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“Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman who was threatened with death by stoning, but he did not tell her to keep up her good work, to continue unchanged in her ways. He told her to sin no more.”
Words from Cardinal George Pell, until recently the archbishop of Sydney and today the Secretary for the Economy of the Holy See and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals. He writes these words in the foreword to a book that will be publishes in the runup to the Synod of Bishops which is set to begin on 5 October. Like so many before (and undoubtedly after) him, Cardinal Pell is speaking about one of the topics of the Synod: the question of whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion.
The quote above refers to the first part of chapter 8 of the Gospel of John, which relates the meeting of Jesus with a woman accused of adultery. While the Pharisees are intent on stoning her for he misdeed, Jesus offers no accusation, but looks at the scribes and Pharisees instead, turning their eagerness for condemnation against them. If there is one among them without sin, He says, let him throw the first stone. None does, and they leave. Left alone with the woman, Jesus does not condemn her, but sends her on her way with a simple command: “Go away, and from this moment sin no more”.
In the discussions about the Synod and the questions about doctrine and pastoral practice it is expected to tackle, it often seems as if there is a division between mercy on the one hand and doctrine on the other. This is an unnatural division and one that does not reflect the Catholic faith and should not be expected to be honoured by the Synod. Cardinal Pell also writes that “doctrine and pastoral practice cannot be contradictory”.
The example of Jesus given above is, I think, a very important one. For here we have a situation in which someone has sinned and is subject to God’s judgement. Jesus’ way of acting here offers a blueprint of how we must act in similar situations. Approach with mercy: Jesus does not speak unnecessarily, He does not expound on the whys and wherefores of law and condemnation. He expects all involved to know enough about that anyway. Only in the end does He refer to the relevant teachings when He tells the woman to go and change her ways. So He does want her to stop doing hat she has done, and reorder her life to the teachings that He offers and the law He has come to fulfill.
Mercy and doctrine are not mutually exclusive, but strengthen and enrich each other. Those who pretend that we must between one and the other are, quite simply, wrong. We must be merciful like Jesus, and we must fulfill His law. That is why I do not think that the Synod will change the rules in any significant way. What it will look at is how mercy can help in upholding the law, how the pastoral side of the equation can be improved to better allow us and others to follow Christ. A legalistic culture will not achieve that, and neither will a culture that allows everything for the sake of mercy.
My stats counter tells me that a fair number of people come here to read about the interview that Eugenio Scalfari, editor of La Repubblica, had with Pope Francis. The most recent one, mind you, not the one that made headlines a year ago.
I’m not going to write much about it, though, because I think it is a highly problematic thing. Dutch Catholic blogger Anton de Wit says it best, in my opinion, when he writes about the percentage of pedophiles among the priesthood, allegedly given by the Pope as 2%: “A statistic conjured out of thin air, pure fiction, hearsay from a journalist who says he had heard it from the Pope, who had heard it from some unspecified personnel, who in turn, no doubt, had heard it from someone else again.”
Scalfari, as is generally known now, took no notes and made no recordings during the interview. The complete content of the article is taken down from memory. He nonetheless provides what appear to be direct quotes Pope Francis, but the way in which the data was collected makes the entire article inherently unreliable.
I wonder about the wisdom of granting such interviews. They sow confusion as words are put in the Pope’s mouth which we just have to assume are correct until the Holy See’s press office issues a statement, as they did, that none of the quotes can be assumed as attributable to the Pope. The first interview was already problematic, but Pope Francis grants a second one without, it seems, much concern. We are told that the Pope knows 2% of all priests are pedophiles, that there are cardinals among that number, and that he intends to find a solution for the problem of celibacy. And the memory of a 90-year-old atheist editor is the only source for this. The press office can do all it wants to deny it, but the damage is done as soon as the interview is published.
You can’t grant interviews to journalist who are known to be unreliable in collecting and sharing their information, and then hope to correct any errors that pop up.
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, best known as Doubting Thomas. The passage from John 20, in which Jesus appears after His death on the cross, but Thomas happens to be absent is well known. Thomas refuses to believe what he didn’t see for himself, only to be corrected by the Lord when He appears again and shows His wounds to Thomas, even inviting him to place his hand in the wound in His side.
