and appropriate shelter. The enormous gathering together of persons seeking asylum and of refugees has not produced positive results. Instead these gatherings have created new situations of vulnerability and hardship. More widespread programs of welcome, already initiated in different places, seem to favor a personal encounter and allow for greater quality of service and increased guarantees of success.

In the first person singular, then, how am I welcoming the stranger?  Not in some general, theoretical and antiseptic way, but in a concrete, leaven-in-the-dough way.  In the first person plural, how do we join together in groups, parishes, and communities (and not simply in governmental ways) to initiate, support and sustain “more widespread programs of welcome”?

To Protect

Pope Francis cites his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who stressed that migration makes people “more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and violence.”  Pope Francis builds on this teaching by referring to our need to protect the dispossessed:

Defending their inalienable rights, ensuring their fundamental freedoms and respecting their dignity are duties from which no one can be exempted. Protecting these brothers and sisters is a moral imperative which translates into

— adopting juridical instruments, both international and national, that must be clear and relevant;

— implementing just and far reaching political choices;

— prioritizing constructive processes, which perhaps are slower, over immediate results of consensus;

— implementing timely and humane programs in the fight against “the trafficking of human flesh” which profits off others’ misfortune;

— coordinating the efforts of all actors, among which, you may be assured will always be the Church.

Turning again to my/our personal responsibility: in what specific ways can I help in any or all of these areas of protection?  Perhaps I can’t do much alone, but I can at least join my efforts with those of others.  And, if there is nothing in our community, perhaps I can initiate something.

Repairers of the BreachTo Promote

To welcome and to protect is not sufficient, according to Pope Francis, who turns to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which describes human development as “an undeniable right of every human being.”  This is not a right granted by a government or an agency, but by God.

As such, it must be guaranteed by ensuring the necessary conditions for its exercise, both in the individual and social context, providing fair access to fundamental goods for all people and offering the possibility of choice and growth. Also here a coordinated effort is needed, one which envisages all the parties involved: from the political community to civil society, from international organizations to religious institutions. . . .  Efforts must be encouraged that lead to the implementation of programs of international cooperation, free from partisan interests, and programs of transnational development which involve migrants as active protagonists.

The Holy Father stresses that such rights ought first to be guaranteed in a person’s place of origin, but if they are not, people must be free it emigrate to places where they will find this opportunity.  How do I work now to guarantee to rights of all persons who are here, both citizens and non-citizens alike, but all human persons created in the image and likeness of God, and all endowed with the same human rights?  What could I be doing that I’m not?  What could we do together, perhaps as a parish community, to contribute to this effort?

people-out-perspTo Integrate

The pope teaches that integration is a two-way process “rooted essentially in the joint recognition of the other’s cultural richness: it is not the superimposing of one culture over another, nor mutual isolation, with the insidious and dangerous risk of creating ghettoes.” Those who come to a new country must be open to the culture of the new country, “respecting above all its laws.”

Citing Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis highlights the responsibility toward the family in the process of integration, citing John Paul’s message that policies must be developed that “favor and benefit the reunion of families.”  In addition, again citing John Paul II, proper integration “requires specific programs which foster significant encounters with others. Furthermore: for Christians:

The peaceful integration of persons of various cultures is, in some way, a reflection of its catholicity, since unity, which does not nullify ethnic and cultural diversity, constitutes a part of the life of the Church, who in the Spirit of Pentecost is open to all and desires to embrace all.

Perhaps these last two areas are the more challenging of the four in practical application.  So often, our policies regarding displaced persons involve screening and “vetting” and are less concerned (if at all) in how we might “promote and integrate” our sisters and brothers.  In what concrete ways can I serve to help with this integration?  Perhaps I can help with the process of reuniting families; perhaps our parish might sponsor families who have been apart, and help bring them together again.

Here is where Pope Francis challenges us all further, speaking of three duties or obligations related to welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating.  These are the duty of JUSTICE, the duty of CIVILITY, and the duty of SOLIDARITY.

