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.

After Paris – why pray?

In the wake of the horrible attacks in Paris last night, social media was flooded today with calls to pray for Paris. Together with that came the accusation that prayer was useless and that we had better actually ‘do something’ to help the people who were wounded or who lost loved ones. Apparently praying is not actually ‘doing something’, and there are other things which are ‘doing something’. But why do so many people ask for prayer, if they do not believe it will do some good?


There is a misunderstanding of what prayer is in the minds of those who suggest it is useless. They believe that prayer is a one-way street, from us to God, urging God to do something that He would not do otherwise. Well, if He is not inclined to comfort people, heal them, or even prevent terrible things from happening without us reminding Him that He should, what is the use of Him, people rightly ask.

But this is not what prayer is. Prayer is a two-way street, leading from us to God and from God to us. It is a conversation, if not always one with words. The effects of prayer are therefore present at both ends of the conversation. It is as useful for God as it us for us, not to mention for those we pray for.

In praying for Paris, we recognise and root ourselves in our relationship with God and we find comfort for ourselves. We articulate our care and concern for people that we likely don’t even know, and, once articulated, this care and concern can take root and grow in us and radiate outwards to those around us. God is love. When we show love, which care and concern are, we show and share God. God comes down to live among us in our love for our neighbours. He doesn’t force Himself upon us, but will answer every time we reach out to Him. No man is an island, and it is our care for each other that helps us reach our fullest potential, even after this life. We don’t know who the people were who died last night, we don’t know who they left behind, and we certainly don’t pretend to know what they are going through. But we support them, show our love and share God through that love, making Him present in this world and so reflecting our own relationship with Him in the relationship between Him and others.

Another question is if God couldn’t and shouldn’t have prevented the terrible events of last night from happening. Of course, He could. But He didn’t. This is very difficult for many, both in and outside the Church, but the essence of it is this: God created man with a free will that He will always respect. Unlike the gods from mythology, but also from modern religions such as Islam, God will never force Himself on anyone, making him or her do things he or she does not choose to do. It does not matter if that person is an innocent victim or a murderous terrorist. God respects human freedom, and is there to help guide them if they so choose, or help them live with the consequence of their choices.

In Paris last night, the victims made no choices, of course. They are the victims of a mindless evil that has denounced God. God does not, however, denounce the innocent, and is there for them and those they leave behind, leading them to His eternal light and their fullest being as His creatures. Always. And we can help them find Him through our prayer.

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 home of mercy – Cardinal Danneels´ brief intervention

francis-danneels-640x480Kerknet publishes the brief intervention given by Cardinal Godfried Danneels. It is one of the shortest I’ve come across, and does not speak about any of the hot topics at the Synod. Rather, the cardinal, whose suitability for attending the Synod has been questioned by some, speaks about the “home of mercy” in every person, where God’s Spirit dwells, and the “little shepherds” in His field.

Holy Father, brother and sisters in Christ,

My intervention is not theological, canonical or pastoral; it is spiritual.

In general, our western countries are prosperous; there is social policy and care for the poor; medical science makes great leaps forward and the medical care in hospitals is of high quality. Materially, much is done for spouses and families. For all these reasons, everyone, or at least almost everyone, in the west, should be happy. And yet!

Despite all these effort from society, the cry of the prophet resounds from the heart of every man: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (Psalm 130).

Day after day, all people keep asking the same two questions:

  • Where will I find a place where I am truly listened to?
  • Who will speak a liberating word on my behalf?

Luckily, deep in every man, in every woman, there is a hidden place where someone lives, someone who always listens and offers a saving word. It is the place where God lives; where His Spirit lives in us.

That place is called “the home of mercy”.

The Hebrew word for mercy (rahamin) does not know the word “heart”, but uses the word “womb” (uterus). For in that “womb of mercy” there is tenderness and security, which is even greater than marital intimacy. In God’s  house, man is secure as in the womb. Man is at home there. There is true listening and speaking there. God lives in the “home of mercy”: He listens, speaks, heals and forgives with a mother’s tenderness. Even when her child’s situation is hopeless, a mother knows how to be a mother.

