More than just receiving – After Amoris laetitia, some thoughts on Communion and being Catholic

Communion-WafersAlmost a month since the publication of Amoris laetitia, it becomes untenable to claim that the notorious footnote 351 somehow opens the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. The debate is far from over, but over the course of the past weeks there have been an increasing number of authorities who explained that, no, this is not what the Pope intended to say. Cardinals Christoph Schönborn – named by Pope Francis to have given the right interpretation of the entire document -, Walter Brandmüller and Gerhard Müller are among these. The teaching on the subject as written down by Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris consortio remains current. And it couldn’t be any different, as Cardinal Burke also emphasised: an Apostolic Exhortation does not have the intention or authority to change doctrine.

I have been among those who have accussed Pope Francis of being unclear on this topic, but he isn’t really. It’s just that he never intended Amoris laetitia to give an authoritative solution, but to urge pastors and faithful to be creative and come up with solutions within the framework of the teachings of the Catholic Church. We must read the text with his emphases and focus, not our own.

Personally I find one of the clearest, and most often overlooked, points to be that the Catholic Church knows seven sacraments, of which the Eucharist is one. The footnote speaks only of ‘sacraments’, which in certain cases may be a help to couples who live in socalled irregular situations. This must, the Pope clearly indicates time and again, be decided on a case by case basis, conscious of the sensitive situation they might be in, and I can imagine that the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Confession can all certainly get a look in in these decisions. The possible solution presented in footnote 351 is therefore of a greater scope than what the vast majority of commenters – on both sides of the issue – have been saying.

And here we find a major cause of the problem: apparently, so many people think, you’re not really a part of the Church unless you receive Holy Communion. And not only that, there exists a right to receive Communion. This is both blatantly untrue. Our Catholic identity is in the first place not based in Communion but in Baptism, and secondly it extends far further than the act of receiving (or, in too many cases, taking) Communion. Unless we realise that, we are doomed to remain focussed on the question of who can and can not receive and thus, who is and is not really a part of our Catholic community. Pope Francis is determined to fight this latter idea, and if we are to side with him in that fight, we must re-evaluate our ideas about Holy Communion.

But let no one think I consider Eucharist and Communion not really that important. The Eucharist is the most valuable treasure the Church has. It is Christ, and the Church physically gives Him to the people. There can be no greater gift. This dictates how we relate to this sacrament. An honest desire to receive Communion is a good thing: we desire to receive Christ, make Him a part of ourselves, or ourselves a part of Him (Communion is like eating, but also completely unlike eating).

However, the Eucharist also inspires us, enables us to be Catholic, live a Christian life. This is expressed in prayer, in charity, in the works of mercy (both spiritual and corporal) and in every part of our lives. Or it should be. The proper understanding and relation with Christ in the Eucharist is a necessity in making it work in us. I have compared it to medication (in a field hospital, if you will): if we don’t change our lives and avoid what makes us sick, no amount of pills is going to make us better.

Holy Communion is a gift, and we are asked to not only accept it but make it fruitful in us. And sometimes we can’t. The situation of a family in which one of the spouses was previously married, but who both have the responsibility for children born in that second relationship, is an example. It is an objective fact, in which accusations and responsibility play no part, that this couple lives in an irregular situation and therefore can not receive Communion. But our Catholic faith is greater than that, and by no means are these people excluded from the most holy. Even being in the presence of the Holy Eucharist can be a sanctifying event, which is why the Holy Father emphases the importance of Adoration. The sacrament of Confession, to which footnote 351 is also open, can be a powerful help for people in this situation, even when they can’t change their objectively sinful situation.

We must not downplay the value of Communion, but neither should we deny the power of the Eucharist and the inspiration and strength it gives us to live Christian lives, even if we can’t physically receive it. Prayer, Confession, charity, mercy, solidarity are all fruits of the eternal sacrifice of Christ which, ever new, comes to us through the Eucharist. Let us emphasise what we can, and not what we can’t.

Some thoughts about Amoris laetitia, doctrine, mercy and Communion

While it is far from the main point of Amoris laetitia or the Synod of Bishops assemblies that preceeded it, the question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion is one that has kept people occupied both during and after the publication of the Post-Synodal Exhortation. That is in part due to the fact that Amoris laetitia does not give a clear answer*, although Pope Francis has indicated that he does not aim to change Church teaching with his text. And current Church teaching is that people whose first married is considered valid and who are in a relation with someone else are objectively adulterous and thus can not receive Holy Communion. Of course, the bare words of the law do not – and can not – take the specific situation of every couple into account, and are therefore necessarily general.