“You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).
Rich as this passage from the Gospels is, and it teaches us much about the nature of faith, there is more to St. Thomas than this. In the Bible, he appears in all four Gospels, as well as in the Acts of the Apostles. Matthew (10:3), Mark (3:18) and Luke (6:15) first list him among the Apostles called by Jesus, while John first mentions him in the story of the death of Lazarus, where Thomas seems a bit defeatist. Upon hearing Jesus’ decision to go to Bethany, in the land of the Jews who had earlier tried to kill Jesus, he says, “Let us also go to die with him” (John 11:16). Still, it indicates a willingness on Thomas’ part to follow Jesus whatever the consequences, even if death is one. Not exactly the sign of a doubting follower.
Later in the Gospel of John, we see another side to Thomas: the questioning follower, the man trying to understand. As Jesus announces His return to the Father, telling the apostles that they know where He is going and how to get there, Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). This prompts Jesus to teach him – and us – that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thomas comes across as honest and straightforward, not afraid to ask about what he doesn’t understand. The next time we come across him is in the aforementioned passage of the Lord’s appearance in his absence. Thomas doubts, is still as honest and straightforward as ever, but not stubborn: he accepts what the Lord teaches him and professes his faith in his Lord and God.
Thomas appears once more among the disciples to whom Jesus appears at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21;2), but the Evangelist does not tell us any details about what Thomas may have said or done. But he did witness Jesus giving Peter the task to look after His sheep. After the Lord’s Ascension, Thomas remains with the other disciples, as Acts 1:13 tells us, part of the young and rapidly growing Church.
That’s all the Bible tells us about St. Thomas, but it’s enough to slightly correct the image we have of him as a doubter. It would be more accurate to see him as a very honest man, to himself and to others. He is not afraid to ask questions, or even to ask others to be more clear, but also does not hesitate to recognise his own errors and correct them.
Several post-Biblical sources tell of Thomas travelling to India to preach the Gospel there. Indeed, south India is home to the St. Thomas Christians, who can be traced back to the 2nd or 3rd century. The trip from the Holy Land to India would at least have been possible in the first century, as trade relations existed between the subcontinent and the Roman Empire. It is hard to tell what is true and what is apocryphal in this, but the fact remains that Thomas is strongly connected to Southern Asia, and Christian communities appeared very early in India. A strong-willed follower of Jesus may well have taken it upon himself to undertake such a perilous and uncertain mission to remote parts, all to spread the Gospel and enkindle the faith, serving the Lord as he did from the moment he was first called.
Pilgrimage tomorrow. Not far, but it’s been far too long . I am looking forward to it.
Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed is no stranger on this blog. She’s permanently present in the side bar, and every now and then she appears in blog posts. Her shrine amid the fields of northern Groningen – what resident hermit Brother Hugo only half-jokingly refers to as the North Pole – is something of an oasis, a unique place of prayer and peace. Although the pilgrimage to it is short at almost 2 kilometers, the variation in wind, rain and sunlight makes for an effort that, for me, accompanies the spiritual effort of praying my way to the shrine.
The pilgrimage, which consists of Holy Mass in the parish church of nearby Wehe-den Hoorn, the procession and Holy Hour at the shrine in Warfhuizen, is unique, certainly in this part of the world, but no less among other devotional processions and pilgrimages. It is a blend of prayerful devotion and comfortable familiarity, of seriousness and familial humour. It is a remarkable phenomenon which participating faithful take seriously, and at the same time there are always surprises: non-cooperative weather conditions, a rather too top heavy processional cross, things that unexpectedly go missing… But it’s all part of the pilgrimage, just like the prayers and hymns, the sacrifice of the Mass and the physical effort. And in the end it all works out. Just not always as expected. But that’s how it works in a family too. No one is perfect, and no one needs to be before visiting Our Lady and her Son.
I’m travelling to Warfhuizen with a friend, but I have no plans for the return trip. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. I’ll see when that is.
Time to recharge for a bit tomorrow.
