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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts about Amoris laetitia, doctrine, mercy and Communion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bishops on Amoris laetitia

While there will be a precious few who have already carefully studied all of Amoris laetitia, the vast majority of us, so soon after its publication, won’t have. But that does not mean that there are no opinions (some ultra-orthodox channels have gone beyond themselves in pointing out how dangerous the Exhortation and Pope Francis are for us poor Catholics… but such irresponsible agenda-driven writing is another story altogether).

The bishops of the world have had a head start in reading the text, albeit a small one, as Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia tweeted this as late as last Wednesday:

I will share some of the thoughts and opinions of local bishops in this post, which may be a guide in looking at the actual text as we read it, taking our time as Pope Francis suggested, for ourselves. Some excerpts from their various commentaries:

dekorte2Bishop Gerard de Korte, bishop-elect of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Apostolic Administrator of Groningen-Leeuwarden: “As far as I can see the Pope tries, in the first place, to be a pastoral teacher. … In Amoris laetitia Francis pleads for an inclusive Church. The Pope does not want to build walls, but bridges. People who have failed in relationships are also a part of the Church and must be able to continue with their lives. Wise pastors can, in the privacy of pastoral encounter, support failing people and help them, so that they can continue with the journey of their lives. It is about continuous dialogue with people who, even when they have fallen short, are and remain God’s creatures.”

5a9cb713fa77e634993fee309c99be46_b9478b025386639ff26f12b5fc4db73dBishop Jan Hendriks, Auxiliary Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam: “The Exhortation has a very strong pastoral spirit. The text breathes understanding and love for all people. Nothing is being rationalised or denied, no new doors are opened that were closed, but throughout the entire document there is a warm, ‘inclusive’ spirit: you belong, even when the situation you are in is not perfect. Besides, we are all people “on our way”. Developing what’s good and involving people where possible is the starting point of the ‘divine pedagogy’ that the document intends to promote. Teaching remains teaching, but what matters here is the approach of people and that is open, warm and pastoral.”

hesseArchbishop Stefan Heße, Archbishop of Hamburg: “The Pope is aware of the realities of life of the people of today. In the past decades this reality has changed more than in the centuries before. On the other hand, Francis makes clear: we do not reject our ideals. But we must consider anew how people can live according to them. We must succeed in building a stable bridge between ideal and reality. The Pope consciously made no new regulations. He rather wants to provide the means to promote the formation of people’s conscience.”

Dr. Heiner Koch, Erzbischof von BerlinArchbishop Heiner Koch, Archbishop of Berlin: “I see this text as a great invitation to the local Churches, to commit ourselves even more to marriage and family, in marriage preparation, the guidance of married couples, but also in the attention to remarried divorcees and single parents. … Pope Francis rejects any “cold bureaurcratic morality” and describes all pastoral care as “merciful love”, which is “ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate” (n. 312).

150608kutschkeMsgr. Andreas Kutschke, Diocesan Administrator of Dresden-Meißen: “The text reminds us that the loving God cares for every person and wants him to grow towards Him. That is our good news to the whole of society. The actions of the Church regarding marriage and family must always direct themselves to that. The challenges of the Gospel should not be concealed, but addressed in a timely and comprehensible manner. That is the tone of this multilayered text.”

archbishop ludwig schickArchbishop Ludwig Schick, Archbishop of Bamberg: “The Pope shows himself a realist in Amoris laetitia. He knows that marriage and family need special attention in Church and society today, so that they can really be lasting communities of love. That is why, in addition to the fundamental statements, based on the Bible and the Tradition of the Church, about the beauty, richness, value and necessity of marriage, it is important for the Pope that marriage preparation and the guidance of families gets a closer look. State and society, employers, associations and individuals are encouraged to support marriage and family more and give them the necessary assistance.”

van looyBishop Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent: “Amoris laetitia is in the first place a pastoral and not a doctrinal document. This means that it departs from reality as it exists in all its complexity and diversity. That reality is listened to, and not in the first place condemned. The good that is present must be promoted and given the chance to grow. A pastoral approach means: walking together (synodal) in joy (laetitia), but also in difficult times and crises that people go through in relationships and the raising of children. This must happen with sensitivity, with a lot of respect, tactfully and patiently, in dialogue and without preconceptions. Secondly, this pastoral approach is an inclusive approach. This means that no one is excluded. That is the baseline, if you will, of the entire document, which can be summarised in the key words in the title of the important eighth chapter: Accompanying, discerning and integrating. The Church must do all to let people, in whatever situation they find themselves, be part of the community. That returns like a refrain.”