Amoris laetitia instead discusses the pastoral approach to people in such situations, and this is the place where the specifics of an individual relationship, marriage, divorce and second marriage can be discussed and interpreted. That still does not mean that the law can be changed there, but it is the place where understanding can be given, different ways in which a person can be a part of the life of the Church (a major focus of the Exhortation) and also where solutions to normalise their situation (called ‘irregular’ in Church legalese) can be found.

I have seen many comments which interpret the legal considerations as some form of punishment for people failing in marriage. This is of course not so. The law deals with factual situations, not with the reasons for the existence of those facts (although these can be taken into account when a court is asked for an opinion or verdict in a specific case).

In the end, and I have said this before, Jesus Himself gave the perfect summary of how to relate to people who, for whatever reason, failed to live up to the ideal. In the Gospel of John, chapter 8, we read of Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in adultery. After an episode in which He confronts the scribes and Pharisees with their own hypocricy, the Lord tells the woman that he will not condemn her (mercy, the pastoral approach), but also that she should not sin from then on (the law). The law is clear, but never asks for the condemnation of people.  Jesus forgives our past mistakes, but also asks us not to make the same mistakes again. And in the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics it is clear that this means that we should not condemn the people concerned, but welcome them into our Church communities. But at the same time it is clear that they can’t continue in their objectively sinful state (just like the woman in the Gospel can’t continue sleeping around with other men). What exactly can and must change in each specific situation is a matter for the pastoral sphere, where the law provides a framework.

And here Pope Francis’ sadness, expressed during Saturday’s flight back from Lesbos, at how too many people only focus on this specific question, becomes understandable. The context of the mistakes made is not inconsequential; their causes lie elsewhere and affect the entire edifice of marriage and family. It is about more than Communion (which no one has a right to, anyway): it is about broken families, divorce, adultery, economic uncertainty, unwillingness or inability to get married, falling birth rates… Yes, access to the sacraments, or lack thereof, is one of the consequences of these crises, but we should not make the mistake of considering it the only one.

Yes, there is a development of doctrine, as many have said. Not of its roots, which lie in the Gospels and the Tradition of the Church, the bedrock on which the faith grows, but in the application, the choices we make which result in the tree of faith bearing much fruit. We need both, roots and fruit.

*And no, that infamous footnote 351 is no clear answer either, as it mentions sacraments, of which there are seven, and not Holy Communion to the exlucion of the other six.

The obligation of compassion – On Lesbos and St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Pope Francis is visiting Lesbos today, one of the vocal points of the European refugee crisis: here and on other Mediterrenean islands, people from the Middle East arrive in small boats, often extorted by ruthless traffickers for the privilege, on the run from war, violence and poverty in their homelands. Their future? Uncertainty, strange societies, crowded camps and, at worst, a forced return to where they came from.

naamloosIt is perhaps no coincidence that today is also the feast day of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. Born in France in the 18th century, he had the streets of Rome for his home. Often denying himself what he needed, his concerns for his fellow homeless caused him to share his food and even cure the sick in body and mind. In 1783 he died in a hospice, only 39 years old.

Many of the refugees may find themselves in similar situations. Just like St. Benedict Joseph Labre was rejected by the Trappists, the Carthusians and the Cistercians and so began his years wandering the streets, refugees are met with the same indifference, contempt even. To them, their future may not seem so different from that of today’s saint: moving from one place to the next, nowhere at home. They may have a physical roof over their heads in refugee camps and asylum centres, but mentally they may feel homeless.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre, while not having enough to eat for himself, nor a dry place to sleep, still found the will and the means to care for others who had it even worse than he. Can we do less? Can we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, even if we may not like them, distrust them, want them to be somewhere else than in our backyard?

St. Benedict Joseph Labre spent his days in cathedrals and churches, in prayer and adoration. Before God, he learned that mercy and compassion are not dictated by our own situation in life, that we are all called to help, to accept people, not reject them, even at the cost of our own perceived wellbeing. And yes, of course there may be risks in acceptance. Rejection is always the safer option if we want to avoid burdens or challenges. But when comparing risks to the inherent human dignity of everyone, it should be clear where the priority must lie.

Pope Francis’ visit will be a clear example of our obligation to care for others. That obligation does not go away, becomes even greater perhaps, when we hide those others in camps on the edge of our world.

Looking ahead to Amoris laetitia

Today will see the publication of the long-awaited Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris laetitia, on love in the family. It will undoubtedly tackle all the hot-button topics discussed during and in between the two Synod of Bishops gatherings in 2014 and 2015: the question of divoreced and remarried faithful, certainly, but in the first place it will deal with the family and its role in society. As the title suggests, the starting point of Pope Francis’ tome will be love.

