To be an instrument of the Lord – Bishop van den Hende’s catechesis talk at WYD

World Youth Day 2016 is over, but here is a translation of the third catechesis given to the Dutch pilgrims over the course of the week-long event which saw several million young Catholics gathered in Kraków. This catechesis, which in its message mirrored the call by Pope Francis to young Catholics to get off the couch and act, was given by Rotterdam’s Bishop Hans van den Hende. Like during  previous editions, the bishop’s talk could count on an ovation at the end.

Bishop van den Hende speaks about the popular image of divine mercy and what it means to be an instrument of the Lord.

“Dear young people, I was just given the advice to put mercy into practice by not given you catechesis today. But Jesus’ message of mercy does not come in easy bite-size chunks and is not a matter of just swallowing it. A merciful attitude – in imitation of the Lord – is for us a matter of practice and therefore there is catechesis after all.

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1. Image of the merciful Jesus

The topic for this day is: Lord, make me an instrument of your mercy. When I was thinking about this beforehand, and this became even clearer these days, I had to think of the person of Jesus Himself. Especially the image of Jesus, such as here in the church of divine mercy.

Hyla%20blue%20largposter%20copyThe image of the divine mercy was created following the direction of Sister Faustina (1905-1938). In this image Jesus points at His heart, He looks at us and you a read and a white beam. It is an image of Jesus who gave His life out of boundless love for us. In the Gospels we can read in the passages about his passion and death on the cross about a soldier who stabbed his side with a spear, causing blood and water to flow (John 19:34). In the image of the divine mercy Jesus looks at us and He points at His heart. He shows that He wants to give everything for us, even His blood. He saves us. And the water reminds us of Baptism.

The person of Jesus has been on our minds for days. You see Him everywhere. The front of our pilgrims’ booklet even shows the two beams that are part of the image of divine mercy.  And we have also seen the image at the shrine of Sister Faustina here in Krakow. Yesterday when we welcomed the Pope, Pope Francis said that Jesus lives and is among us. That is what is most important about this World Youth Day. The Pope may take the initiative for the WYD, it is Jesus Himself who comes to us and is among us with all the gifts we need (Matt. 28:20b).

Pope Francis calls Jesus the face of God’s mercy (misericordiae vultus). In Jesus, the incarnate son of God, we can experience and hear how great the mercy of God is for us. We can look upon Him every day, whether in this image or a cross in your bedroom at home. Every day, you can take the step towards Him, to approach Him, to put your hope in Him and find your strength in Him. Not just on the day on which you have exams, or when things go bad, but you can come to Him every day anew.

Underneath the image of divine mercy, Holy Sister Faustina wrote in Polish: Jesus, I trust in you. In the great church of the shrine of Sister Faustina and the divine mercy, where we were last Tuesday, this sentence was whispered into a microphone several time: Jesus, I trust in you. That could perhaps be your first step, to consciously start each day by going to Jesus: I trust in you, it will be a good day with You, whatever may happen. We encounter the Father’s mercy in Jesus. His heart shows that His love for us is eternal. He is always willing to forgive. Many of you have received the sacrament of penance and reconciliation in these days. It is good to always conclude the confession of your sins with these words: I trust in you. We experience God’s mercy in the things Jesus doesd and says, solemnly put, the acts of the Lord. In the Gospel we read that Jesus heals people, consoles them, forgives people and puts them back on track with renewed courage. Jesus lets His heart speak and you can see and hear how great His mercy for us is. Look at Jesus, listen to Him, go to Him every day and say: Jesus, I trust in you. And perhaps you can take a further step and pray: Jesus, make my heart continously more like yours, that it may be involved with the things your heart is involved with: love, forgiveness, justice, solidarity, new life.

Santa-Faustina-2-760x747Sister Faustina, who only lived to the age of 33, wanted to share the message of God’s mercy. She said: this is so important, I cannot remain silent about this, I will tell this. She only went to school for three years, but she took up the pen and wrote. In the texts, Jesus calls her “His secretary of mercy’. She was an instrument of mercy. In order to make the limitless mercy of the Father known even more – for in he 1930s, like now, there was much crisis, threat of war, violence, discrimination and hate. Especially in a world of sin and evil God’s mercy must be announced. Sister Faustina wanted to do that, she wanted to be an instrument of mercy, a secretary of mercy.