God lives there, as a shepherd, the great shepherd. But there are also “little shepherds”. The priests in the first place, but there are also many lay people who are shepherds. Is there a man or woman to whom no lamb is entrusted? The little shepherds are part of the house staff of the “home of mercy”. Thanks be given to all little shepherds – priests and laity – in God’s field.

Over the past months, thousands of people have sent questions, suggestions and wishes in preparation for this Synod. All of this comes from the heart. From that place, where there is truly being listened and deeply being spoken. It is the place where God lives: the “home of mercy”.

Thanks to all who have shared their concerns with us. Thanks also to the priests and all the other little shepherds.

+ Godfried Cardinal Danneels

Germanicus 2 – the German language group digs into mercy and truth

The language groups have published their second summaries of their discussions about the second part of the Instrumentum laboris. The German group gets decidedly more theological in theirs, as they discuss the false opposition between mercy and truth, grace and justice, graduality, and the practical consequences of understanding sacramental marriage in a historical and biographical way.

In today’s press conference, Cardinal Vincent Nichols recommended the German contribution as the most theologically sound.

This is my translation of the German original that was, once again, composed by Archbishop Heiner Koch:

synod german circle“We have extensively discussed the concepts of mercy and truth, grace and justice, which are constantly treated as being in opposition to one another, and their theological relationships. In God they are certainly not in opposition: as God is love, justice and mercy come together in Him. The mercy of God is the fundamental truth of revelation, which is not opposed to other truths of revelation. It rather reveals to us the deepest reason, as it tells us why God empties Himself in His Son and why Jesus Christ remains present in His Church through His word and His sacraments. The mercy of God reveals to us in this way the reason and the entire purpose of the work of salvation. The justice of God is His mercy, with which He justifies us.

We have also discussed what the consequences of this are for our accompaniment of married couples and families. It excludes a one-sided deductive hermeneutic which subsumes concrete situations under a general principle. For Thomas Aquinas as well as the Council of Trent, the implimentation of basic principles of prudence and wisdom to the particular and often complicated situations, is pending. This is not about exceptions to which the word of God does not apply, but about the question of a fair and reasonable application of the words of Jesus – such as the words about ithe indissolubility of marriage – in prudence and wisdom. Thomas Aquinas explained the necessity of a concrete application, for example when he says, “To prudence belongs not only the consideration of reason, but also the application to action, which is the goal of practical reason (STh II-II-47, 3: “ad prudentiam pertinet non solum consideratio rationis, sed etiam applicatio ad opus, quae est finis practicae rationis“).

Another aspect of our discussion was in the first place the gradual introduction of people to the sacrament of marriage, beginning with non-binding relationships, via couples cohabitating or only civilly married couples to valid and sacramental marriage, as frequently mentioned in Chapter 3 of the second part, Accompanying these people pastorally in the various steps is a great pastoral task, but also a joy.

It also became clear to us that we are too static and not biographical-historical in many debates and observations. The Church’s  doctrine of marriage was developed and deepened in history. First it was about the humanisation of marriage, which condensed into the conviction of monogamy. In light of the Christian faith the personal dignity of the spouses was recognised more deeply and the divine likeness was perceived more deeply in the relationship of husband and wife. In a further step the ecclesiality of marriage was deepened and it was understood as a house church. Subsequently, the Church became more aware of the sacramentality of marriage. This historical path of deeper understanding is today also visible in the biography of many people. They are first touched by the human dimension of marriage, in the environment of the Church they become convinced of the Christian view on marriage and from there they find their way to the celebration of sacramental marriage. As the historical development of the Church’s teaching has taken time, so her pastoral care must also accord the people on their path to sacramental marriage a time of maturing and not act according to the principle of “all or nothing”. Here the thought of  a “growth process” (Familiaris Consortio, 9) can be developed further, as John Paul II already established in Familiaris Consortio: “The Church’s pastoral concern will not be limited only to the Christian families closest at hand; it will extend its horizons in harmony with the Heart of Christ, and will show itself to be even more lively for families in general and for those families in particular which are in difficult or irregular situations” (FC 65). Here the Church inevitably stands in the conflict between a necessary clarity in teaching about marriage and family on the one hand, and the specific pastoral task to accompany and convince those people whose lives only comform in part with the principles of the Church on the other. It is important to take steps with them on the road to the fullness of life in marriage and family, as the Gospel of the family promises.

