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In 2012 the diocese did it at one university and now it is preparing to do it at a second. A return to the Catholic fold seems imminent for the student chaplaincy at Nijmegen’s Radboud University.
Fr. Antoine Bodar, media personality but also appointed to manage the contacts with schools and universities in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, is looking ahead to the upcoming retirement of Fr. Theo Koster, the current student chaplain in Nijmegen. And things will be a bit different after he retires in 18 months. A new priest who, in his teaching, will be more in line with the Catholic faith, for one.
The situation seems very similar to the one I described earlier regarding the Maranatha church in Tilburg (see the link above): a liberal approach to the faith of the Church, and actions that are not in line with that faith (the media picks out the blessing of homosexual unions, but also the distribution of Communion to non-Catholics). Of course a change was going to come at some time.
Some call this is a return to conservatism, but Fr. Bodar claims this is in fact a progressive step, calling the situation is it exists now a throwback to the 1960s and 70s. The Church should be clear about her faith, even if there are sometimes tensions between that faith and our personal conscience. A priest should not share his personal opinions in the Mass and other celebrations, but the word of God and the teaching of the Church. He is not there for himself, but with a mission from the Church: the share the Gospel, to welcome and teach in the name of Christ, instead of his own name. Does that mean that some people are suddenly not welcome in the student chaplaincy? Of course not, but everyone deserves to be treated as adult and intelligent individuals who don’t need to be talked down to. Present our faith in its entirity, and not according to an interpretation fueled by personal preference, just to make things easy. Life is not easy, a university education is not easy. Neither should our faith always be. A challenge is an opportunity for growth, questions allows for better understanding.
In his first Advent letter as archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau, Archbishop Stephan Burger, who today had his first official audience with Pope Francis, looks back on the past six months, and writes about the first and most important task of the Church: to be a Christ-bearer, to carry Christ in our hearts as the foundation and linchpin of everything we do as Church and as individual faithful.
“Dear sisters, dear brothers!
I have only been your archbishop since 29 June of this year. The past weeks of familiarisation have been characterised by many conversations and numerous encounters. During them, so many people have encouraged me in my episcopal service. At the same time I know I am supported by the prayers of countless people. That is encouraging and does me good. Heartfelt thanks for that. Prayer for others and with others is indispensable. It is the crucial source of strength for our Christian life. In prayer we consciously take the time for God and give Christ room in our hearts.
Now that we are travelling some distance together in the coming years we are looking ahead towards what concerns us in the pastoral care units with their communities, what moves and engages us in the deaneries, in the diocese and also in the world Church. Many have the concerns about the future of our local Church foremost in mind, the question of passing our Christian faith on – also to people who are far removed from the Church, or are even critical about her. So may letters and e-mails that I receive, as well as several conversations, are also about these questions.
I take these questions very seriously. They are close to my own heart. As a priest, I have experienced these developments closely and I know how much the local Church is undergoing a fundamental transformation. It is also clear that we can no longer do much that, until now, has been good and useful. In the face of the high numbers of people leaving the Church, we can not close our eyes to reality. We are all the more called to once again be aware of what distinguishes and characterises us as Christians. The time of Advent, which is now beginning, can give us an important impulse. Jesus urgently calls us to be vigilant and attentive. For whom? For Him; for His coming; for the acts of God in our daily lives.
It is important to me that in all that we do we keep in mind whose name we bear: Jesus Christ. Without Him our lives are empty. Christ and Christ-bearer. It is not our first task as Church to create mere structures, to organise Church administrations or to Ensure the economic viability of the Church. All of these aspects are important and also belong to the Church. However, in the first place we are called to live and witness to the faith bestowed upon us. To bear God, “doing such deeds for those who wait for him”, as the reading from the Prophet Isaiah tells us, in our world. That means in the first place to keep alive the personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Our personal relationship with Christ is the linchpin of everything we do. In this context I also understand my episcopal motto: Christus in cordibus – Christ in the heart.
Christ is placed in our heart at our Baptism, we receive Him with every Holy Communion, He who loves us from His heart, who opened His own heart for us on the Cross. He takes up residence in our hearts as we have found a home in His.