2. To be an instrument of the Lord

When it comes to being an instrument of the Lord, we are part of a good tradition. In the history of our faith there are many who have answered that question with an eager yes. Yes, with your help. Think of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was asked as a young woman to be the mother of the Lord. At first she doesn’t know what to say: I don’t even have a husband, how can this be? But then she says, I can be an instrument of your plan with the world: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In this way Mary consented to being the mother of Jesus. Another example of Saint Francis (1182-1226). Just now we prayed: make me an instrument of your peace. That prayer is attributed to Saint Francis, who had converted and was praying before a cross at a ruined chapel. He approached Jesus and said: Lord, what can I do for you? How can I be your instrument? And the Lord said, rebuild my house. Francis immediately went shopping, so to speak, collected all sorts of building supplies and repaired the chapel, making it wind and watertight. But then Francis found that it wasn’t about the church building as such, but about the people who were the Church, it was about the Church of Christ as the network of love in which there was indifference and unbelief, and such a gap between rich and poor. The prayer you prayed this morning deepens the question: what should I do? I want to be your instrument, Lord. So, in the great tradition of our faith there are always people who have the courage to be instruments of the Lord. Such as the Blessed Virgin in the Gospel and Brother Francis in the course of his life.

In his encyclical Lumen fidei, the Pope explains that it may sound a little clinical, a person as an instrument. As if you are a screwdriver, while we are people with a name and a heart. It ay sound as if you are just a cog in a great machine, and that it doesn’t really matter what you contribute. But the Pope says: do not let yourself be belittled, do not think that you are just a small part, but think of the Church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-31) to which you belong. Not a finger can be missed, not an eye, not a toe, not an artery. The tone should then not be: I am just a part. No, you are (no matter how small) an instrument in the great work of God. You can do even the smallest task as a part of the greater whole of His body, the Church, close to Christ. However small your task is, you take part in the work of the Lord and in that no one can be missed.

 3. To be an instrument of the Lord: to accept or hesitate?

What do you do when the Lord ask you: do you want to be my instrument? Do you hesitate, do you accept? Do you ask for time to think? That is often the same as hesitating. In a shop the  shopkeeper knows very well that, when you say you want to think about it, you are probably going to buy it over the Internet.

When the Lord asks you to be His instrument, you may feel that you are too young, or not strong enough in your faith. But take a look in the Bible, you are not alone in that. Remember the prophet Jeremiah. When God asked him to be a prophet, Jeremiah answered, “I do not know how to speak. I am too young!” (Jer. 1:6). But the Lord said: It is me who is calling you, and when I call you it means that I will also give you the strength and talent to do it. And Jeremiah said: Lord, send me. Als remember the Apostle Peter, who hesitated at first. He saw the Lord and the abundant catch. But Peter did not say: “How wonderful”. No, he says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). And what about the Apostle Paul? He was at first a persecutor of Jesus and His disciples, and he looked on with arms crossed when Stephen the deacon was stoned (Acts 7:58). When Jesus calls him, Paul says, “I am the least of the apostles”, and considers himself as born abnormally (cf. 1 Cor. 15:8-9).

4. How good do you have to be to be an instrument of the Lord?

There are great examples of people who have said yes, and there are those who at first hesitated, such as Jeremiah, Peter and Paul. But in the end they did accept, for they found their strength in God. When we say to Jesus, “I trust in you,” we take the same step as Peter and Paul. Whether you are small or young, sinful or haven’t discovered many of your talents yet.

