Communion – Understanding Pope Francis

EDIT: At the bottom of this post, I have added some thoughts about the story Pope Francis told about a bishop he knew, a story that initially caused some confusion.

During a question round in the Lutheran church community in Rome, yesterday, Pope Francis was asked about the sensitive topic of receiving Communion as a non-Catholic. The person asking the question was a Lutheran lady with a Catholic husband, and she wondered when it was possible for them to receive Communion together. As both the Catholic and Lutheran churches have this sacrament, it is unclear if she was referring to receiving in a Catholic Mass or a Lutheran service. Basically, she could have been asking how she, a Lutheran, could receive Communion in a Catholic Mass, or how her husband, a Catholic, could receive the bread in a Lutheran service. Both are different situations, but revolve around the same problem: receiving the sacraments while not fully accepting the belief that comes with it.

pope francis lutherans

Pope Francis’ answer, provided here by Rocco Palmo*, is quite difficult to follow. The Holy Father is sometimes a challenge to understand (that’s  what you get with a man who speak from the heart, and often spontaneously – and this is not a slight against him), but now he left me scratching my head. In short, he leaves the decision to receive Communion to the woman’s conscience, but also mentions that the choice should be made “only if one is sincere with oneself and the little theological light one has”. In other words, with a formed conscience. There is no mention of the importance of truly understanding what Communion in Catholic teaching is. This could possibly be off-putting in this context, but on the other hand, we can’t  go around pretending that Communion, the receiving of the very Body and Blood of the Lord, is a matter that can be decided by people individually… With that I mean that, while every person must make an examination of conscience and decide whether or not to receive, no one can decide that he or she can receive in circumstances that another can not.

It is also interesting to note that Pope Francis immediately stated that he is not competent to decide if a non-Catholic can receive Communion in a Catholic Church. Well, if the Pope can’t, who can?

This underlines how important an issue this is: we are talking about the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and the honour and worship that this is due. Not allowing people to receive is neither a matter of denying a right to them, nor a punishment for sins committed. It is not rooted in human failings, but in the honour of glory of God, whom we should not receive without accepting Him fully. There are no ifs and buts in allowing the Lord to make us His own. To receive Him conditionally, which is what we do when we known that He can not fully inhabit us (because there are certain obstacles in our path towards Him), disgraces both Him and us. We are called to so much more than that.

This leaves open another question that Pope Francis asks: “To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path or is it the viaticum [etym. “to accompany you on the journey”] for walking together?” In other words, is it a prize at the end of the road, or a support to help us walk the path? Maybe Communion is just the start of a path, of a journey with God? We all know that no one who receives Communion is automatically perfect, not even when they have made an examination of their conscience and found there is nothing to prevent them come forward and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. There are very few saints walking back to the pew afterwards. For us, in our imperfections and failings, Communion is a viaticum. But even a viaticum must be allowed to work. And, this is important, God’s mercy and support is not limited to Communion. In the debates about who should and should not receive, it often seems as if God’s mercy takes the exclusive form of consecrated bread and wine. It does not.

As a final aside, we also receive Communion as part of the community. Our coming forward and receiving, our saying “Amen” after the priest holds up the host with the words “The Body of Christ”, is an acknowledgement of our belief in that dogma and the entire faith that comes from that – the Eucharist, after all, is the source and summit of our faith. Someone who is a faithful Protestant with significant differences in belief, can’t pretend to acknowledge the Catholic faith. Neither can a Catholic acknowledge the faith of another church community with teachings that disagree fundamentally with those of the Catholic Church.

* The translation provided by Zenit offers more clarity than the one I linked to above, not least about what the Pope said about a bishop he knew: “I had a great friendship with an Episcopalian Bishop, 48, married, with two children, and he had this anxiety: his wife was Catholic, his children were Catholics, he was a Bishop. On Sundays he accompanied his wife and his children to Mass and then he went to worship with his community. It was a step of participation in the Lord’s Supper. Then he went on, the Lord called him, a righteous man.” This would then be Episcopalian Bishop Tony Palmer, who had the desire to become Catholic. He was good friends with Pope Francis and died after a motorcycle accident in 2014. Previously, it was assumed that the Holy Father was referring to Argentine Bishop Jerónimo Podestá, who married and was subsequently removed as bishop and barred from exercising his priestly ministry. On his deathbed in 2000, then-Archbishop Bergoglio reached out to him, the only Argentine prelate to do so. A friend refers to the following passages from magisterial documents that are relevant in this context: Ecclesia de Eucharistia 46 and 46, Ut Unum Sint 56 and Sacramentum Caritatis 56. These texts discuss the existing possibility for members of other church communities to receive the Eucharist, when they “greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments. Conversely, in specific cases and in particular circumstances, Catholics too can request these same sacraments from ministers of Churches in which these sacraments are valid” (Ut Unum Sint, 46).