The more we live from this inner bond with Christ, the more our life and actions will radiate to others. Our Christian identity does not end after the service, but starts in a new way at the door of the Church: When we return home to our families, to our place of work or our circle of friends. God’s love will shine out through us everywhere. That has very real implications for how we act in the councils, groups and circles. Through the faith in Jesus Christ our fellow men become brothers and sisters. Through Jesus Christ I receive the strength to love where there is hate, to forgive where there is insult, to connect where there is argument, to give hope where there is despair, to kindle light where darkness rules, to bring hope where grief resides. Evidence that Christ has been accepted into hearts is given by many of you who work for the refugees who are now asking for entrance to our country and who rely on our help. For this sign of your solidarity and for your help of any kind I tell you from the heart: God bless you.
Wherever we manage to make our cooperation more human, more just and friendlier, Jesus Christ can continue His work in our world with us and through us. There His act of redemption can be seen and experienced. Redemption, that is not a word for the museum, but a word that must be translated in our daily lives: God wants to redeem us. He wants to redeem and free us from everything that makes us dependent, that narrows us and makes us narrow-minded. It is crucial that we only orient ourselves on the Divine love.
Dear sisters, dear brothers, in these days of Advent we are called anew by te Gospel, to be vigilant for the tracks of God in our daily lives, to be sensitive for the actions of Jesus Christ in our lives and our living together. It is important to recognise where I meet Jesus. That is how we open our hearts for Him. That is what it means when we sing: “Gates, lift high your heads,” or “raise high the ancient gateways”. It is the gate of our hearts, the gateway to our lives. With Christ in our hearts we go towards the future with confidence. It is His way with us. I want to go this way of the imitation of Christ consciously with you and do my best to be a Christian with you and a good bishop for you – to paraphrase it according to the words of Saint Augustine.
So that you may bear Christ in your hearts and bear Him to others, the triune God bless you, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Freiburg im Breisgau, 29 November 2014
I have to wonder about all those people who claim that poor Pope Francis has been thwarted by those mean old bishops in getting the liberal result of the Synod they wanted? They act as if the only possible conclusion could be what the Pope wishes for: Communion for all, approval of same-sex marriage and an end to difficult and nasty words about sin and exclusion. If only it weren’t for those bishops who are simply afraid of change and don’t want to lose their luxury positions of power.
Except that this is about as far removed from reality as possible.
There is an image of the Pope that is only about being nice. Those who hold to this image quote such statements like the infamous “who am I to judge?” about homosexuals seeking God, but conveniently ignore the fact that no other modern pontiff has spoken as much about sin and the Devil as Pope Francis. According to this line of thought, the Synod must be Pope Francis’ attempt to make the Church nice: to get rid of the difficulties surrounding Communion, marriage and sexuality (never mind the tendency of pretending that these are the sole topics discussed at the Synod is an extremely narrow view).
Now that the Synod is over and the concluding remarks have been published, the followers of this train of thought claim that it is not Pope Francis who holds to the carefu language about homosexuality, about Communion for the divorced and remarried, language that does not go as far as they would want, but those mean old bishops who hijacked the debate. Never mind that Pope Francis has expressly denied that there are opposing sides among the Synod fathers, or that the purpose of the Synod itself says nothing about pushing through any agenda. The Pope called for free and open discussion, no holds barred, and that’s what, and we, he got.
The idea that Pope Francis is disappointed in the result (a temporary result, I might add) of the Synod is unrealistic and presumptuous, a result of seeing the Church as a mere political arena, with opposing side; one conservative, clinging to what is old and familiar, and the other liberal, hoping to change the Church to align to the times.
“Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church, the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her Ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.”
Many people talk, few listen or read. A proper read-through of the documents of the Synod should be enough to know that both secularist and extreme conservative conclusions are unrealistic. The Church has not closed doors to anyone, and nor has she thrown out the deposit of the faith that she has been given to keep and share.
It is a shame that none of the interventions presented by cardinals, bishops, laity and other participants at the Synod are made public, a sentiment I share with more than a few, among them Cardinal Gerhard Müller. But we can take a look at at least one, which was given yesterday afternoon by Godfried Cardinal Danneels, the archbishop emeritus of Mechelen-Brussels. Cardinal Danneels was one of the Synod fathers personally selected by Pope Francis.