The text aims to collect and summarise all the disparate contributions from the Synod fathers and other participants from across the globe. Their thoughts and concerns vary with the places they come from, and what is a chief concern in Europe may be insignificant in Asia, or vice versa. The Exhortation will not and can not provide clear cut solutions that can be applied the same way in every country and community.

So what can we expect from Amoris laetitia? It will be in continuity with established Catholic doctrine. St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is said to have been a major influence. Pope Francis will not change any teachings about marriage, family and the sacraments, and this should be no surprise, really. The Holy Father has been quite clear on those topics. While doctrine will be featured in the text, it will play second fiddle to pastoral care. That is what drives Pope Francis and his ministry in the Church. While the two are equally needed and supplement one another, doctrine must be at the service of pastoral care: without the solid ground of doctrine, pastoral care is inherently dishonest and therefore the opposite of mercy (to link to the Holy Year of Mercy – it is no accident that Amoris laetitia sees the light of day in this year). This is the open Church that Pope Francis wants: a Church that goes out into the streets and gets dirty.

The Exhortation will be lengthy, and Pope Francis has drafted specific reading suggestions for the bishops of the world, as well as a guideline on how they should present the text, asking for press conferences to be called at noon, as the text becomes officially available. This already indicates that the real work of the Exhortation, after the Synods and the drafting, must take place in the dioceses and faith communities. Pastoral care, so emphasised by Pope Francis, has its home there, and from there it must find its way into society.

There will be criticism, in part fueled by the image people have of Pope Francis and his supposed agenda. Such motivation is nothing but a dead end: let’s read Amoris laetitia with an open mind, aware of its roots in the faith and teachings of the Catholic Church, in the person of Jesus Christ, and with an eye on the future and the world we live in. That is where we must make the faith bloom, through our families and our witness of the love that comes from the Lord, and reflects His divine and truine love.

The good death of Good Friday

“And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:37-39)

Christ crucified

The cry of Jesus is that of every crucified person through the ages, everyone who has been abandoned or humiliated, the cry of the martyr and the prophet, of those vilified and unjustly condemned, of those in exile or in prison.  It is the cry of human desperation that leads, however, to the victory of faith which transforms death into eternal life.  “I will tell of your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (Ps 22:22).

Jesus dies on the cross.  Is it the death of God?  No, it is the most solemn celebration of the witness of faith.

The twentieth century has been defined as the century of martyrs.  Examples such as Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein express an immense light.  Today too, the Body of Christ is crucified in many parts of the world.  The martyrs of the twenty-first century are true apostles of the modern world.

In this great darkness the faith is kindled: “Truly, this man was the Son of God!”, because he who dies in this way, turning the desperation of death into hope for life, cannot be a mere man.

The Crucified One is a total offering.
He has held back nothing, not a shred of his clothing, not a drop of his blood, not even his own Mother.
He has given everything: “Consummatum est”.
When one no longer has anything left to give because he has given everything, then he is able to offer true gifts.
Stripped, naked, overcome with wounds, with thirst due to abandonment, with insults:
It is no longer the image of a man.
To give everything: this is charity.
Where what is mine ends, paradise begins.
(Don Primo Mazzolari)

From the Via Crucis meditations (12th station) written by Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, prayed in Rome on Good Friday 2016.

Palm Sunday – The inevitability of the Passion

1491295_10153252553151486_5861478274315205969_o

It’s Palm Sunday, which means Holy Week has begun. In the Gospel reading at Mass we heard the entire Easter narrative, from the Last Supper to Jesus’ entombment – we’ll go over the same events in the course of this week, especially from Thursday onwards. But today we especially marked Jesus’ joyful entrance in Jerusalem:

“Jesus proceeded on his journey up to Jerusalem. As he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples. He said, “Go into the village opposite you, and as you enter it you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here. And if anyone should ask you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you will answer, ‘The Master has need of it.’”
So those who had been sent went off  and found everything just as he had told them. And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them,  “Why are you untying this colt?” They answered, “The Master has need of it.”
So they brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks over the colt, and helped Jesus to mount. As he rode along, the people were spreading their cloaks on the road; and now as he was approaching the slope of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of his disciples
began to praise God aloud with joy for all the mighty deeds they had seen.
They proclaimed: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He said in reply, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!””