Some have said that Pope Francis only spoke about the Lutheran Last Supper, but the example of Bishop Palmer, who accompanied his wife and children to Mass (there is no mention of him receiving communion, so the Pope carefully steers clear of commenting on that). This is undoubtedly similar to the problem faced by the woman who asked the question. The Pope does not just speak about Catholics receiving sacraments in other Church communities, but just as much, if not more, about non-Catholics receiving Catholic sacraments.

Just before the announcement, an interview with Archbishop De Kesel

Minutes before today’s announcement and presentation of the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Kerknet had the chance to sit down and ask a few questions to Archbishop-elect Jozef De Kesel. The interview about memories of the past and hopes for the future gives some idea of who Msgr. De Kesel is.

In my translation:

aartsbisschop-jozef-de-keselAt your ordination as priest you were surrounded by priests of the family, and especially also your uncle, Leo De Kesel [auxiliary bishop of Ghent from 1960 to 1991, who ordained his nephew]. Was it a matter of course for you to follow in their footsteps?

“The well-known Uncle Fons, a Norbertine from Averbode Abbey, was also there. But no, in 1965 it was already not a matter of course anymore. My vocation comes in part from the family context, but also from my involvement in the Catholic Social Action and in the parish, where a group of us studied the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council.”

Who were your mentors?

“In that time we read, for example, Romano Guardini. I also followed the movement around Charles de Foucauld. Later, when I studied theology, I read with interest the Jesus book and other literature of Msgr. Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner and Willem Barnard.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a great source of inspiration for me. I mostly discovered him when I was responsible for the Higher Institute of Religion in Ghent. I was so fascinated by Letters and Papers from Prison that I subsequently read all his works.”

What connects these inspirations?

“The theologians teach me that the Christian faith is a great treasure with a rich content and tradition. Bonhoeffer teaches me to understand that this tradition can be experienced in different contexts.

We no longer live in the  homogenous Christian society of the past. But the comfortable situation of that time is not the only context in which to experience your faith.”

As bishop you chose the motto “with you I am a Christian” in 2002. What did you mean by that?

“The first part of the quote by St. Augustine is, “For you I am a bishop”. By choosing only the second part I clearly state that my first calling as a bishop is to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. Everything else follows from that. For me it is important to jointly take responsibility. That responsibility binds us as a society. The quote is also a clear choice for collegiality in exercising authority. I am very happy with the three auxiliary bishops that I can count on in the archdiocese.”

What are the great challenges for the Church today?

“The question is not so much how many priests we need and how to organise ourselves. But: what do we have to say to society? Formation and the introduction into the faith are very important for that. It is not a question of having to take an exam in order to be a part of it. There can be many degrees of belonging. But we can assume that there is a certain question or desire when people come to Church.

Don’t misunderstand me. A smaller Church must also be an open Church and relevant for society.”

What sort of Church do you dream of?

“A Church that accepts that she is getting smaller. The Church is in a great process of change and that sometimes hurts. But that does not mean that there is decay. There have been times in which the Church was in decay while triumphing.

I dream of a Church that radiates a conviction, that radiates the person of Jesus Christ. Of an open Church which is not only occupied with religious questions, but also with social problems such as the refugee crisis.

Politics have to be neutral, but society is not. Christians are a part of that and should express themselves.”

You did not take part in the Synod on the family, but will probably get to work with its proposals. What will stay with you from this Synod?

“The Synod may not have brought the concrete results that were hoped for, such as allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. But it is unbelievable how much it was a sign of a Church that has changed. The mentality is really not the same anymore.

I may be a careful person, but I do not think we should be marking time. Mercy is an important word for me, but in one way or another it is still  somewhat condescending. I like to take words like respect and esteem for man as my starting point. And that may be a value that we, as Christians, share with prevailing culture.”

May we assume that you will take up the thread of Cardinal Danneels?

“It is of course not my duty to imitate him, but I have certainly learned much from him. Also from Msgr. Luysterman [Bishop of Ghent from 1991 to 2003], by the way, with whom I have long worked in Ghent.”

Your predecessor liked to court controversy in the media. Pope Francis stands out for his human style. What is the style we may expect from you?

“In the papers I have already been profiled as not mediagenic. We will see. For my part, I will at least approach the media openly and confident.”

Will you be living in Brussels, like Msgr. Léonard, or will you choose the archbishop’s palace in Mechelen?

“Msgr. Léonard will be staying in Brussels for a while, so my first home will be Mechelen. I think it would be interesting to alternate and also have a place in Brussels.”

You like Brussels, don’t you? And Brussels likes you.