^Cardinal Danneels (right) leaves one of the Synod sessions. Also pictured are Bishop Anders Arborelius (left) and Cardinal Béchara Raï (centre).
“God is just and merciful. He can’t contradict himself. He can separate good and evil in a great straddle. We, we have difficulty because we are only poor ballet dancers for a moment in the whole of history.
It is up to us, poor sinners, to find ways of mercy which do not deny the truth; to find a way for the times in which we live and for every culture. It is up to us to find ways of mercy.
I will limit myself to a single way of mercy, which is so necessary today. Many are confronted with the failure of their first marriage and have committed themselves to a second marriage which, however, is neither valid for the Church, nor sacramental. Today there are many people in this situation. What do we do for them? They often desire regularisation but known that there are no options. While many fall away there are others who suffer much. What do we do for all these brothers and sisters who desire to be able to marry anew for the Church?
I regularly think that we could established something in the Church like the catechumenate and the ordo penitentium of the past, for which the Church could be a mother. Actually, what matters is more is to organise some pastoral care for divorced and remarried people, and less about an institutional change. How to form priests and laity for this specific ministry like, in the past, for the catechumens and for those in the process of receiving pardon for their sin?
In the first place we are invited to greatly respect our brothers and sisters, the divorced and remarried. Mercy starts where we have unconditional respect for all who want to live within the Church but can’t marry again for the Church and receive Communion.
The same respect is due to every actual marriage. Some carry within them the seeds waiting for spring. Very often divorced and remarried faithful are consciously or subconsciously looking for a way out. But there is no way out. In many cases couples are on the way to the ideal they so desire. Respect must be the ministry of our Mother the Church a ministry which sees the growth, the journey.
How to create space in the mission of the Church for a ministry for divorced and remarried people? In the first place, let us try and find these people. Many are hiding and dare not speak about it, sometimes not even with their partner. There is much hidden suffering. It is up to us priests to search for the sheep who want to come home but do not have the courage to say so.
Let us invite these people to come together, to meet and listen to one another, but in the presence of the shepherd. A shepherd who listens with his heart. There should be no immediate focus on the painful question of Communion being denied to those who have entered into a second marriage. True listening carries healing within it.
It is so important to speak with them, to let them speak about the beauty of marriage and the Christian family. Beauty is so powerful! This is obviously not esthetic beauty, but beauty who is the sister of truth and goodness. According to Aristotle “beauty is truth in all its glory”. Pulchrum est splendor veri.
Among our contemporaries there is much scepticism about the truth; even goodness can discourage, but beauty disarms. Beauty heals. Archimedes said about our world today, “Give me a place to stand and I will lift the world.”
The divorced and remarried are not the only suffering children, but there are far more than we think. My appeal – in all simplicity – is: to love God’s children. Their pain and suffering is often great. They don’t immediately ask for the regulations of the Church to change. Their cry is rather one to the shepherds with their hearts in the right place, why carry the wounded lamb on their shoulders. Beauty disarms. We hold the cards: there is indeed nothing more beautiful than Christian marriage and a deeply faithful family. But we must communicate the truth to divorced and remarried people – delicately – with the words of Saint Francis in mind, which he spoke to the superiors of his small communities, “never let anyone leave you in sadness”.
+ Godfried Cardinal Danneels,
Rome, 8 October 2014
Photo credit: Siciliani Gennari/SIR
Catholic News Service has two video interviews out today, one with Cardinal Kasper, the other with Cardinal Burke. These two opponents in the debate about Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics could not be more different in their thoughts about this, although both are united in emphasising that the upcoming Synod will be about so much more than this single question. On the other hand, Cardinal Kasper’s eagerness to grant interview after interview about it does seem to indicate that he thinks it is a very important topic indeed.
First, let’s listen to Cardinal Kasper:
Some thoughts: It is hard to get to the bottom of the cardinal’s argument here. Everything he says is nice and understanding, the sort of things we want to hear when we’re in a crisis of whatever sort. What strikes me is that the cardinal only speaks about the second marriage. What about the first? Was that not a loving one, where there no children there, did both spouses not have the intention to make it last? We know that, for some reason, it failed, so in the end it did not last. We know that in hindsight. How can we than say, beforehand, that the same will not be true for a second marriage? We hope it will last, that there won’t be any storms leading to a shipwreck, but we can’t know that.