Several media reported today that 26 Italian women wrote a letter to Pope Francis asking him to do away with that nasty old rule called celibacy for priests. The reason? They are in love, have been in love, or want to be in love with their parish priest and they can’t do anything because the priest is unavailable because of his vow of celibacy.
This causes suffering, the ladies say. Suffering is bad, so let’s do away with the reason for their pain, they suggest to the Pope.
What immediately sprung to my mind was this question: what if these women had fallen in love with married men? That can happen, after all. Shouldn’t they ask the Pope to get rid of that nasty old sacrament of matrimony? After all, it makes the objects of their affection unattainable. That hurts.
Celibacy and matrimony are of course not completely comparable. The one is a human construct with serious spiritual benefits, the other a sacrament from God that we people are given to accept or not, as we choose. But both are entered into freely and in full knowledge of what they entail (at least, one should seriously hope so!). Both help the persons involved – husband and wife, priest of the Lord – reach their full potential according to what God calls them to.
I’m not denying that the women in question are not suffering. Unrequited love is painful, there is no doubt about that. But we must not forget that there are things that are impossible. That can be a learning process, and looking back later we may find that it was good to go through it. Simply calling whatever stands in their way – in this case celibacy – an obstacle to be removed does a great disservice to all involved.
Bishop Heiner Koch of Dresden-Meiβen suggests we should be like Christ on the road to Emmaus towards the people around us whose hearts do not burn at Easter.
“Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). That is how the disciples asked each other about their encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Here in Saxony, we live in a land in which Christians find that at Easter the hearts of eighty percent of their neighbours do not burn in the least. They do not want anyone to explain the Scriptures to them. Not that they don’t value the Church and Christians. I am under the impression that they do so more than in the dioceses of former West Germany. But God? “Stay away from me with that phantom”. That makes Easter for them an unrealistic and meaningless history. There is no reason to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus or hope for our own resurrection, but the infinite love of God which leaves no one, not even in the hour of our death, alone. Infinite: even in our death it knows no boundaries. The good-hearted Lord remains true to us. That is the heart of the eve of Easter, without which it becomes crippled, a celebration of hares and hidden eggs.
How happy and grateful should we be when our heart burns at Easter, when we remember the the love of God through the fire of Easter, which does not go out for any of us!
And when we see that for so many people around, there is no spark jumping from the fire, even this Easter, which is for us so important? Than nothing remains but to do as little or as much as Jesus did for the disciples on the road to Emmaus: before he opened the Scriptures for them, he walked with them, listened to them and asked them questions, and he remained with them when they stood in sorrow. Perhaps that is the service of the pascal faith which we are called to perform, today and perhaps even longer, in the name of Jesus, also here in Saxony.
I wish you and all that are yours a happy and blessed Easter,
+ Dr. Heiner Koch
Exsultet, Alleluiah! Christ has risen!
I don’t know about anyone else, but my Easter has been a rollercoaster ride, both personally and in how I experienced the Triduum this year. It’s not a given, but this time around I was really struck by how the celebrations of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday form one organic whole. On Maundy Thursday Mass began in the usual way, but it did not end. There was no final blessing, no closing hymn, but a silent procession out, followed by the altar and the entire sanctuary being cleared of all decorations – candles, altar cloths, crucifix – while the Lord under the appearance of bread was removed to the altar of repose. The next day, Good Friday, we returned to the empty church – not empty of people, but lacking what makes the building come alive, the Lord Jesus Christ – to medidate on the Stations of the Cross and, later that day, mark the salvation that His death on the cross brough us. On Saturday then, there was silence. No Mass, a sense of loss. But then, late in the evening, in a darkened church, a fire burns and lights the new paschal candle. From that candle the candles held by the faithful ware lit and as light floods the church, the priest sang the Exsultet. We sing the Gloria again, the church bells ring throughout. Easter, and Christ was risen. What began on Maundy Thursday is now completed.
The symbolism is strong in these days, and it should be. Mere words can not adequately convey what happened, and nor can actions do so completely. But together they can help in lifting our hearts and minds to understand in some sense the resurrection of the Lord, after so much suffering and pain. The hope in our hearts was kindled anew. And when it is, it becomes visible to those around us.