Personally oriented pastoral care, which equally includes the normativity of doctrine and the personality of the person, keeps his ability to be conscientious in mind and strengthens his responsibility, is necessary in this regard. “For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. 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).

We ask to consider to more aspects for the final text:

Every impression should be avoided that Scripture is used only as a source of quotations for dogmatic, legal or ethical convictions. The law of the New Covenant is the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the faithful (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, N. 1965-1966). The written word must be integrated into the living Word that resides in the hearts of people through the Holy Spirit. This gives Scripture a broad spiritual power.

Lastly, we have struggled with the concept of natural marriage. In the history of mankind natural marriage is always shaped culturally. The concept of natural marriage can imply that there is a natural way of living of people without a cultural imprint. We therefore pro[pose to formulate: “Marriage justified in Creation”.”

Germanicus – a look at the German position

It’s safe to say that the German Synod fathers are scrutinised more heavily by Catholic media than others, and not always fairly, in my opinion. I already mentioned my own misgivings about what Archbishop Koch said in his intervention, but that’s not even remotely the same as accusing him of apostasy and heresy, as some have done. He has a clear understanding about the reality of Catholic life in Germany (which does not differ too much from that in other Protestant/secular parts of Northwestern Europe, and the picture he paints is one we should take seriously.

synod german circle

^A glimpse of the small windowless room where the German circle, the smallest of all thirteen groups, was to meet initially. Cardinal Müller soon invited the group to relocate to the roomier and less stuffy offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Today, the reports from the Circoli minori, the smaller language groups in which the Synod fathers discussed the first part of the Instrumentum laboris, were published. Because of the aforementioned interest in what the German circle thinks and wants emphasised, I will focus on their report here.

The Circulus Germanicus consists of the following persons, mainly from the German-speaking countries, but also some from central Europe, Scandinavia and even the Middle East:

  • Moderator: Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna
  • Relator: Archbishop Heiner Koch, archbishop of Berlin
  • Walter Cardinal Kasper, President emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
  • Kurt Cardinal Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
  • Reinhard Cardinal Marx, archbishop of München und Freising
  • Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith
  • Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites
  • Archbishop Stanislav Zvolenský, archbishop of Bratislava
  • Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, bishop of Osnabrück
  • Bishop Benno Elbs, bishop of Feldkirch
  • Bishop Ladislav Német, bishop of Zrenjanín
  • Bishop Teemu Sippo, bishop of Helsinki
  • Bishop Antun Škvorcevic, bishop of Pozega
  • Bishop András Veres, bishop of Szombathely
  • Father Michael Sievernich, professor emeritus of Pastoral Theology at the University of Mainz and the Hichschule Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt
  • Dr. Aloys Johann Buch, professor of Moral Theology at the Interdiocesan Major Seminary of St. Lambert and Permanent Deacon in Aachen
  • Mrs,. Petra Buch, diocesan family pastoral worker
  • His Eminence Andrej, Metropolitan of Austria-Switzerland of the Serbian Patriarchate
  • Very Rev. Thomas Schirrmacher, President of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance

The report, which was composed by Archbishop Koch in his function as relator, in my translation:

In the German circle, led by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn O.P., we have considered and edited the first part of the Instrumentum laboris in an open and good atmosphere. The various views of the participants were enriching and were also perceived as such. In my opinion the work in this group once again shows: diversity enriches.

The general style of the text was met with approval. We also agree very much with the given order of the Instrumentum laboris, and with the arrangement in three chapters. It takes up the structure of papers from earlier Synod and conferences, which lead from seeing to judging, culminating ultimately in action.

We have, however, also added elements which we think are important. We suggest and ask that a section is added at the beginning of the first chapter, which describes the beauty of marriage and the mission of couples and families, drawing on the concerns and considerations of Pope Francis. Gratefully and with wonderment we notice that marriage is called to take part in the Creation of God and in His work of salvation. Marriage is not just a topic of Catholic faith, but proves to be in the profoundest sense a fundamental desire of man. It shows itself to be remarkably constant across cultural and religious boundaries and beyond all social changes in time. Man desires to love and be loved. Love is the comprehensive and unconditional Yes to another human being – for his own sake, without ulterior motives or reservations. It is also a basic trait of humanity, that love always wants to give itself again. So marriage unfolds in the love of the children and others in the family. So grows the family out of marriage, which radiates in society and Church. Christian marriage is in this way a slice of living Church.