“The love is mutual, yes. I am certainly no stranger to the French speaking community in our country.”

The Church in Brussels announced this week that Confirmation and First Communion will now be celebrated at the same time, at the age of ten. A renewal you can agree with?

“I wrote the brochure about the renewal of the sacraments of initiation myself, and I conclude that Brussels interprets my text to the full. I am very happy about that. Brussels immediately shows itself as the laboratory of renewal that I so appreciate about it.”

The five years in Bruges were not easy. How have they changed you as a man or what did you learn from them?

“In Bruges I had final responsibility in an environment I did not know well. As auxiliary bishop I was happy to often discuss things with the archbishop, and now I was more on my own. As archbishop I am very happy to be able to rely on three good auxiliary bishops with whom I will be pleased to discuss matters. Like my time as episcopal vicar in Ghent and as auxiliary bishop in Brussels, I consider the past five years as an important learning experience.”

“An uphill marathon” – Cardinal Eijk after the Synod

Eijk%20synode%201%20klIn a press conference in Rome, snippets of which were released by Katholiek Nieuwsblad and, Cardinal Eijk spoke about the Synod of Bishops in which he participated as the sole Dutch Synod father, calling it an uphill marathon because of the workload and long days. Below I share some quotes, in which the cardinal comments on some of the issues that were widely reported, such as the alleged fighting between parties among the Synod fathers:

“It sometimes seemed as if we were contantly fighting, but that is not how I experienced it. The Pope had asked to speak in parresia, that is to say with great frankness, and that is what happened, both in the plenary meetings and in the smaller language groups. Regarding some questions it became clear that there were different visions, but there was room for that.”

About changes in the Church’s approach to marriage, Cardinal Eijk stated once again that the doctrine of the Church was not going to change. Marriage preparation, however, was much emphasised as a topic that the Church needed to develop.

“Pope Francis himself has said several times that he will not change the Church’s teachings and that that was not the goal of the Synod. The topic of the Synod is the pastoral care towards marriage and family. An important conclusion of this Synod is that the preparation for a religious marriage must be well developed. For example, in Italy there are extensive programs for marriage preparation, and in the Archdiocese of Utrecht, too, there is the intention of intensifying marriage preparation. Before people enter into a marriage in the Church, they must know well what this means. With a marriage according to her teaching, which is based on the words of Jesus himself, the Church asks much of spouses, but they can also rely on God giving them the required strength and mercy.”

And there it is again, the debate about Communion for divorced and remarried faithful…

“It is good to emphasise once again that divorced and remarried faithful do not need to be outside the Church. The Church is also there for them, and God’s grace also comes to them in different way than through Holy Communion. Hearing and reading the Word of God and prayer are sources of grace.”

The Synod is not perfect, and nothing it does carries magisterial weight. Only the Holy Father’s Apostolic Exhortation, if it appears, does. The cardinal summarised what the Synod did do:

“As Synod Fathers we are certainly not perfect, and in that sense the Synod is also not perfect. But the Pope is the guarantee of unity in the Church and as faithful we can rely on the Holy Spirit leading God’s Church. Although the doctrine of the Church will not change, there are certainly improvements possible concerning fruitful pastoral care regarding marriage and family.”

And finally, Cardinal Eijk had to face the question about that leaked letter from a group of cardinal to the Pope, in which they expressed their concerns about the new form of the Synod. Ultimately, the cardinal chose not provide and answer:

“I do not think that I should discuss my private correspondence with the Holy Father. So I will neither deny nor confirm that I signed that letter.”

Bishop Hendriks looks back at the Synod and the question of Communion

In his blog, Bishop Jan Hendriks speaks about the headline topic of the Synod of Bishops that was concluded this weekend. Rather than limiting the question to whether divorced and remarried Catholics should receive Communion, Bishop Hendriks identifies the greater problem of receiving without due preparation or even awareness. Communion, he says, has become a social event:

hendriks-s“In the media and the discussions outside the Synod much emphasis was given to divorced people who had remarried and the conditions under which they could perhaps receive Holy Communion. Beforehand, the Pope had already repeatedly stated that this was not the most important issue and certainly not the panacea for all problems. There is, however, a problem to such an extent that, certainly in our western society, everyone goes to receive Communion, without the necessary preparation: without faith in the Eucharist, without remorse over sins, without Confession, without the desire to follow Christ and live as honest Christians. Communion has become a social event and that is actually quite terrible, as the most substantial what the Church is about – salvation, the faith and the imitation of Jesus Christ – is being forgotten. And then it seems that only those who can’t receive Communion stand out, while there are so many others… But isn’t the real problem that a new awareness has to develop about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus?”