  1. Justice

The pope points out:

We can no longer sustain unacceptable economic inequality. . . .We are all called to undertake processes of apportionment which are respectful, responsible and inspired by the precepts of distributive justice. . . .  One group of individuals cannot control half of the world’s resources. We cannot allow for persons and entire peoples to have a right only to gather the remaining crumbs.

Justice demands that we see with God’s eyes: how does God see his children who are homeless and searching?  We can do no less.  How would we feel if we found our own children abandoned, abused, homeless and hungry?  Suddenly those verbs of welcome, protection, promotion and integration become very personal.  They are just as “personal” for God!

Furthermore, popes Francis and Benedict teach that justice challenges us to break down stereotypes:

Ensuring justice means also reconciling history with our present globalized situation, without perpetuating mind-sets which exploit people and places, a consequence of the most cynical use of the market in order to increase the well-being of the few. As Pope Benedict affirmed, the process of decolonization was delayed “both because of new forms of colonialism and continued dependence on old and new foreign powers, and because of grave irresponsibility within the very countries that have achieved independence.”

2. Civility

Civility means so much more than simply being “polite”!  Francis again cites St. John Paul II: “an irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his dignity, since he is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated nor ignored.”  Civility helps us to appreciate the value of the very relational nature of the human person in which every person is “a true sister and brother; without fraternity it is impossible to build a just society and a solid and lasting peace.”

biblical-justice3. Solidarity

Evoking the book of Genesis, the pope reminds us of God’s question of Cain: “Where is your brother?”  We are one with our sisters and brothers, and what affects her or him, affects me.

Solidarity is born precisely from the capacity to understand the needs of our brothers and sisters who are in difficulty and to take responsibility for these needs. Upon this, in short, is based the sacred value of hospitality, present in religious traditions. For us Christians, hospitality offered to the weary traveler is offered to Jesus Christ himself, through the newcomer: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

Finally, in language easily recognizable in our contemporary Western culture, the teaches:

The duty of solidarity is to counter the throwaway culture and give greater attention to those who are weakest, poorest and most vulnerable. Thus “a change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world” (Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 5 August 2013).

CONCLUSION

So, I suggest we prayerfully consider what the pope has to say as we Americans confront the challenges of immigration policies under the current administration.  In particular, how can each and every one of us — individually and communally — tale on the responsibility to welcome, to protect, to promote, and to integrate?  How well can we respond to these initiatives from a sense of justice, civility, and solidarity?

Here’s the dough: let’s get our hands messy.

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Pope Francis and the Permanence of Marriage

pope-francis-one-man-one-woman-marriage-original-picThe Catholic blogosphere has been buzzing recently over some comments made by Pope Francis about marriage.  Specifically, he remarked that some sacramental marriages are “null” because the bride and groom come from a “culture of the provisional” and do not truly understand the nature of a permanent commitment.  Initial reports said that the pope’s original words were that “most” sacramental marriages were null, and then were modified from “most” to “some” or “a part of”.  Here’s the original Italian for those who would like to offer their own English translation: “E per questo una parte dei nostri matrimoni sacramentali sono nulli, perché loro [gli sposi] dicono: ‘Sì, per tutta la vita’, ma non sanno quello che dicono, perché hanno un’altra cultura.”  You can read the entire address here on the Vatican website.

The response from certain quarters has been overheated and dramatic.  One poor soul on FoxNews has even suggested that the Pope should now resign for these comments!  [You can read his assessment here.]  What is going on here?  Is the ecclesial sky really falling?

I have been reflecting on these opinions and, more important, on the pope latest comments from a pastoral-theological frame of reference (and for the record, I’m NOT saying that a canonical frame of reference is NOT pastoral or theological!).  Some initial thoughts:

POPE FAMILIES PASTORAL CARE

Pope Francis gestures as he speaks during the opening of the Diocese of Rome’s annual pastoral conference at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome June 16. Looking on is Cardinal Agostino Vallini, papal vicar for Rome. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