We also suggest to say thanks, in these introductory thoughts, to the married couples and families for their great service to each other, to our society and to our Church. We also want to especially thank those who stayed together in difficult times and so became a visible sign of the faithfulness of God.

In these introductory words we also want to mention why we as bishops take a stand for marriage and family: We come from families, live like families and take part in the life of the family. In ouir responsibility as shepherds we bishops care for the lives of married couples and families. But we also want to hear about their situations and their challenges and accompany and strenghten them with the loving gaze of the Gospel.

In their respective cultural backgrounds family relationships beyond the nuclear family especially offer many kinds of possibilities of support in the raising of children and in family life. They are especially important where the life of the nuclear family is made more difficult, impaired or even destroyed because of migration, disasters or flight, but also because of the effects of job mobility or broken human relationships, In these situations especially the wide net of kinship proves itself as a valuable aid.

Both of these examples should indicate that we have accepted the text presented to us in a positive way, but have also wanted to develop and add to it.

I would like to suggest one comment for the perception and evaluation of different cultural realities. A Synodal document must take the current cultural realities and differences properly into account. Especially when it deals with ambivalent or in the eyes of the Church problematic elements of modern cultural reality. Here a differentiated analysis and assessment is indispensable, to contribute to a proper and nuanced ecclesiastical-intercultural exchange. I would like to explain this with an example: the first chapter talks much about individualism. As a selfish trait it is undoubtedly a great danger to the lives of people. It should however not be confused with the individuality of people. Every single human being is uniquely and wonderfully made God and deserves esteem and protection of the dignity of his person. Our text speaks frequently about individualism, but the positive signs of the times, arising from respect for the individuality of people, are little appreciated. If we do not perceive here in a differentiatied way, we also come to different assessments of our society and subsequently different pastoral recommendations. Our circle asks not to succumb to an overvaluation of the rather pessimistic perception of our society.

Lastly: There is a double problem regarding the translation, that of the literal translation of the Italian text and that of the cultural translation of the content.

The German translation is relatively true to the Italian text, but this often makes the German text difficult to understand. The reason for this may be found in the overly long sentences, where the German prefers shorter sentences. The nested style is also bothersome. Here too, shorter sentences and a better structure of the contents is to be preferred. The translation of the final text should ensure a good style, pleasant readability and clear structure. The translation should not be interlinear, but mutatis mutandis.

In creating the text, it should be ensured that the ecclesiastical and theological position are not only understood internally, but are accessible also in a secular environment. This calls for a “cultural translation”, as well as an inculturation. From this follows the question if, in editing the joint document, a negatively confining and normatively judgemental language prevails (forensic style) or a postivie language which unfolds the Christian position, which then implicitly addresses what position are incompatible with Christianity. That also presupposes the willingness (cf. Gaudium et spes) to pick up positive developments in society.  Perhaps we need a sort of “hermeneutic of evangelisation” for the overall general style, which considers the topic “in the light of the Gospel”.

We are looking forward to further fraternal labour together and thank all for the many efforts to achieve a unanimous course and conclusion to the Synod.

In short, positive language, emphasis on the beauty and value of marriage and family life, and a nuanced relation with modern society. I am very much in favour of the first two points, while the third point requires a solid basis in the faith and the doctrine of the Church. Only if the Church is true to herself can she relate properly to society.

As a final comment, many have noticed the criticism against the Instrumentum laboris, but as Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle said in today’s press conference, that document is intended to be sacrificed for the final document that is to be drafted out of the suggestions made by the smaller groups.

Love, trust and Jacob – Archbishop Koch’s homily

In an almost 2,000-word long homily during his installation Mass as archbishop of Berlin, Archbishop Heiner Koch took the figure of Jacob as a starting point to delve into what the love of and for God is. Love is not an emotion, he explained, but a decision, and it is based on trust. And that is the key to experiencing God, as even Jacob, on the run and forced to sleep under the naked sky with a stone for a pillow, discovered.