Harsh words they may seem at first glance, but also definitely true. The awareness of Who it is we receive as a matter of habit is severely lacking in many places. The reasons for that are myriad, and can not be limited to insufficient catechesis alone (although that certainly plays its part), I believe. The solution is also not overly straightforward to come by, but at the heart would lie not only an awareness of what Communion is, but also a faith in the truth of the Holy Eucharist. Faith is not in the first place taught by catechesis alone. Visible examples come first. If we don’t show our own faith, we can’t expect others to become interested in it.

If we truly understand Communion, and have faith in Him who comes down to us in the humblest way, it becomes less of a habit or social event, and more an act of worship. The question of who has a right to receive the Lord is besides the point: no one can exercise the right to receive. We do, however, have a duty to make sure that the holiest we have been given can take root in us. And that requires an effort on our part.

The last big step – the German language group’s third commentary

The last big contribution of the German language group, their commentary on the third part of the Instrumentum laboris. There are several interesting elements in it, to begin with the first paragraph in which the Synod fathers strongly criticise the comments of some of their colleagues about what happens in the deliberations. They also criticise a too-strict application of the rules, and especially the language used in doing so.

Despite the expectations of some, the group also comes out strong in defence of the family and magisterial documents sich as Humanae vitae and Familiaris consortio.

The most difficult topic is left until last: the question of allowing divorced and civilly remarried faithful access to the sacraments? The German language group seems to be in favour of it, but also emphasises that this is a decision that needs to be made in the internal forum, in conversation between the people concerned and the priest accompanying them, and it involves some tough questions.

The German original is here, and my translation follows:

We have witnessed with great concern and regret the public statements from certain Synod fathers about persons, content and course of the Synod. These contradict the spirit of walking together, the spirit of the Synod and its fundamental rules. The imagery and comparisons used are not simplistic and false, but also hurtful. We firmly distance ourselves from these.

It is a joint desire of the German language group to complement the title of the Relatio finalis, “The Vocation and the Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World”, with the subtitle “Considerations and suggestion for the Holy Father, Pope Francis, in order to better express the classification of the text, which is not a decisive document. We recommend for the introduction a mention of the global questionnaire and an expression of gratitude and esteem.

Regarding a clearer emphasis on the family as subject of pastoral care it should be specified that Christian families are call to witness of the Gospel of marriage which has been entrusted to them. The Christian spouses and families are part of a new family of Christ, His Church. In that way the spouses can be a sacrament for the world. The “new family of Jesus Christ”, the Church, should encourage, strengthen and enable  the spouses to be such witnesses. This allows, after all, the Church to always learn from the spouses’ and families’ experiences of life and faith.

Here, a confession was important to us: wrongly understood efforts to uphold the Church’s  teachings time and again led to hard and merciless attitudes, which hurt people, especially single mothers and children born out of wedlock, people living together before or in place of marriage, homosexually oriented people and divorced and remarried people. As bishops of our Church we ask these people for forgiveness.

We have also spoken extensively about the relation between speech, thought and action, especially regarding a humane understanding of human sexuality. A suitable and renewable language is is crucial, in the first place for the introduction of adolescent children and youth to a mature human sexuality. This is in the first place the task of the parent and can not be left to education at school or media and social media alone. Many parents and pastoral workers find it difficult to find an appropriate and at the same respectful language which places biological  sexuality in the overall context of friendship, love, enriching complementarity and the mutual commitment of woman and man.

The working group found it important to emphasise that the Christian conviction in its basis assumes that God has created humanity as man and woman and has blessed them so that they become one flesh and fruitful (cf. Gen. 1:27 onwards; 2:24). In their equal personal dignity, as in their distinctiveness, man and woman are Gods good creation. Although, according to the Christian understanding of the unity of body of soul, biological gender (“sex”) and social-cultural gender roles (“gender”) are analytically different from one another, they can not be fundamentally or arbitrarily separated. All theories that regard human sexes as a subsequent construct and encourage an arbitrary social interchangeability, are te be rejected as ideologies. The unity of body of soul includes that the concrete social self-image and social role of men and women in cultures are different and subject to pronounced change. Therefore, the awareness of the full personal dignity and the public responsibility of women is a positive sign of the times that the Church values and encourages (cf. Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris, 22).

We have spoken about the connection between the sacraments of baptism and marriage and the necessity of faith.

The Catholic confession about marriage is based on the word of the Lord in Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition and is faithfully retained in its substance through the magisterium. Nevertheless, there are tensions between the dogmatic, moral-theological and canonical approaches in the theological development, which can lead to difficulties in pastoral practice.