22a4937a8468aea098eebd462e1106edBishop Rudolf Voderholzer, Bishop of Regensburg: “Amoris laetitia is an attractive and inviting text, a hymn on God-given love. It contains neither generalisations nor blanket solutions. I hope very much that chapters two and three, which recall in a new and fresh way the Biblical and doctrinal basis of conjugal love, will be read and internalised. Of course the Holy Father especially takes those situations into account, in which people are threatening to fail or have failed to achieve the ideal. It is the wish of the Church, the Pope says, “to help each family to discover the best way to overcome any obstacles it encounters” (AL 200).”

foto_1386335339Bishop Frans Wiertz, Bishop of Roermond: “In his text, the Pope wants to emphasise mercy. Although nothing changes in the ideal of marriages and the rules surrounding receiving the sacraments, the Pope invites everyone in the Church to find ways in which no one will have to feel excluded. These words of the Pope are important for many Catholics, as they want to clarify that the ideal of a good life can always only be achieved via a way which knows imperfections in reality. Although no one can afford to accept broken or unwanted situations, at the same no one is excluded or treated second-rate because of the situation in which they find themselves.”

woelki32Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne: “It is above all important for Pope Francis that the Church is close to people, that she avoids every appearance of idealistic exagerration, indifferentiated judgement, loveless condemnation or even exclusion. This attitude of closeness, a “humble realism” and mercy remains in tension with the fact that the Church is always ‘Mater et Magistra’, mother and teacher, which does not witthold the people anything that the Creator has wanted in Creation and taught through Christ.”

Geburtstag_bischof_konrad_zdarsa_2009-11-06Bishop Konrad Zdarsa, Bishop of Augsburg: “In the introduction, the Holy Father recommends not to read it hastily. That is why I will not be commenting in haste. Read those sections that are important to you in your situation, relate to them in all peace in your family, consider them also carefully in your parish communities and pastoral councils.”

An ‘existential document’- Cardinal Eijk present Amoris laetitia

Per the request of Pope Francis, bishops’ conferences everywhere officially presented his Post-Synodal Exhortation Amoris laetitia today. In the Netherlands, Cardinal Wim Eijk, president of the conference and two-time participant in the Synod of Bishops assemblies that are now concluded with this document, did the local honours here. Below is my translation of his remarks:

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^Cardinal Eijk with Patrizia, Massimo and Davide Paloni at the presentation of Amoris laetita this afternoon. The cardinal attended both Synod assemblies, and the Paloni’s, including little Davide, participated in the second. (photo credit: KN/Jan Peeters)

“Today is an important day in the pontificate of Pope Francis. Today is the crowning moment of an extensive journey which he began soon after the start of his pontificate: a journey with the goal of starting a process of reflection in the Church regarding pastoral care in the fields of marriage and family. There are different reasons for that: the Christian vision on marriage and family is understood, accepted and practised less and less in a world which is getting increasingly secularised. This is manifested most clearly in the western world, where secularisation has advanced so much that in many places, and especially in western Europe, Christians have become a minority. But a secularisation trend is manifest everywhere in the world under the influence of social media, albeit not to the same extent in all places and in some parts of the world only in certain circles. Partly because of distrust towards institutions and the reluctance to make definitive choices for life, certainly in western Europe a minority of Catholics enters into sacramental marriage. In addition, there are fewer people who get married civilly and the choice for simply living together is generally made. On the other hand we see many people who have chosen marriage and get stuck in it and – often after a painful process for both – divorce.

The openness of marriage to receiving and raising children, as the teaching of the Church upholds on Biblical basis, is also no longer seen as an essential value of marriage. Other relationships than that between man and woman are increasingly treated as equivalent to marriage, either de facto or by law. Under the influence of gender theory, the differences between the genders are generally no longer traced to the biological differences between man and woman, but seen as a personal and autonomous choice.

The pressing question with all these developments is: how can the Church find ways of pastoral care and proclamation to present her teachings about marriage and family in such a way that it is understood better and reaches more people? Ways by which she can also help couples and families to live according to God’s intentions. In order to find answers to these questions Pope Francis started this aforementioned journey of reflection. This journey included two assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. An Extraordinary Assembly, in which the presidents of the bishops’ conferences of the entire world Church took part and which took place in October 2014. Subsequently an Ordinary Assembly took place in October of 2015, in which bishops who were selected by the conferences they belonged to took part. I attended the Extraordinary Synod in 2014 as president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. In 2015 I attended the Ordinary Synod as elected representative of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference.