A sacramental marriage can’t be broken. It can be, after due consideration by competent authorities, judged to have been invalid, after which there is no obstacle to enter into a proper valid marriage. But if the marriage has been valid, it can’t suddenly become invalid. What God has joined, let no man break asunder, after all. Sacraments are the bonds God forges with people and between people, which people freely accept (a sacrament, a marriage, is not valid when someone has been coerced into it).
Cardinal Kasper is right, though, when he says that we need to be careful in our language. Accusing a couple of adultery will probably do more bad than good. After all, the Church wants to help, and that’s impossible when you immediately accuse people, even if that accusation is correct according to the letter of the law.
Cardinal Burke then:
This a very factual approach. A true one, but very factual, and people who are divorced and remarried need much more than that. This is what the Synod is about: not about changing teaching, but about improving the pastoral approach to people, making the help and care of the Church be so much more effective and comforting.
Cardinal Burke also mentions the confusion that the whole debate has apparently caused for many people. People have the duty to be critical about what they read and hear, but the Church has a duty to be crystal clear about her teaching and the whys and wherefores of it.
The Synod will undoubtedly be discussing the proposals and the criticism against them. I dont expect, as Cardinal Burke hopes, that it will be settled so easily, but in the end, the focus will be much more on the pastoral care for divorced and remarried couples and not on adapting the teachings of the Church to suit the perceived needs of the times.
And that is, in the end, a far more interesting discussion: how can the Church, all the faithful, forever grow in living, sharing and communicating the Gospel?
The Dutch bishops have not yet spoken much in public about the upcoming Synod, but today Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, auxiliary of ‘s Hertogenbosch, does. And he makes a point that has been emphasised before by both Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Burke: the Synod is not about divorce, remarriage and admission to the Eucharist. The question is a bigger one, as Bishop Mutsaerts explains:
“With the extraordinary Synod of the Family which opens on 5 October, Pope Francis mostly aims for a greater appreciation of the Christian marriage as a sacrament. It is clear that in today’s culture the Biblical vision on marriage and family is considered to be virtually unattainable, and is seen more as a burden than as good news. Perhaps that is the reason for Pope Francis to have scheduled the beatification of Paul VI at the end of the Synod, as a closing statement.
Paul VI was a staunch defender of Christian marriage. His famed and infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae, however, achieved the opposite according to public opinion. The Biblical ideal was almost completely forgotten. It is to be hoped that October’s Synod will not result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. Expectations, after all, are high. Some fervently hope that the Pope will change the Church’s teaching about divorced and remarried people; others fear he will. That would result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. And that is exactly what Pope Francis is afraid of: “I have not been happy that so many people – even church people, priests – have said: “Ah, the Synod will be about giving communion to the divorced”, and went straight to that point”, the Pope told reporters on the return flight from Israel.
The questions is much broader. The family is in crisis. Young people rarely choose marriage. They choose others ways of living together. The family is in crisis because marriage is in crisis, according to the firm opinion of Francis.
I hope that the Pope will get the Synod he has in mind, and not the Synod which is mainly concerned with the single question of divorced and remarried faithful. That is certainly a genuine problem, but a far more complex problem lies at its root: few understand marriage as a Christian vocation, strengthened by sacramental mercy. Not without reason did the Pope give it “The pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelisation” as title, and he placed it as such emphatically within the context of evangelisation. Evangelisation is without meaning if we consider it without the Gospel. The words of Jesus to both the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery was hard to accept for those who heard it then and those who hear it now. Don’t forget that the Apostles thought that Jesus’ teachings about marriage were so difficult that it would be better not to marry. If the Synod is true to the Gospel – can she be otherwise? – she can expect the same response, and it will be her duty to inspire confidence that the Christian marriage is still recommendable.