For example, the axiom “every marriage contract between Christian is a sacrament per se” must be reconsidered. In societies that are no longer homogeneous Christian, or countries with different cultural and religious backgrounds, a Christian understanding of marriage can no longer be readily assumed, even among Catholics. A Catholic without faith in God and His revelation in Jesus Christ can not automatically enter into a sacramental marriage without or even against his knowledge or will. He lacks the intention to at least want what the Church understands as marriage. Although the sacraments are not effective through the faith of the recipient, they, but also not without or regardless of him; At the least, the grace remains fruitless, when it is not received freely and willingly with faith determined by love.

The question also arises among our fellow Christians whose religious convictions deny the sacramentality of marriage (with its essential properties), if a sacramental marriage has occurred despite this. This does not mean that the validity of non-Catholic marriages is denied by the Church, or that the the work of God’s  mercy in non-sacramental marriages is questioned. We acknowledged the variety of studies about this question and recommend and deeper study of these questions with the goal of a new magisterial reappraisal and a greater coherence of the dogmatic, moral-theological and canonical statements about marriage with pastoral practice.

We have an addition to interfaith marriages: In view of the topic of interfaith marriage the positive aspects and the special vocation of such a marriage must be mentioned in the first place, as the non-Catholic Christians are in no way outside the one Church, but are a part of it through Baptism and a certain, if imperfect, communion (cf. Unitatis redintegratio, 3). Interfaith marriages may also be considered as house churches and have a specific vocation and mission, consisting in the exchange of gifts in the ecumenism of life.

In view of the importance of the family in society and state, the working group underlines as starting point, that marriage and family precede the state. They are basis and “vital cell of society” (Apostolicam actuositatem, 11). There can be no common life without family. The political community is therefore obliged to do everything to enable and permanently promote this “vital cell”. The repeatedly bemoaned “structural disregard” for the family must be overcome. The means for that are in the first place access to housing and work, the facilitation of education and childcare, as well as fairer benefits for families in tax legislation which acknowledges in equitable manner what families give to society. It should ne clear: not the family must be subordinate to economic interests, but vice versa. The family is at the heart of Catholic social teaching, which is an indispensable part of the Church’s proclamation and evangelisation. All Christians are called to be engaged in the field of  the political design of social coexistence and so to help families live better lives and flourish. Additionally, politicians must especially observe the principle of subsidiarity and not restrict the rights of families. Here, the “Charter of the Rights of the Family” must be noted. The Church as a whole must play an active and exemplary part with her engagement in the realm of family education, child care, schools, counseling centers and institutions for family aid.

In view of marriage preparation it was a concern of the working group to point out that a short conversation or a brief introduction do not suffice. Since many couples are unable to build upon an education marked by faith, the introduction of a marriage catechumenate is strongly recommended, taking at least several months, to really come to a mature “yes”, carried by faith, that is aware of the finality of the marriage covenant and trusts in God’s  faithfulness.

The aspect of responsible parenthood was one of the central discussion topics in the working group. According to the order of God’s creation, the marital love of husband and wife and the transmission of human life are ordered towards one another. God has called man and woman to participate in his work of creation and at the same time as interpreters of His love and placed the future of mankind in their hands. Husband and wife should realise this mission of creation in responsible parenthood. Before the face of God, and with consideration of their medical, economic, psychological and social situation, their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of this children, as well as the wellbeing of the greater family and society, they will decide the number and spacing in time of their children (Gaudium et spes, 50). According to the integral personal and human character of conjugal love the right way of family planning is the consensual call of the spouses, the consideration of the rhythm and the respect for the dignity of the partner. In this sense the Encyclical Humanae vitae (10-12) and the Apostolic Letter Familiaris consortio (14, 28-35) should be redeveloped and the willingness to have children be awakened, contrary to a mentality that is often hostile to life and partly to children.

Young spouses should be encouraged time and again to give life to children. This will make the openness to life in family, Church and society grow. The Church, with her numerous facilities for children contribute to a greater childfriendliness for children in society, but also in the Church. Observing responsible parenthood requires the formation of conscience. Conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et spes, 16). The more spouses set out to listen to God in conscience, and the more they allow themselves to be guided spiritually, the more their decisions will be inwardly free from affective inclinations and the adaptation of their behaviour to society. For the sake of this freedom of conscience the Church strongly rejects forced government measures in favour of contraception, sterilisation or even abortion.

We have also debated extensively about the integration of divorced and civilly remarried people in the Church community.

It is known that there has been strong struggle, in  both sessions of the Synod of Bishops, about the questions of whether and to what extent divorced and remarried, faithful, when they want to take part in the life of the Church, can, under certain circumstances, receive the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. The discussions have shown that there are no simple and general solutions to this question. We bishops have experienced the tensions connected to this question as many of our faithful, their concerns and hopes, warnings and expectations have accompanied us in our deliberations.