For both Synods, Pope Francis appointed a number of Synod fathers of his own choosing. He also invited married couples to witness of the way in which they put the Catholic vision of marriage and family into practice. He also invited a Dutch couple for the last Synod, Massimo and Patrizia Paloni. They attended with their youngest child, Davide. They will speak later.

It should be clear that this was a major journey, requiring a lot of work, when we realise that a preparatory document, the Lineamenta, was written for both Synods by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. A worldwide consultation was held about it. Based on this a working instrument, an Instrumentum laboris, was created for both Synods. Both Synods recorded the result of their deliberations, each in their own final document. The final documents were the Synod fathers’ advice to the Pope.

Today we witness the conclusion of this major journey, with the publication of the so-called Post-Synodal Exhortation, with the title Amoris laetitia (The joy of love). In it Pope Francis presents his final conclusions about the Synod’s discussions. Regarding the journey’s length and the importance of the topic for the Church we can comfortably charactise the publication of this Post-Synodal Exhortation as a decisive moment in the pontificate of Pope Francis.

As before he surprised Church and world with this publication, in several ways. Personally, I had to re-arrange my agenda for this week to prepare this presentation of this document of 325 paragraphs and almost one hundred closely-printed pages. It will take some time before one has absorbed the complete and rich content. The Pope himself advises not to read the Exhortation hurriedly, but study it and take it in in peace.

Also surprising is the character of the document. I would qualify the Post-Synodal Exhortation as ‘a Church document with a notably existential character’. This is something we are used to with Pope Francis, you will say, but here, at least, it is even more notable than in his other publications. Of course in the first place Pope Francis presents the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church regarding marriage and family. He also devotes plenty of space to the difficulties that people experience in understanding, applying and upholding those teachings.

Pope Francis is aware that this does not always involve resistance to the teachings of the Church. The choice for a civil marriage alone or cohabitation alone is often not motivated by a rejection of Christian marriage, but also by cultural and contingent situations: prevailing distrust towards institutions in general, the difficulties many have in accepting a specific state of life and obligations for the rest of their lives, problems finding work, finding permanent employment or assuring themselves of an adequate income, because of which they consider marriage a “luxury” (n. 294).

Regarding so-called irregular situations, that is to say situations in which people are in a relationshop which is not, or not in all aspects, in accord with the demands of Church teachings, the Pope urges all who work in pastoral care to approach these people with great mercy. Without letting go of Church teachings or compromising them, but by accompanying and being close to these people with a lot of love and patience. People in irregular situations should not be excluded from Church activities, but be integrated as much as possible. It is essential, according to the Pope, that priests and others who work in marriage care try and make the best possible ‘discernment’. He understands this as the constant effort to illuminate the concrete reality of life, the situations and relationships in which people live, with the Word of God. And he also recommends that they look for the openness that may be present in people in irregular situations, to yet shape their relationship according the teachings of the Church.

The Exhortation has nine solid chapters. It is of course no surprise that Pope Francis describes the Biblical vision on marriage and family in the first chapter “in light of the Word”. In the second chapter he comprehensively discusses modern reality and the current challenges of the family. The Pope emphasises in Chapter III that amidst all modern difficulties for the family, we must look towards Jesus, who will fulfill God’s plan with us, and so (re)discover the vocation of the family. In short, this chapter present a summary of Church teachings regarding marriage and family. Chapter IV continues this line with an exposition on marital love, based on the canticle of love written by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:4-7; n. 90). In Chapter V, “Love made fruitful”, the Pope emphasises that conjugal love presumes an openness to new life. In Chapter VI, “Some pastoral perspectives”, the Pope discusses the need to find new ways for marriage and family care, limiting himself to several general starting points. He sees the development of more practical initiatives as a task for the various bishops’ conferences, parishes and communities. Chapter VII is about the raising of children and Chapter VIII about the accompaniment of fragile relationships. The final Chapter IX, about the spirituality of marriage and family, is emblematic for the existential character of the document, as it points out some ways to develop a solid faith life in the family, as well giving common and personal prayer an established place in it.