Pope Francis is keen to emphasise that Christian marriage is a sacrament. Much of the confusion surrounding marriage and divorce arises when we lose sight of the fact that marriage is a sacrament. Marriage is not indissoluble because two people make a promise for life. The Church can dispense people from their promises. That is een true for the vows of religious. But the Church can’t undo a sacrament. Marriage is indissoluble for the same reason that we have tabernacles: a consecrated host can’t be ‘deconsecrated’, just like Baptism or the ordination of a priest can’t be undone. Even a priest who has ben laicised remains a priest, even though he can’t exercise the office of priest (although he can hear confessions in emergencies). Nobody, no Synod and also no Pope, can undo a valid sacrament. That’s simply how it is. We shouldn’t therefore expect a relaxation of rules regarding divorced and remarried people in regard to their receiving Holy Communion. Those who do expect this will be disappointed from the outset.
Most Catholics are unaware of the sacramental character of their marriage. Marriage, by the way, is the only of the seven sacrament which is not administered by a priest or deacon, but by lay people, by husband and wife when they say yes to each other. This is the sacrament that gives strength and mercy to be able to keep promises. That is what it is about for the Pope.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper has come increasingly under fire from fellow cardinals and others in the Church for his comments about marriage, divorce and Communion. While some are concerned by these visible disagreements, and Cardinal Kasper himself having even suggested that his critics are personally attacking him and Pope Francis, this really is simply what Pope Francis has said he wanted: open and free discussion about the topics that the Synod will devote its time to next month. And while I usually don’t want to commit myself to stark distinctions between left and right, orthodox and liberal, in this discussion it really does seem that those who want the Church to change or loosen up her teachings are honestly insulted by those who disagree.
In an interview for Vatican Radio, Cardinal Kasper commented on the situation. I have translated some of his answer which I think are most interesting in this context.
“Of course everyone has the right to publicly state their opinion. Nothing can be brought against that. But I wonder if the entire Synod is not being reduced to a single point. It is about the pastoral challenges in the context of the new evangelisation. That is far broader field. An insider problem is being place at the centre here. What matters is to be able to speak again and discuss the beauty and the Christian understanding of the family, which many today no longer know – it is about far more fundamental problems than simply this one. And secondly: what sort of understanding of the Gospel is this? It is the Good News. One can’t turn it into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not. The Pope wants an open discussion, and that should be held. Then, in the Synod, to listen quietly to one another, in an atmosphere of prayer, and the in the end make a decision for the good of the faithful. I will not enter into polemics.”
“Without doubt the family is the cell of society and the cell of the life of the Church. In the family, in marriage and family, life and faith come closest together. It is an essential reality of life which has been raised to the glory of a sacrament. In that way it is a very vital and central issue for the Church to stand for marriage and family and offer solutions for the crisis that exists today. It is about these pastoral challenges, which is the theme of the Synod, not a war of doctrine. Of course, pastoral care is impossible without being oriented on the truth. But the truth is not an abstract system, but in the end it is Jesus Christ in person, and we need to bring the people close to Christ. In that sense the Synod must be oriented on the truth and understand Tradition as a living and bubbling spring and not as a rigid system.”
“I have posed a question, not simply suggested a solution. And I posed that question in agreement with the Pope. That’s very important for me. I asked, “When a marriage has failed one should do everything to repair it. But when there is no way back, when someone has entered into a new relationship which is, humanly speaking, a happy one, lived in a Christian fashion, when there are children, one can’t give up this new relationship without serious consequence. And we must also see how God offers new chances – and God does. That is His mercy, that He does not let go of anyone of good will. And everyone does what he can in their situation. And I think that this should be pastorally clarified in every individual case, after a period of orientation. That is called the ‘Via poenitentialis’ – but those involved suffer enough already without it. They do not need to perform great acts of penance. But a new orientation is necessary. That should be the sacrament of penance – that is why we have it – and the sacrament of penance also means re-admission to the Eucharist. But as I said, that is not the solution for all cases, presumably for a minority of all people who live in our communities, who suffer from it and have an honest desire for the sacraments, who urgently need the sacraments to deal with their difficult situations.”
In general it is hard to disagree with much of what the cardinal says. He is very right that the entire Synod is indeed being reduced this single topic (and his perceived opponent Cardinal Burke recently said the exact same thing). His words about the importance of family and the Church’s defense of and communication about it are also very important, as are his concerns for those who are involved in a good, Christian, loving second relationship while their first marriage is still canonically valid. There is a problem there, but not with the quality of the second relationship.