Easter is not the end of Lent, but the beginning of something new. Let it be a new beginning for all of us.
“I will take the children of Israel from among the nations
to which they have come,
and gather them from all sides to bring them back to their land.
I will make them one nation upon the land,
in the mountains of Israel,
and there shall be one prince for them all.
Never again shall they be two nations,
and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.”
Ezekiel 37: 21-22
With the news yesterday (both the Pope’s apology and the news about Bishop Gijsen) opinions pop up. Everyone has something to say about what it all means, and how other people are wrong about it. It gets depressing sometimes.
The Word of God often offers inspiration, a new view on things, but also comfort. So today, as I looked for some of that comfort on the readings of today. The first two verses of the first reading, from the Book of Ezekiel, are a potent reminder that in God no division can last. God brings His people back to their own land, to Himself. He unites them again.
If only we would hear Him.
I skipped a few days due to real life obligations, so it’s about time I press on with my completely off-the-cuff and utterly personal (so without any authority whatsoever) reflection on today’s Gospel reading.
“‘For I tell you, if your uprightness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of Heaven.
‘You have heard how it was said to our ancestors, You shall not kill; and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say this to you, anyone who is angry with a brother will answer for it before the court; anyone who calls a brother “Fool” will answer for it before the Sanhedrin; and anyone who calls him “Traitor” will answer for it in hell fire. So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering. Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. In truth I tell you, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny.”
What is Jesus teaching us here? Basically, that our access to God, our obtaining full unity with Him, comes only after we have made peace, achieved unity amongst ourselves. Here, I think, we see once more a glimpse of how God created us: as people living in communion with each other and with God, and that is the goal that we should strive for, since we lost that communion.
We must be true to who we really are, how God created us. That is the uprighteousness that Christ speaks of in the first line. Again, we must look at ourselves with His eyes, not our own, in order to see who we really are.
How serious the lack of community is becomes clear when Jesus compares it with killing someone. Of course, both are sinful, but going up to God while maintaining a rift in the relations with other people is the more serious in the end. But the rifts can be closed, and God asks us to do so before coming to Him.
He is perfect and we should not come to Him, be one in Him, while we maintain imperfections we can change.
“‘When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All nations will be assembled before him and he will separate people one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.”
Then the upright will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?”
And the King will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food, I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink, I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, lacking clothes and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.”
Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or lacking clothes, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?”
Then he will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”
And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life.'”
And so Christ outlines not only where we may find Him, but also the consequences of how we relate to Him. Do we acknowledge or ignore Him? Do we even recognise Him? And if not, why not?
Actions have consequences, as does lack of action. This is an inherent which is not subject to opinion or feeling. It flows directly from the fact that all of Creation is interconnected. Something we do or do not affects other things and people around us. And it affects us. In this case, our direct relationship with Christ, or lack thereof, affects us most directly.
We have responsibility for our actions, but it is good to remember that it starts with gaining this responsibility. We can’t be responsible if we are unaware. Someone who has never heard of Jesus Christ can’t be responsible for not recognising Him. But once we do hear of Him, and have gotten to know Him and established some form of relationship with Him, He asks us to see Him. He sees us, and we must see everyone we are in some form of relationship with.
We encounter Christ in many places: in His Word, in the sacraments, but also in other people, both near and far. In this Gospel passage, He points this out to us. What we do for someone else, especially for the least among us, we have done for Him. Christ tells us that He is among us, He identifies Himself with the least among us.
Aware of that, and part of a relationship with Him, our actions come into play. Do we reach out or do we ignore? Our choice has an effect, in a direct way for the person we help and for ourselves, and also for our relationship with that person, and subsequently with Christ, present in the other person.
We have come to know Jesus. We have responded to His invitation to follow Him. And we follow Him in other people. We are not followers by ourselves. Following Jesus is a relationship, with Him and with our neighbours. Ignoring one or both of those parties means we are not following Jesus fully.
If we don’t follow Christ, if we don’t build our relationship with Him, we can’t expect to enjoy the fruits of fully grown relationship when the time is there. What has not been established can’t be enjoyed, after all.