For clarity – Pope Francis and female deacons

deacon ordinationPope Francis’ recent suggestion that a commission should be formed to study the form and fucntion of female deacons in the early Church (with, one would think, an eye on their possible re-introduction into the life of the Church today) has led to much enthusiasm and outrage, both for all the wrong reasons.

The papal comments came as an answer to the question if the permanent diaconate could not be open to men and women alike. It being a spontaneous question-and-answer session, the Holy Father obviously did not have all the necessary information at the ready, so he chose to share what he recalled from conversations with a Syrian theologian he used to meet in Rome, well before he became Pope.

And those recollections immediately point out some of the problems in equating male and theoretical female deacons. The latter’s role was found in sensitive and private situations between women: baptism, which at that time was performed by full immersion, but also cases in which a woman would have to present the physical evidence of an abusive husband! The differences with the duties of a male deacon – who has financial and charitable responsibilities, as well as clearly-defined duties in the liturgy of the Mass – are clear.

A 2002 study by the International Theological Commission, summarised here, also states this, and further reaffirms the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders – the grades of deacon, priest and bishop. A deacon is, at least in theory, able to be ordained as priest and bishop. The Church only has the authority to ordain men, not women (as Pope Francis has pointed out more than once), so in regard to the sacrament, female deacons are not possible.

Many of the duties of a deacon can be performed perfectly well by a woman. In fact, as Father Dwight Longenecker points out, in many parishes, women are already in charge of finances and run the charitable efforts of the community. You don’t need to be ordained for that. Pope Francis is not wrong when he started his answer with the half-joke that the female deacons of the Church are the religious sisters.

That leaves the duties for which ordination is a prerequisite: the liturgy of Holy Mass, such as, for example, reading the Gospel and giving the homily. Here, the deacon or priest does not do anything for himself: he performs the duties of proclamation and teaching of Christ. He is an alter Christus. The Church teaches that this is no act or show, but a sacramental reality, which we are asked to acknowledge in faith.

Some have chosen to see Pope Francis willingness to look into this matter as evidence that he wants female deacons, which is a ridiculous conclusion to draw. By that reasoning, Pope St. John Paul II wanted the same thing when he asked to International Theological Commission to study the matter…

Pope Francis said he wants clarification in this matter, and a conclusion along the lines of the 2002 study is no less a clarification than one that says, yes, there can be female deacons. But, it has to be said, all signs indicate that we should not expect the latter conclusion to be drawn.

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.

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.

Three years of Pope Francis – years of continuity of rupture?

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^Three years ago tomorrow, the world’s first look at Pope Francis

Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of the election of Pope Francis. Time flies. And of course, countless commentators are picking their high and low points from these past years.  And it amazes me how much opposition the Holy Father still faces, especially in online Catholic media. And I know, that can’t be taken as an accurate reflection of the Catholic world as a whole, but this is communication, and there volume sometimes matters as much as accuracy and perhaps more than representation. It’s not nice, but there you have it.

In these comments, and not just those that specifically aim to give an overview of this pontificate, an artificial opposition between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis is strikingly noticable. Pope Benedict said, this, taught that, and now Pope Francis says something else and teaches another thing, so the commentary goes. The implication being that what Pope Francis is saying, doing and emphasising is somehow contrary to the things Pope Benedict focussed on, and some even go so far as to call the current pontiff a heretic because of this preceived discrepancy. A careful reader of what Pope Francis says (and yes, I admit, a careful reading of his remarks, especially the off-the-cuff ones, can be a challenge), knows that this is not the case. Not only are the two pontiffs in agreement with each other when it comes to the content of the faith, the differences in their focus is also not as large as some would have us think.

A fair few number of people lament the fact that Pope Francis emphasises mercy, care for the poor and creation and the economic inequality that seems an innate element of western capitalist societies. These are not really Catholic topics, they say, and the Pope should devote more time and focus on catechesis, liturgy, prayer, truth as revealed to us in the Gospels. But do these things suddenly no longer matter or exist, just because this Pope speaks about them less or in another way than his predecessor? Of course not. The Catholic Church consists of more than just the Pope, and we all share the same responsibility as he does: to proclaim the faith and defend it, to teach it, celebrate it properly and let it shine through in every part of our being and lives. Maybe we should talk less about what the Pope should say and say and do some things ourselves.

Sure, one may prefer one Pope over the other, but just because ‘your Pope’ has passed away or retired, his teachings have not. St. John Paul II’s teachings about the family and Pope Benedict XVI’s words about liturgy and truth remain as valid and valuable as Pope Francis’ attention to mercy and the environment. The different topics and emphases should not automatically be considered as contrary, but as in continuity. Pope Francis does not suddenly disregared his predecessors’ teachings simply because he speaks about something else. Neither should we.

It starts with sorry – another Catholic apology in Lund?

“I do not have a direct line with the Pope, but I certainly expect that there will be a Lund Declaration”. Words from Bishop Gerard de Korte about Pope Francis’ October visit to Sweden, where he will attend a joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the Reformation. From protestant circles comes the hope that this declaration will include a Catholic acknowledgement of past mistakes  in dealing with the church communities that came of the Reformation (and also with Martin Luther himself). I have to wonder if the recent apologies made by Pope Francis, and those made by Popes Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II before him, are anything like the acknowledgements hoped for?

Fact is that the Catholic Church has long been aware and honest about mistakes made in the past. Have the Protestant churches done anything similar? I know of none. Father Dwight Longenecker had a thoughtful blog post about that recently.

We can make all the declarations, acknowledgements and apologies we want, but if it ends with that, ecumenism is going nowhere.  They are a starting point, and as such we shouldn’t repeat them over and over. An apology once made remains valid, of course. After acknowledging our past, we can proceed to the future. With Father Dwight I wonder, are the Protestants that far yet? Maybe what we should hope for is a declaration in which they also honestly acknowledge their mistakes and apologise for them, and not always look at the Catholic Church to repeat how wrong they have been. We know. We have said so. We regret it and are now looking forward to right the wrongs. In that way the Reformation can be commemorated for what it is: not a reason to celebrate, but a very painful rupture in the unity of the Christian church.

For ecumenism, Pope Francis goes to Sweden

For the second time in history, the Pope will go to the Nordic countries. Well, a Nordic country. In 1989, Pope St. John Paul II was in Sweden for two days, visiting Stockholm, Uppsala, Vadstena and Linköping. This year, on 31 October, Pope Francis will go to Lund.

The surprising announcement was made today, but in hindsight it is impossible to not recall, in relation to this, the visit of the head of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, Archbishop Antje Jackelén, to Pope Francis in May of last year (pictured below). Undoubtedly, the papal visit was discussed then.

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The one-day visit, which is not an apostolic journey, or a regular papal visit to the faithful of a given country, will be to the ecumenical celebration of the Catholic Church in Sweden and the Lutheran World Federation to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which will take place in the Southern Swedish city of Lund, where the LWF was founded in 1947. Pope Francis will be leading this celebration together with the president and general secretary of the LWF. Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, is also said to accompany the Holy Father. This service will be based on the recently-published Catholic-Lutheran liturgical guide, which proposes and formalises ways in which members of both communities can celebrate together.

Other elements of the visit are still to be announced. It will be Pope Francis’ fifth visit to a European country (not counting Italy), after Albania and France in 2014, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2015, and Poland in July of 2016.

Your blogger is definitely looking into a slim chance of travelling to Lund at that time, and report from there. Keep your eyes on the blog.