CONTEXT:  I have great respect for many of the canon lawyers who have weighed in on this.  They are, for the most part, highly upset for many reasons with the pope’s comments.  However, what troubles me in what I’ve been seeing in the blogosphere is a tendency to take the pope out of context; he himself is always cautioning people not to do that with his statements.  So, were these latest comments being made to a convention of canonists?  Were these comments from an address to the Roman Rota?  Were these comments from a lecture being given to canon law students? They were not.  Rather, this speech (actually, his words were a response to a question at the end of his speech, so they were not part of his prepared text) was made during the opening of the annual Ecclesial Convocation of the Diocese of Rome, held in the Cathedral for the Diocese of Rome, St. John Lateran.  The Pope is, of course, the Bishop of Rome, but he appoints a Cardinal to serve has his Vicar for running the day-to-day operations of the Diocese. At this time, that is Cardinal Agostino Vallini, who served as the host for the opening of this annual event for the Diocese.  So, I think the first thing for us to remember is that the pope is speaking here to a gathering of the priests, deacons and other pastoral ministers of his diocesan Church.

POINT OF VIEW:  Within this general context, then, I think we need to read the particular comments about marriage within the broader scope of the point he was making.  What the Pope was talking about is his recognition and concern with today’s “culture of the provisional” (Italian: E’ la cultura del provvisorio.)  In fact, his first example of this culture is not on marriage, but on the priesthood.  The pope recounts the story of a young man who expressed interest in serving as a priest, but only for a period of ten years!  His primary concern here is to express how an overarching culture of the provisional impacts every state of life today, including the priesthood, religious life and matrimony.  It is for this reason that he then makes his statement that many sacramental marriages today are null.

This is certainly not a new theme for Pope Francis.  Here are just a few random links to earlier comments which make the same point, but without the use of the term “null”: here, here, and here.

754It seems pretty clear and straightforward that, whether the pope originally said “most” or “some” marriages is pastorally irrelevant to the point he’s trying to make: that because we are now living in such a culture of the provisional, everyone struggles with the ability to make lifelong commitments; on one level, they may think they understand the nature of permanence, but on another level, they may be incapable of making such a judgment.  The pope is not speaking here as the Legislator or as a judge in a marriage tribunal: he’s speaking from the perspective of an experienced pastor.

He’s actually saying what most ministers readily admit: that most people today have lost a sense of the permanent and that it is hard to find anyone who is willing or able to make a long-term commitment to anything or anyone.  One retired pastor, when I mentioned this kerfuffle to him, replied, “The Pope didn’t say anything that most bishops, priests and deacons who work with engaged couples don’t already acknowledge.” The pope was simply telling his diocesan pastoral ministers that they need to do what they can to help ALL of their people come to a greater sense of permanent commitment: to their faith in general, to their vocational aspirations, and so on.  In my opinion, to read his words and then to jump immediately to canonical judgments about those statements risks losing the BIG PICTURE of what the pope was saying.

Wedding ringsThe bottom line, it seems to me, is pretty straightforward: The first step in listening to the pope is to look at the overall message he is trying to make and to whom he is making it.  Generally speaking, with Pope Francis, he chooses to speak as who he is: a pastor.  He does not speak as an academic theologian, or as a canon lawyer, nor should he, in my opinion.  He is first, foremost and always, a Pastor: that’s his frame of reference, that’s his motivation, that’s his primary concern.  Theology, canon law, curial structures, and all the rest of the ad intra organs of the Catholic Church exist to SUPPORT that pastoral effort.  We all look at the world through the lenses we’ve been given in life: as teachers, as lawyers, doctors, farmers, business people, parents, and even deacons.  For some canon lawyers to be upset and concerned by the pope’s comments is only natural, but they should not be considered the first — or only — line in interpretation of papal statements.

I think, for those of us who serve as deacons, our take away from all of this might best be: how can I help the couples with whom I’m working come to a greater appreciation and understanding of the permanence of our beautiful sacrament of Matrimony?

Holy Jubilee and Deacons: “Proclaim and Serve”

unnamed-2-740x493The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy focused over the last few days on the ministry of deacons.  Today the Holy Father celebrated Mass in Saint Peter’s Square and thousands of the world’s deacons were there.  The Holy Father’s homily is a short but powerful lesson in diakonia.