The discussions clearly show that some clarification and explanation to further develop the complexity of these questions in the light of the Gospel, the doctrine of the Church and with the gift of discernment. We can freely mention some criteria which may help in our discernment. The first criterium is given by Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris consortio 84, when he invites us: “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid”. It is therefore the duty of the pastors to travel this path of discernment together with those concerned. It would be helpful to take, in an honest examination of conscience, the step of contemplation and penance together. The divorced and remarried should then ask themselves how they dealt with their children when their marital Union fell into crisis? Where there attempts at reconciliation? What is the situation of the partner left behind? What is the effect of the new relationship on the greater family and the community of faithful? What is the example for the young who are discerning marriage? An honest contemplation can strengthen trust in the mercy of God, which He refuses no one who brings their failures and needs before Him.

Such a path of contemplation and penance can, in the forum internum, with an eye on the objective situation in conversation with the confessor, lead to personal development of conscience and to clarification, to what extent access to the sacrament is possible. Every individual must examine himself according to the word of the Apostle Paul, which applies to all who come to the table of the Lord:  “Everyone is to examine himself and only then eat of the bread or drink from the cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognising the body is eating and drinking his own condemnation. That is why many of you are weak and ill and a good number have died. If we were critical of ourselves we would not be condemned” (1 Cor. 11:28-31).

Like those of the first two parts, the modi to the third part of the Instrumentum laboris were worked upon in a good synodal spirit and adopted unanimously.

The Synod – time for some personal thoughts

There is so much talk about the Synod that it’s hard to decide what to blog about it when available blogging hours per day are limited. Should I focus on what I thought about all the interventions, the rumours, the hopes and fears? Or would it be a good idea to make available the translated texts from some of the Synod fathers that have been making headlines in the runup to the Synod? Just some of the questions I asked myself. Obviously I decided to focus on the latter, and it has proven to be a good decision, judging from the interest it has been getting.

But of course I do have thoughts on the Synod, and as this is a blog, I will be sharing some of them.

First of all, we are looking at glimpses of the Synod from the outside, which limits the amount of reliable information we are getting. Of course, some reports and interpretations are more reliable than others, and personally I find myself gravitating towards the more level-headed reports. The Synod is not over yet, so I find myslef annoyed at the fear and panic in some quarters of the web. As if they already know what the result is going to be: a disaster for Church and faith. I somehow doubt that. We should be glad if this Synod even has a lasting effect.

I have been translating the interventions of the Belgian and German Synod fathers (it’s a shame that the sole Dutch Synod father, Cardinal Eijk, has chosen not to disclose his text). Does that mean I agree with them? No, not automatically. I also don’t subscribe to the notion that just because it’s written by a Belgian or a German it’s automatically heresy. They have good things to say. They also say some things which I find worrisome. An example. I’m not a theologian, but I don’t see a reason for divorced and remarried Catholics to be allowed to receive Communion. If we take the indissolubility of marriage seriously, as well as the words of Jesus in Matthew 9, we can’t say that divorce and remarrying is no big deal. Certainly, this makes things difficult for the people involved, no doubt about that. But what is the basis of our faith? The person, words and actions of Jesus or the emotions and feelings of people? The latter, which does not mean we should not take the latter seriously. And that is what I believe this Synod is, or should be, about.

As the German bishops especially have emphasised, we must go to the people where they are. Jesus did. But He didn’t tell them to stay there. He told them to change their circumstances. “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus does not condemn us, but does urge us to change our ways. That is what we as Church should always keep in mind and try to emulate. Not condemning people, but urging them to leave their wrongs behind them.

The fruitful path for the Synod is, in my opinion, not to be found in changing doctrine, but in pastoral practice. There is much to win there in term of efficiency.

How to deal with all the rumours about the Synod? Ignore them. There is one reliable source to learn about the atmosphere, the factions or lack thereof, on the Synod floor, and that is the Synod fathers themselves. They’re categorically denying the existence of factions, of fighting and anger. It’s a good and fruitful effort, they say, with room for debate, discussion, disagreement even. That’s the hallmark of any proper debate. We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming to know what certain cardinals, bishops or even the Pope wants or tries to do. If we learn about a letter to the Pope, that is no reason to scream “rebellion!”, but a perfectly normal way of communicating. The Pope is not above debate and can deal with questions and even different opinions.

We are Catholics, which means we have a living faith of hope and beauty. We are not unfamiliar with some optimism and trust in the Holy Spirit. Let Him do His work. Do not presume to always know better .

francis synod

^Even the Pope has reason to smile going into the Synod, so let us not be too grumpy

The tension between doctrine and reality – Cardinal Marx’s intervention

Earlier today we had a short Synod intervention from Cardinal Danneels, and now one of the longest, from Cardinal Reinhard Marx. It’s also one of the most fearless, as the German cardinal talks about some of the topics that he has been criticised heavily for: Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and graduality.