In my experience, the Old Testament patriarchs, with the possible exception of Moses, rarely feature in homilies. That alone makes this one worth a read. Besides that, it may also help some in thinking about their own relation with God.

koch installation

“Jacob, the supplanter, that is what they called him (cf. Gen. 27:36), and from him we hear in today’s reading. With a lie he had taken the rights of the first born from his brother Esau, and so provoked his vengeance. He had to flee and already on the first night of his flight he had to spend the night under the open sky. Night surrounded him: the night of those who have no home, of those who are guilty, of those who disappointed and alienated others. In that night he took a stone, but not only to rest his head on. He and his contemporaries attributed  a special power to stones, a divine connection: That is why they expected security and shelter from such a stone. In the middle of his night, Jacob trusts on the nearness of God through the power of the stone under his head: “I, Yahweh, am the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. I am with you. I shall keep you safe wherever you go, and bring you back to this country, for I shall never desert you” (cf. Gen. 28:13-15). In the middle of the night of his life, a dream reveals to him the closeness of God: In the middle of his homelessness he finds himself at home with God: “This is the abode of God, here God gives him, the refugee, home and security (cf. Gen. 28:17). A second dream breaks the hopelessness of his life: A ladder, on which the angels of God ascend and descend, connecting heaven and earth (cf. Gen. 28:12). Heaven is open for him, despite all his guilt and with all his desperation, powerlessness and homelessness.For him, night becomes a time of awakening is, from all seclusion and darkness.

In the middle of the night Jacob experiences what Christ proclaimed and lived: I, God, love you, man, so much, beyond all boundaries and conditions, I will not leave you. I am and will remain with you. I will be at your side:

If the powerful consider you nothing but a number, I was also a number to the powerful at the time of my birth. I am with you, refugee, as I also had to flee when I was a child. I am with you when people laugh at you, as they laughed at me. I am with you when the strike and make you bleed, as they made me bleed. I am with you, when people think your life is worthless as they did mine. I am with you when there is no room for you in the city, as there was no room for me. Neither do I come down from the Cross and leave the thief there to die. My love is without limits, my love will not leave you, man, alone: not you, Jacob, the supplanter, not the thief on the Cross and not the people and not you today.

That is the heart of the good new that we Christian far and wide vouch for: Christ the Saviour is here! You can rely on Him. He is the fundamental reason for our joy: “Gaudete semper! Dominus prope. Always be joyful! The Lord is near” (Phil. 4:4,5). I took these words from Saint Paul as the motto of my episcopal service. God doesn’t come sometimes, He is here: here and now, in Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg and Köpenick, in Potsdam and Greifswald, Brandenburg an der Havel or Frankfurt an der Oder, always and forever, in peace and suffering, in joy and need, when I am aware of His closeness and when He seems far from me, in life and in death: He is and remains near to us.  Setting no limits to human life! That is what we Christians must stand for, also when we are not supported from all sides.

This message changes everything: what perspective on life it opens, far beyond the limits of the tangible world and beyond death. Christians are people of a wide horizon, who will not be bound by circumstances of the here and now. What hope and confidence, especially in the dark times of life, may break forth from this experience of God’s closeness!

Such commitment is there, but also challenge: Leave no one ever alone: neither the unborn child, nor the homeless, the failed, the sick, the disabled, the powerless nor the dying! Set no limits for human life!

Everything, in Berlin, in Brandenburg, in Vorpommern, now depends on learning to see HIM, to discover HIM, to find HIM especially in the darkness of our lives. That is why we are here as Church: to help people discover God in their lives, sometimes in a long struggle, a long process of searching – that is what we are here for as Christians and as Church.

But: is there really such a God? Can I experience Him as a reality or does He prove to be just an empty phrase or ideological superstructure? In answering this question all people, without exception, are believers. Man does not have the choice to be a believer or not. In the decisive questions of life, and especially in the crucial question of God, man encounters his quintessential decision of faith: one believes that there is nothing beyond the visible and understandable world, and the other believes that there is a God beyond our thinking and seeing. One believes that it all ends with death, and the other that death is the portal to eternal life. One believes that God exists and the other that He does not. Everyone lives in faith. In the de facto pursuit of life man can not be indecisive about the question of God: Either he prays to God or he doesn’t. He either struiggles with God or not, either God means something in his life, or He does not. His concrete, practical life provides the answer to the question of his faith: “Do you believe that there is a God, or do you believe that there is no God?”