In one sense, Pope Francis picks up where St. John Paul II left off sixteen years ago at the 2000 Jubilee.  In his address to deacons during this audience with us, Pope John Paul challenged deacons to be “active apostles of the New Evangelization.”  Today Pope Francis began his homily by quoting St. Paul:

“A servant of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:10). We have listened to these words that the Apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, uses to describe himself. At the beginning of his Letter, he had presented himself as “an apostle” by the will of the Lord Jesus (cf. Gal1:1). These two terms – apostle and servant – go together. They can never be separated. They are like the two sides of a medal. Those who proclaim Jesus are called to serve, and those who serve proclaim Jesus.

Active apostles, active servants: no better challenge for deacons!  Not surprisingly Pope Francis reflects what Pope-emeritus Benedict once referred to as “the great et. . .et” (both-and) as contrasted to “aut. . . aut” (either-or).  Pope Benedict was responding to a question from an older priest who had recalled that his seminary spiritual director had once criticized him for preferring playing football over studying, and Pope Benedict rather humorously reassured the priest:

Catholicism. . . has always been considered the religion of the great “et. . . et” [“both-and”]: not of great forms of exclusivism but of synthesis. The exact meaning of “Catholic” is “synthesis”. I would therefore be against having to choose between either playing football or studying Sacred Scripture or Canon Law.

DEACONS JUBILEE MASS

Today, Pope Francis says the same thing about apostles and servants.  We are called to be both, not one or the other.  His simple simile captures it perfectly: apostle and servant “are like the two sides of a medal.”  “A disciple of Jesus cannot take a road other than that of the Master. If he wants to proclaim him, he must imitate him. Like Paul, he must strive to become a servant. In other words, if evangelizing is the mission entrusted at baptism to each Christian, serving is the way that mission is carried out.”

Pope Francis offers three ways deacons can live this great “et. . . et” in our lives:

  1. Be Available.  Most deacons I’ve known over the years readily joke that there’s no such thing as a deacon’s “day off”!  Between responsibilities for our families, our various jobs and professions, as well as ministries, most deacons wouldn’t know what a real “day off” feels like, any more than we can take a “sabbatical” from any of those responsibilities.  I’m sure that Pope Francis’ words touched many a deacon and his family when he observed:

A servant daily learns detachment from doing everything his own way and living his life as he would. . . . [He] has to give up the idea of being the master of his day. He knows that his time is not his own, but a gift from God which is then offered back to him. Only in this way will it bear fruit. One who serves is not a slave to his own agenda, but ever ready to deal with the unexpected, ever available to his brothers and sisters and ever open to God’s constant surprises.

The pope had some words about trying to keep to a “timetable” for service, too:

One who serves is not worried about the timetable. It deeply troubles me when I see a timetable in a parish: “From such a time to such a time”. And then? There is no open door, no priest, no deacon, no layperson to receive people… This is not good. Don’t worry about the timetable: have the courage to look past the timetable. In this way, dear deacons, if you show that you are available to others, your ministry will not be self-serving, but evangelically fruitful.

2.  Be Meek.  Using the example of the centurion who pleads with Jesus to save his servant, the pope stresses that even though the centurion was a man in authority, he was also a man under authority.  The centurion could have thrown his weight around to get help for his servant, but he did not: he approached the Lord meekly and in acknowledgment of Christ’s authority, power, and mercy.  “Meekness,” says Francis, “is one of the virtues of deacons.”

When a deacon is meek, then he is one who serves, who is not trying to “mimic” priests; no, he is meek. . . .  For God, who is love, out of love is ever ready to serve us. He is patient, kind and always there for us; he suffers for our mistakes and seeks the way to help us improve. These are the characteristics of Christian service; meek and humble, it imitates God by serving others: by welcoming them with patient love and unflagging sympathy, by making them feel welcome and at home in the ecclesial community, where the greatest are not those who command but those who serve (cf. Lk 22:26). And never shout, never. This, dear deacons, is how your vocation as ministers of charity will mature: in meekness.

3.  Be Healed.  Finally, Pope Francis turns to the example of the servant whom Christ heals.

The Gospel tells us that he was dear to his master and was sick, without naming his grave illness (v. 2). In a certain sense, we can see ourselves in that servant. Each of us is very dear to God, who loves us, chooses us and calls us to serve. Yet each of us needs first to be healed inwardly. To be ready to serve, we need a healthy heart: a heart healed by God. . . .  .