Like the intervention of Bishop Bode, Cardinal Marx’s text is based heavily on the life experiences of the faithful concerned. And while it is essential for the Church to meet people where they are, I do miss the essential aspect of our faith: that is a revelation faith. Its foundation is objective truth, and while the way we relate to that truth, communicate it and help people achieve it (acknowledged by Cardinal Marx as he discusses our call to holiness) can and should vary according to circumstances, that truth does and can not. In the debate about Communion for divorced and remarried faithful (a circumstance consequently referred to in this intervention as only possible when we are talking about civil divorce and marriage) this is something that we must keep in mind. It defines what we can do pastorally.

Anyway, the intervention. The original German text is here.

marxFifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council once again made the Gospel a source of inspiration for the life of individuals and society. The same is true for the “Gospel of the family” (Pope Francis). In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes (GS) it developed a doctrine of marriage which was further developed by the Popes after the Council. Even when the Council did not the answer all the questions which concern us now, it did lay a theological foundation which helps us to answer our current questions.

The Council understands marriage as an “intimate partnership of married life and love” (GS, 48) and develops the doctrine of marriage in the context of a theology of love. The love between man and woman “is directed from one person to another through an affection of the will; it involves the good of the whole person, and therefore can enrich the expressions of body and mind with a unique dignity, ennobling these expressions as special ingredients and signs of the friendship distinctive of marriage”. This love “pervades the whole of their lives: indeed by its busy generosity it grows better and grows greater” (GS, 49). The Council emphasises that this love between man and woman requires the institutional and legal framework of marriage, to develop and keep it permanently in good and bad days. Not in the last place does the institution of marriage serve the wellbeing of children (cf. GS, 50).

With the help of this theology of love and also the theology of the covenant, which can only be insufficiently outlined here, the Council succeeded in making the sacramentality of marriage understandable again. Marital love becomes an image of the love of Christ for His Church and the place where the love of Christ becomes tangible. In order to also express this connection between the divine and the human verbally, the Council speaks of the covenant of marriage. Finally, the indissoluble fidelity is an efficacious sign of Christ’s love in this world.

In the end, the Council sees human sexuality as an expression of love and suggests a new direction in sexual ethics. “This love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the appropriate enterprise of matrimony. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a ready will” (GS, 49). To this richness belong without doubt also, but not only, the conception and education of children. For the Council fathers expressly emphasise that marriage without children also “persists as a whole manner and communion of life, and maintains its value and indissolubility”(GS, 50).

It is this Synod of Bishops’ task to deepen and develop this theology of respectively love and the covenant, which the Council has established in basic features, but which is not yet completely reflected in canon law, with an eye on the current challenges in the pastoral care regarding marriage and family. I would like to focus on two challenges: marriage preparation and guidance, and the question of reasonably dealing with those faithful whose marriage has failed and those – not a few – who have divorced and are civilly remarried.

It is no coincidence that the Council speaks of growing in love. That is true for living together in marriage; but it is equally so for the time of preparation for marriage. Pastoral care should be developed which shows clearer than before the travelling aspect of being Christian, also in relation to marriage and family. We are all called to holiness (cf. Lumen gentium, 39), but the road towards holiness only ends on the Last Day, when we stand before the judgement seat of Christ. This path is not always straight and does not always lead directly to the intended goal. In other words: the path of life of the spouses has times of intense feelings and times of disappointment, of successful joint projects and failed plans, times of closeness and times of alienation. Often the difficulties and crises, when they are overcome together, are the ones that strengthen and consolidate the marriage bond. The Church’s marriage preparation and guidance can not be determined by moralistic perfectionism. It should not be a program of “all or nothing”. What is more important is that we see the various life situations and experiences of people in a differentiated way. We should look less at what has not (yet) been achieved in life, or perhaps what has thoroughly failed, but more at what has already been achieved. People are usually not motivated by the raised finger to go forward on the road to holiness, but by the outstretched hand. We need pastoral care which values the experiences of people in loving relationships and which is able to awaken a spiritual longing. The sacrament of marriage should in the first place be proclaimed as a gift that enriches and strengthens marriage and family life, and less as an ideal that can not be attained by human achievement. As indispensable as lifelong loyalty is for the development of love, so the sacramentality of marriage should not be reduced to its indissolubility. It is a comprehensive relationship which unfolds.

The moment of receiving the sacrament of marriage is indeed the beginning of the way. The sacrament not only happens at the moment of marrying, in which both spouses express their mutual love and loyalty, but unfolds in the road they take together. Giving shape to common life in marriage is the responsibility of the spouses. The Church’s pastoral care can and should support the spouses, but must respect their responsibility. We should give more space to the consciences of the spouses in proclamation and pastoral care. Certainly, it is the Church’s duty to form the consciences of the faithful, but people’s judgement of conscience can not be replaced. That is especially true in situations in which the spouses must make a decision in a conflict of values, such as when the openness to conceiving children and the preservation of marriage and family life are in conflict with each other.