With that also comes the questions: “Can I perceive, see, recognise God today? Can I experience and learn to see Him like Jacob did?”

The story of Jacob provides the answer: You will see Him when you build on Him, when you trust on Him. Trust broadens the outlook, mistrust on the other hand blinds. That is just as true in politics as in personal life. When two people meet, recognise each other, as Scripture has it, they must trust one another. Precisely that is the leap of faith, it is the leap of my trust. Without such trust there can be no experiencing God. You must dare to live in trust with God, and you will experience that God exists. That is the key to God: your trust.

The theory of science describes this when she says that the object to be studied always defines the method of investigation. A scientific object must be studied with scientific methods and a historical event with historical methods. Carrying this thought over to the knowledge of God: If God is love, He can only be known through love. We see God at the cost of our hearts, our trust. There is no easier way! There can be no knowledge of God outside of my trust.

And then, love is much more than just a feeling, but rather a decision. Especially in difficult times this becomes profoundly clear in terms of God’s love: When I no longer hear antyhing from God, when I can no longer understand Him, no longer grasp Him in my own terms,, when I feel that God is greater than my thoughts and feelings, when I no longer see His path in my hour of need, then precisely these hours become a question to me: Can God rely on my love, even when I don’t see Him? Is the decision of my love for Him so strong that it proves itself in such hours? Do I trust in God even then, and can He rely on me under such a burden? I am always touched when I consider that Christ asked Peter, before he entrust him with his great office, three times, “Do you love me?”(cf. John 21: 15-23). He does not ask, “Do you believe this and do that?” but enquires three times about his love. “Do you love me?” This questions becomes also for us the decisive question about our knowledge of God: “Do you love me?” I am convinced that most people do not know God, as they are unwilling to trust God, to give Him their hearts, their love. But precisely this path is the only path to experience that I am not alone in the days and nights of my life and that my night is therefore thrown open to Easter morning. Give God a chance! Give Him your trust!

And what if we can answer Christ’s question to us, about our love, just as hesitantly as Peter or perhaps even poorer and more pathetic? Let’s look once again at Jakob, the supplanter, with this question. His path with God is not ended, he must continue on, considerably further. Love is never done, love is always searching. I also ask you, the unbaptised, and you, who have another religion, to go with us on this search. We are grateful for your life experiences. You are a great wealth for us with your searching and your meaningful questions about life and faith. We are probably much closer to each other than we think, and perhaps we will discover on our common path not only we are searching for God, but God has already been searching for us, not only that we are looking for God, but that He is looking for us. Perhaps we can help each other in this way to discover this God, who in Paradise already asked man, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9).

How good it is to recall at such times that our love for God is not the decisive factor,  but God’s love for us, that His love stands firm and is reliable, that He serves us and washes our feet and not we His. Perhaps a small and quick prayer can then also help, such as, “Dear God, do not let me go!”

My dear sisters and brothers! Learning to love God together and through and in Him our sisters and brothers and all people whom God entrusts to us: to proclaim this – as the Gospel tells us today – to be seeds in the hearts of men. That is the great project of our diocese in all its effects on our parishes, communities and institutions! It is the fullness of life and the love of God, from which we all live and which carries us, also with our fractures, which we can often no longer heal. Should we not address these concerns in our time in completely new ways, with new emphases, consequences and focus? The future of the Church is not a carbon copy!

Is this not also the ecumenical path, which I would join and build up consciously and decidedly? Learning to love God, how important is this mutual way for us and our society!

Does this path of love not lead directly to the weak, the poor and disadvantaged of our society, in whom God challenges us and our love? The current need of refugees and their families is for us not just a burning and challenging social question, it becomes question of our faith. Without people in need, awaiting our love, we can not find God, who is love, and we remain blind for his closeness. He is close to us in them!

Dear sisters and brothers, from my heart I want to go this path of learning to love with you. Please come with me on our common path!

+ Archbishop Dr. Heiner Koch”

 Photo credit: KNA