Dear deacons, this is a grace you can implore daily in prayer. You can offer the Lord your work, your little inconveniences, your weariness and your hopes in an authentic prayer that brings your life to the Lord and the Lord to your life. When you serve at the table of the Eucharist, there you will find the presence of Jesus, who gives himself to you so that you can give yourselves to others. . . ,  to encounter and caress the flesh of the Lord in the poor of our time.

Those final words echo the promise we make at ordination.  The bishop asks, “Are you resolved to shape your way of life always according to the example of Christ, whose body and blood you will give to the people?”  We respond:”I am, with the help of God.”  This Jubilee — this holy season of Mercy — gives us a chance to re-affirm that promise:

“I am, with the help of God!”

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“O Clavis David”: Keys to Open Doors

O Clavis David: O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

20 Dec O Clavis David

Today, 20 December, the “O” Antiphon is O Clavis David (O Key of David):

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead prisoners from the prison cell,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Today the Church, again using the language of the prophet Isaiah, refers to the Messiah as the Key of David. Consider the following passages from the prophet:

  • Isaiah 22:22: “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.”
  • Isaiah 42:6-7: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

The notion that the Messiah has the power of the key is further referenced in the New Testament when Christ gives the “power of the Francis washing feetkeys” to Peter.  While, of course, the Key can “shut, and no one can open,” the hope of the Antiphon is on the opening of dungeons and the liberation of people from bondage.  With Christ comes freedom.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis often uses the language of freedom and openness to all in their need.  Consider, at #63:

We must recognize that if part of our baptized people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems, be they simple or complex, in the lives of our people.  In many places an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelization.

O-Key-of-David-1While the pope clearly criticizes certain cultural and societal shortcomings which devalue the human person and keep them “locked up” in various ways, he continues to level criticism as appropriate on the structures of the Church itself and the attitudes of some of its people.  For example, at #70:

It is also true that at times greater emphasis is placed on the outward expressions and traditions of some groups, or an alleged private revelations which would replace all else, than on the impulse of Christian piety.There is a kind of Christianity made up of devotions reflecting an individual and sentimental faith life which does not in fact correspond to authentic “popular piety”.  Some people promote these expressions while not being in the least concerned with the advancement of society or the formation of the laity, and in certain cases they do so in order to obtain economic benefits or some power over others. . . . It is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition.  Growing numbers of parents do not bring their children for baptism or teach them how to pray.  There is also a certain exodus towards other faith communities.  The causes of this breakdown include: a lack of opportunity for dialogue in families, the influence of the communications media, a relativistic subjectivism, unbridled consumerism which feeds the market, lack of pastoral care among the poor, the failure of our institutions to be welcoming, and our difficulty in restoring a mystical adherence to the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape.

This is quite a review!  So how does the “Key of David” open us up to address this general breakdown?  We believe that Christ, fulfilling those prophecies of Isaiah, IS the light to the nations, and he IS able to open the eyes of the blind, and to set those imprisoned free.  Since this is a blog dedicated to all things diaconal, we can ask specifically of all who are ordained to this service: How are we to “use” the Key of David in our ministries?  How might we address that rather bleak checklist of “prison cells” enumerated by the pope?  Each one of those items is, in fact, hampering the freedom of all, and we are called to help break down those barriers.  How can we improve family communication, use the power of the media in positive ways, preach the objective truth that God loves God’s creation and wants all to live in freedom, the use of resources for the common good of all, reach out with new energy to the poor and the marginalized, be a more welcoming parish community, and assist in developing a healthy Christian spirituality?  Christ is the Key, and he has called us all to participate in the use of that Key in the world today.

ADVENT REFLECTION

Take a look around the parish.  What structures, policies and practices can and must be reformed so that the Key (Christ) can be more effectively used?  Are there things keeping people “in their place” rather than setting them free? Now look beyond the parish?  What needs in the community are not being met at all?  How can we move outside parish and even Church boundaries to carry the Key to all of those imprisoned?  Do we use the Key to open or to close?

Advent-Christmas-candle-10