But appreciative and supportive pastoral care can also not prevent all marriages from failing, spouses from ending their covenant of life and love and separating. The new process of establishing the nullity of a marriage can also not cover all cases in the right way. Often the end of a marriage is neither the result of human immaturity, nor of a lack of willingness in marriage. Dealing with faithful whose marriages have failed and who, often enough, entered a new civil marriage after a civil divorce, remains therefore a pressing pastoral problem in many parts of the world. For many faithful – including those whose marriages are intact – it is a matter of credibility of the Church. I know this from many conversations and letters.

Thankfully, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI left it no doubt that civilly divorced and remarried faithful are also part of the Church, and repeatedly invited them to take an active part in the life of the Church. It is therefore our duty to develop welcoming pastoral care for these faithful and involve them ever more in the life of communities. To them the Church has to witness of the love of Christ, which applies in the first place to those who have failed in their intentions and efforts. For “it is not those who are in health that have need of the physician, it is those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). It is the mission of the Church to heal the wounds caused by the failing of a marriage and the separation of spouses, and show them that God is with them, also in these difficult times. Can we really heal without allowing the sacrament of Reconciliation?

With an eye on the civilly divorced and remarried faithful who take an active part in community life, many faithful ask why the Church refuses them, without exception, participation in sacramental Communion. Many in our communities can not understand how one can be in full community with the Church and at the same time excluded from the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. The fact that civilly divorced and remarried faithful objectively live in adultery and as such are in contradiction to what is presented emblematically in the Eucharist, the faithfulness of Christ to His Church, is given as reason. But does this answer do justice to the situation of those concerned? And is it sacramental-theologically compelling? Can people who are considered to be in a situation of grave sin truly have the feeling of belonging completely to us?

In the German Bishops’ Conference we have also occupied ourselves intensively over the past years with the theology and pastoral ministry of marriage and family. We took the Holy Father’s assignment seriously, to think about the topic, discuss and deepen it, in the time between the Synods. The German Bishops’ Conference has organised a day of study about this, together with the Bishops’ Conferences of France and Switzerland, in May of 2015, the contributions of which have also been published. In the theological faculties too, the topics were taken up and debated in biblical-theological, exegetical, canonical and pastoral-theological perspectives. Additionally, there were conversations with theologians and publications. We have learned that the theological work about this must continue in the future.

About the topic of civilly divorced and remarried faithful the German bishops have themselves published in June of last year further considerations and question, which I would like to outline briefly.

Someone who, after the failure of a marriage has entered into a new civil marriage, from which often children were born, has a moral responsibility to the new partner and the children which he or she can not denounce without being burdened with new guilt. Even if a renewal of the previous relationship were possible – which it generally isn’t –  the person concerned finds himself in an objective moral dilemma from which there is no clear moral theological way out. The advise to refrain from sexual acts in the new relationship seems unreasonable to many. There is also the question if sexual acts can be judged in isolation from the context of life. Can we assess sexual acts in a second civil marriage as adultery without exception? Independent of an assessment of the particular situation?

In sacramental-theological regard two things should be considered. Can we, in all cases and with a clear conscience, exclude faithful who are civilly divorced and remarried from the sacrament of Reconciliation? Can we refuse them the reconciliation with God and the sacramental experience of the mercy of God even when they sincerely regret their guilt in the failure of marriage? Regarding the question of allowing sacramental Communion, it must be considered that the Eucharist not only makes present the covenant of Christ with His Church, but also always renews it and strengthens the faithful on their way to holiness. The two principles of admission to the Eucharist, namely the testimony of unity of the Church and the participation in the means of grace, can at times be at odds with one another. In the Declaration Unitatis redintegratio (N. 8), the Council says: “Witness to the unity of the Church very generally forbids common worship to Christians, but the grace to be had from it sometimes commends this practice”. Beyond ecumenism, this statement is also of fundamental pastoral importance. In his Apostolic Letter Evangelii gaudium the Holy Father adds, with reference to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness” (N. 47).

Starting from the theological foundations established by the Second Vatican Council we should seriously consider the possibility – based on the individual case and not in a general way – of allowing civilly divorced and remarried faithful to receive the sacraments of Confession and Communion, when common life in the canonically valid marriage has definitively failed and this marriage can not be nullified, the commitments of this marriage are settled, there is regret for the guilt of the end of this marital common life and there is the honest will to live the second civil marriage in faith and raise the children in the faith.