How good do you actually have to be in order to become an instrument? In the Gispel there are remarkable examples about this, such as the tax collector Levi, who works for the emperor and collects a major bonus for himself. This does not make one popular, as it is unfair. Jesus passes him and says, “Follow me”. The Pharisees wondered: How can Jesus call someone like that? A sinner, someone so untrustworthy! But Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners” (Luke 5:27,32; see also: Mark 2:13-17). If that isn’t mercy! Pope Francis also refers to this special calling, but in the Gospel of Matthew (9:9-13). He speaks of the tax collector Matthew, sitting at the customs post. The Lord sees him and says, “Follow me. Pope Francis applied this to himself, and his motto is ‘miserando atque eligendo’. This means as much as ‘being chosen by mercy’. The Lord did not come for the healthy, but for the sick to heal them (Matt. 9:12).

The Lord calling and needing you, that is what ultimately matters. It is the Lord who has a plan with you and who calls you and gives you the means in His mercy. So it’s not you being ready with all your talents and thinking, what’s keeping Him? No, the Lord Jesus sees us and calls us to accept His merciful love and accept Him as the basis of our lives, and in turn to be His instrument of mercy. When the Lord calls you, He also gives you the talent. He enables you to be His instrument of mercy. Jesus looks at you and calls you to accept mercy. Do not say that you are too busy or not suited to being an instrument of the Lord. That is no reason for saying no. At my ordination to the priesthood I also wondered, why me? But at the same time I thought, I am not worthy, I am not holy, but you called me (“non sum dignus neque sanctus tamen tu vocasti me“). When He calls and invites you, that is the basis for saying yes. So when Jesus asks you to be His instrument, have the courage to say yes. At the ordination of a deacon or priest, the ordinand says, “Yes, with the help of God’s grace”. Jesus calls and gives you His grace. He wants you to be His instrument and also gives you the tools to do it. Saying yes is very specific. In the first place it is prayer. Like Mary, like Peter and Paul. Going towards the Lord is the first step: here I am, what can I do for you, I know you have a plan for me, for you have called me since my first hour (cf. Jer. 1:5; Ps. 139; CCC 27).

5. Being an instrument of Christ: very specific

“Be merciful like your Father is merciful” is the theme of the WYD.

The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, takes centre stage today. Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me” (Matt. 25:31-46). To all these works of mercy you can think of people who have been an instrument of the Lord. Think for example of Saint Martin (ca. 316-397) who shared his cloak with a poor man on the side of the road. And think of Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia (1207-1231) who have bread to the hungry and nursed the sick. Putting the works of mercy from Matthew 25 into practice makes being an instrument of mercy very tangible.

But there is more in Chapter 25 of Matthew. Before speaking about the works of mercy, Jesus tells a parable, namely a parable that we should be vigilant (Matt. 25:1-13). You must use your eyes well to see what is needed, and your heart open for the Lord who comes. Or else you risk sitting ready with your talents, but never taking action. That is abit like the fire station with a closed oor, where nothing ever happens. So be vigilant, what do you see with the eyes of the Lord? In Matthew Chapter 25 Jesus tells another parable, namely that you must use the talrnts God has given you, struggles and all (Matt. 25:14-20). You werent given your talents to bury them in the ground in an attempt to never make mistakes. No, be vigilant, keep your eyes and heart open and use your talents. The you can get started on the works of mercy: comforting people, correcting and advicing people, bear annoyances. Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). Jesus says this to each of us.

6. Being an instrument of mercy, together with others who are instruments: as Church being one community of called, in service to the Lord.

You need not be able to do everything as instrument of mercy. The one may be able to listen well, and the other visits the sick without fear of infection. You need not be able to do everything, but choose what you are going to do. You are to be part of the Church, in which many are called and work.

You can be glad for the talents of others. And finally: encourage each other. Hunger and thirst, tears and loneliness remain. But get to work. Get up according to your calling and the talents that go with it. Hold on to each other. Jesus asks you to have confidence. And when you fall, ask to start anew in the light of God’s forgiving love. You are a human being according to God’s heart, with a name and a unique destiny. As an instrument of the Lord you have your own share in the mission of mercy that the Lord has entrusted to His Church.

I hope and pray that you will begin every day with looking towards the Lord, choose what you can do for Him, keep your trust in Him and support each other not to quit, because the mercy of the God is much to important and great for that. Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts about Amoris laetitia, doctrine, mercy and Communion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.