Gospel of Luke 19:28-40

This is the reading we heard at the start of Mass. In many places, the faithful then processed into Church, carrying palm branches, so recreating the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. It’s more than symbolism, of course, as Jesus is not just symbolically with us, but in a very real way: it is good to remember that every now and then in the way we behave around Him. If only we wouldn’t change our mind so quickly as the people in Jerusalem did in those faithful days leading up to His Passion. From “Hossanah” to “Crucify Him!” just like that…

The text from the Gospel of Luke above has a distinct sense of things falling into place. Jesus seems to know exactly what needs to be done, as well as what otherwise complete strangers will say and do. Later on, as Jesus prays on the Mount of Olives, we find out more about this inevitability: He ask that this cup be taken from Him, but “not my will, but yours be done”. Jesus knows what needs to be done, and also why: to redeem the people of God, to take all their pain and suffering upon His shoulders, so that they don’t  have to, and accept all the consequences… He is to do what they, we, can’t. What was our death now becomes His. The events we read above seem to prefigure that: it is inevitable that a colt be found, that the owner be told the Master needs it (and that he accepts it), and even the praise is unavoidable. The Pharisees who complain about it are told that if the disciples don’t praise God, the stones will: For what is about to happen, God deserves praise which can’t  be stopped.

Strangely enough, we read nothing here about the people of Jerusalem cheering and waving palm fronds: it is the disciples who are doing the praising and spreading their cloaks on the ground before the colt on which Jesus rides. In the other Gospels, especially in those of John and Matthew, we do read about people coming out of the city to meet and accompany Him. By focussing solely on the disciples, Luke emphasises the contrast between them and Jerusalem: there is a sense of hostility in the city already. The first thing we encounter there are Pharisees almost ordering that Jesus tell His disciples off for their joy. There is jubilation and praise, certainly, but all is not as happy as it seems. The coming days will show exactly how hostile things will become…

Photo credit: Catholic News Agency

How God left the Netherlands – or is it the other way around?

Lots of news on social media today about the latest edition of the five-yearly poll on the faith of the Dutch. In short, the trend is as expected: fewer people who call themselves Christians, who believe in the existence of God, or go to any church. At the same time, and this is perhaps surprising, fewer people call themselves generally spiritual (this despite the apparently steady popularity of vaguely spiritual magazines, websites and television programs).

Among Catholics the trend is largely similar to the overal picture: fewer people remain members of the Catholic Church, and of those who do, fewer are active in the Church. Some numbers: 13% believes in the existence of heaven, and 17% in a personal God. Only one-third of the Dutch Catholics prays every day and less than half believe that Jesus is the Son of God or was sent by Him (in comparison, among Protestants 77% believes that Christ is God). Disconcerting numbers, to be sure. These are essential elements of the Christian faith, but apparently there are many Catholics who see no apparent problem in denying them and continuing to consider themselves Christian.

Does the root of the problem lie in a serious failure of the Church to communicate the faith? Perhaps in part: the Church has become marginalised over the past decades, by forces outside of her control, but also by a creeping fear of being too visibly Christian in society. Many Catholic communities, in my opinion, are content to keep their faith indoors, and when they do make it visible, it is in the form of charitable and social activities, which are laudable in their own right, but not exclusive to churches and faith communities. Another element, I think, is the extreme individualism prevalent in Dutch society. Certainly, society is still social, but when it comes to religion, the general idea is that people have to make up their own minds, and that means figuring it all out for themselves. For those many people who call themselves atheist, agnostic or vaguely spiritual, the decision to become Christian would be a personal one and one that must not be influenced by what others say, or else the individual’s freedom becomes curtailed. Others see religion is essentially curtailing freedom, but they are often blind to the fact that any life philosophy, including their own, is equally or even more curtailing. The moment one makes a choice or a decision, other options become impossible, and so the freedom to choose it has vanished. Lastly, an increasing number of people see no need to believe in God. They get along fine in society, and even if they don’t, they do not see how faith will change any of that. The value and need for faith is invisible, and so is the distinction between the various religions. What does it matter if you are Catholic or Protestant, Jew of Buddhist, if it works for you and it all boils down to being nice to each other? Here lies perhaps the hardest challenge for us: how to show the value of faith.

There is, however, always hope. Catholics under 40 are generally more orthodox in faith and practice, and that is a new trend. New and young Catholics do not want mere general sentiments of being nice. They can get that anywhere. They want a solid body of faith and philosophy, teaching and action. And the Catholic Church has that aplenty. It’s a shame that that is too often hidden.

Should we be overly worried about these developments? Of course, we are talking about increasing numbers of people who do not know about the truth of their existence. That is a concern. But God does not depend on popularity. He does not abandon His people, not even in the Netherlands. Let these numbers be an incentive for us, as Catholics, not to hide behind the doors of our churces, to take the faith out into the Streets, show its value and invite others in.