I want to address one other topic seperately, which has played a major role during both Synods, and this is the question of whether people who are divorced and civilly remarried can receive Communion. In the Post-Synodal Exhortation, Pope Francis addresses this topic in two places, but he does not speak of people who are divorced and civilly remarried, but more broadly about people who are divorced and live in a new relationship. These people, the Pope says, should not have the feeling that they are excommunicated (n. 243 and 199). It is important to emphasise that he is not saying anything new here. Excommunication is an ecclesiastical punishment which someone can legally incur automatically, which can be legally declared after having been incurred or which can be imposed by verdict after serious misbehaviour or crimes. The situations in which this happens are limited: they includes a limited number of situations, and the situation of people who are divorced and have begun a new relationship is not among these. But nowhere in the Exhortation does the Pope say that they can receive Communion. Regarding people who are divorced and in a new relationship, this means that the traditional praxis, that they can not receive Communion, and which was formulated as follows by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris consortio in 1981 remains current:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.” (n. 84)

In Chapter VIII of the Exhortation Pope Francis answers the question of what the Church could offer people in these situations, and says what has been mentioned above: people working in pastoral care must accompany these people and consider how they can be involved in the life of the Church as much as possible. It is important to realise here that God’s mercy is not only received by means of the sacraments, but also by listening to and reading the Word of God and through prayer.

As mentioned, this papal document has the title Amoris laetitia, the “joy of love”. It is our duty as Church to promote and protect that joy, convinced that that joy is beneficial for married couples and families as well as for us as society. It is therefore our duty to be close to married couples and families and accompany them according to our abilities with our prayer and pastoral care, especially when they carry the heavy and painful burden of a marriage or family life that is broken. With this Exhortation the Pope urges us to do so.

Pope Francis concludes his Exhortation with a prayer to the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph):

“Holy Family of Nazareth,
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.””

Looking ahead to Amoris laetitia

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

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

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

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

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

Müller’s mission – What rules have got to do with it

His is an unenviable task. With the faithful inspired by a charismatic Pope to show and share God’s  mercy in their lives, Cardinal Gerhard Müller has to remind us of the less enticing but equally important parts of being a Catholic.

naamloosIn a recent interview, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith once more commented on the hot topic of whether divorced and remarried faithful can receive Communion, a topic that is as misunderstood as it is debated.

“The Pope continuously says that it is not about Holy Communion alone, but about the integration into the life of the Church, of which the final step in a  process of conversion and clarification can be Communion under the generally applicable conditions. A second marriage or second partner when the lawful spouse is still alive is, according to the Catholic interpretation of the words of Jesus, not possible. The Pope and all of us, however, absolutely want to avoid that people, also those in ambiguous marriage bonds, “drift away” from the Church as a salvific community. There are other – theologically valuable and legitimate – forms of participation in the life of the Church. Community with God and the Church does not solely consist of the physical reception of Holy Communion.”

Of course, these words have triggered much commentary, and a significant part of that commentary has been not only negative, but missing the point as well. Many wonder how this is merciful, or say that Jesus would allow divorced and remarried person to receive Him. The latter is quite presumptuous, while the former missunderstands what mercy is.

As Catholics we have the duty to be merciful to others, to open our hearts to the humanity of everyone, regardless of their situation. As Catholics we are also asked to listen to and make Christ’s words our own. Christ refused no one: he spoke and ate with the greatest sinners: from tax collectors to adulterers. In His mercy, which we are asked to make our own, he saw them as persons and listened to their stories, questions and concerns. He also taught them, admonished them when needed and invited them to follow Him, and said that he did not come to abolish the law, but to complete it (Matthew 5:17).

Law and mercy are equal parts of Christ’s message. We have frequently heard that mercy is the greatest of these, which means that it should play the greater role in our dealing with people. The objective law, however, remains as a collection of signposts along the way on which we follow Christ. It is one of the missions of the Church to maintain these signposts, and she has made it the primary task of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, currently headed by Cardinal Müller. That too is a mission of mercy, of which truth and honesty are integral parts.

The question of the indissolubility of marriage, of who can and can not receive Communion, are serious ones and need consideration beyond the emotional. In the pastoral situation on the ground mercy must be enacted towards everyone, but mercy is so much more than avoiding what’s difficult or seems unkind. It is no less merciful to clarify and explain than it is to open our doors to all.

Photo credit: dpa

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.”