And that’s were the problem of the discussion lies. Too many people shift the focus to those second relationships and how the mean Church wants to destroy them and the happiness of those involved. That is a clear untruth. The fact remains that a marriage is a sacrament, and therefore something that can’t be broken by human hands (we simply need to listen to Christ’s words: “What God has joined, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9)). So when a marriage exists (we’re looking at pure existence here, not quality), there can’t be a second marriage next to it. This is, in essence the basis of the argument. All discussion and, indeed, pastoral care needs to be built on it. And at the latter the Synod will look in detail.
Cardinal Kasper’s mistake, in my opinion, is that he sweeps aside this basis when he says, “One can’t turn [the Gospel] into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not.” There must be discussion, certainly, for the good of the faithful. But there are also parameters, which are set by Christ. If we want to follow Him, we must accept and work within His parameters. The Codex of Canon Law is the result of centuries of understanding these parameters and translating them for a host of situations, places and times. There must always be such development, and in that sense the law can change. But it can not be overwritten, swept aside or corrected as if what was once true no longer is. In the end it reflects the Truth that is its founder, Jesus Christ.
The Synod will certainly look at the law, but not in order to change it. No, it will concern itself with translation and communication. How can the pastoral care that the Church now offers be improved, so that what she asks the faithful is also possible for them to achieve. In a recent interview Cardinal Burke said, “It simply makes no sense to talk about mercy which doesn’t respect truth. How can that be merciful?” He’s right. Truth and mercy are not separate. How is it merciful to encourage someone to move further away from the truth that he or she wants to follow? And how are we true to what Christ’s asks of us if we show false mercy?
“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.
They were 50,000 strong, coming from 26 dioceses in Germany and beyond, filling all of St. Peter’s Square for an encounter with Pope Francis yesterday. Young altar servers, accompanied by some of their bishops, on a pilgrimage to Rome. To their great surprise Pope Francis addressed them in German. In my translation:
“The words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that we heard, make us sit up and listen. The time is right, Paul says. God is serious now. What God has always told the people through the prophets He now shows us with a striking example. God explains us that He is a good father. And how does He do so? By the fact that He made His Son man. Through this concrete human being Jesus we can understand what God really means. He wants human beings, who are free but know themselves always to be secure as children of a good father.
To release this, God needs only a man. He needs a woman, a mother, to bring His Son into the world as a human being. That is the Virgin Mary, whom we honour with these Vespers tonight. She was completely free. In her freedom she has said yes. She has done what is good for all time. That is how she has served God and the people. Let’s keep her example in mind when we want to know what God expects from us as His children.”
After the Vespers, four altar servers asked questions to Pope Francis. The first question was about how young people could play a bigger part in the life of the Church, as suggested by the Holy Father in Evangelii Gaudium, and also what the Church expects from altar servers? The second server asked for advice in how to respond to friends who do not understand why anyone would want to be an altar server at the expense of other passtimes. Question three dealt with freedom, and how to experience, understand it in a life which has so many rules.
Pope Francis answered:
I thank you for this encounter on the occasion of your pilgrimage to Rome and I want to give you some food for thought related to the questions that your representatives have asked me.
You have asked me what you can do to contribute more in the Church and what the Christian community expects from you as altar servers. Let’s first remember that the world needs people who attest to others that God loves us and that He is our father. Everyone in society has the obligation to serve the common good by contributing to what is essential: food, clothing, medical care, education, information, the legal system, and so on. As disciples of the Lord we have an additional task, namely to be the “channels”, the lines which pass the love of Jesus on to others. And in this duty you, youth and young adults, have a special role: You are called to tell your contemporaries about Jesus – not just in the parishes or organisations, but especially outside them. That is a task which has been especially entrusted to you, because with your courage, your enthusiasm, your spontaneity and your sociability it is easier to reach the thoughts and hearts of those who have drifted away from the Lord. Many people of your age have an enormous desire for someone who tells them, with their lives, that Jesus knows us, loves us, forgives us, shares our problems and supports us with His mercy.
But in order to speak with others about Jesus, we must known and love Him, experience Him in prayer and in His Word. You have the advantage in that respect, because of your service in the liturgy, which allows you to be near to Jesus, the Word and the Bread of Life. Let me give you some advice: The Gospel reading you hear in the liturgy, read it again for yourselves, in silence, and apply it to your lives. And with the love of Christ, which you have received in Holy Communion, you will be able to put it into practice. The Lord calls each of you today to work in His field. He calls you to be happy players in His Church, willing to share with your friends what He has shared with your, especially His mercy.
I understand your problems of combining your service at the altar with your other activities, which are necessary for your human development and cultural formation. So you must organise a bit, plan things in a balanced way… but you are German, so that should be easy! Our life consists of time, and that time is a gift from God, so it must be used for good and fruitful things. Perhaps many young people waste too many hours with useless things: chatting on the Internet or on your mobile phone, but also with television programs. The products of technological progress, which should simplify life or increase its quality, are sometimes distractions from what is really important. Among the many things which are part of our daily routine, those that remind us of our Creator, who gives us life, who loves us and accompanies us on our journey through life, should have priority.
Because God has created us in His image we have also received from Him this great gift of freedom. But when we don’t use this freedom properly it can move us away from God, can let us lose that dignity which He has given us. That is why guidance, rules and regulations are necessary – both in society and also in the Church – to help us do the will of God and to live in this way according to our dignity as human beings and children of God. When freedom is not influenced by the Gospel it can turn into slavery, the slavery of sin. Adam and Eve, our first parents, moved away from the will of God and so fell into sin, and also into a bad use of freedom. Dear young friends, do not use your freedom wrongly! Do not waste your great dignity as children of God, which has been given to you. When you follow Jesus and His Gospel, your freedom will bloom like a flower and bear good and rich fruits. You will find true joy, since God wants us to be completely happy and fulfilled. Only when we immerse ourselves in the will of God, we can do what is good and be both the light of the world and the salt of the earth!
The Virgin Mary, who understood herself to be the “handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), is your example in the service of God. She, our mother, will help you, young people full of hope and courage, to be workers for good and labourers for peace in the Church and in society.”
In a recent circular letter, the text of which I have only come across in Spanish, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments announces some measures to ensure greater dignity and less distraction when it comes to the sign of peace in the Mass.
Although I have personally rarely experienced this moment in the Mass a overly distracting, its place in the liturgy may be considered odd, coming as it does at a moment when we are focussed on Christ among us in the bread and wine that have just been consecrated. We have prayed the Our Father and will soon come forward to receive Him in the communion. The sign of peace asks us to look to the people around us and exchange our wishes for peace with them. This can be distracting, as the question arises how many people to greet (just those immediately around you, the pews in front and behind you, people across the aisle?) and how long and in what manner to do so. In more enthusiastic societies, this may be fairly distracting and even disruptive in the atmosphere and focus of the liturgy. More subdued communities will, clearly, have less of a problem here.
In order to lessen this distraction and increase awareness of the actual meaning of the sign of peace, the Congregation proposes four things:
- It first emphasises that the gesture is not obligatory. The priest is free to decide when it is and is not suitable to invite the faithful to exchange the sign of peace. In my own parish I have seen this happen in weekday Masses, where there is no sign of peace, as opposed to the Masses on Sunday.
- Bishops’ conferences should think about making changes in how the sign of peace is made. Familiar and worldly greeting should be substituted with more appropriate ones. So, no high-fives, backslaps, bearhugs and such, but, for example, a short handshake, kiss, bow or other gesture.
- Clear abuses of the rite, like other liturgical abuses, are right out. No song of peace in place of a gesture between individual faithful, no roaming about the church looking for friends to greet, and during wedding or funeral Masses it should not be an occasion for congratulations or condolences.
- Lastly the Congregation urges the bishops’conferences to prepare catechesis on the sign of peace and how it should be observed.
In the end, the final point is the most important one: catechesis for both clergy and faithful. Without knowledge or awareness, there is no proper use or benefit. The sign of peace is never strictly horizontal, between people alone. It first has to be vertical, between God and man, before it can use its horizontal dimension. The sign of peace in the Mass is not like a regular greeting in the streets. In it we pass on the peace that Christ gives us (John 14:27), we must first receive before we can give. Let’s hope this letter will bear fruit.
And, dear Congregation, get some other official translations out…
Photo credit:  Jennifer Willems