Where Are You from? A Reflection on Recent Tensions over Immigration, Race, and Ethnicity

A priest friend of mine who immigrated to this country from Jordan back in the 1970s is often asked, “Where are you from?” He humorously answers, “I am from my mother’s womb.”

True enough! There is an even more fundamental answer, rooted in Scripture, which speaks to the origin of every human person: You are from the loving will and heart of God. Before you were ever formed in your mother’s womb, God knew you and thought about you (see Jeremiah 1:5). He set into motion everything necessary to create you. He didn’t just get your parents to meet, but your grandparents and great-grandparents, going all the way back. All of this so that you could exist just as you are. Having thought of you and conceived you in greatest love, He knit you together in your mother’s womb. You were skillfully wrought in that secret place of the womb and you are wonderfully, fearfully made. Every one of your days was written in God’s book before one of them ever came to be (See Psalm 139).

This biblical answer is true of every one of us. Whatever our nationality, ethnicity, or race, our truest origin is from God, from His heart and His loving “yes” to our existence. This means that I am your brother and you are my brother or sister. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say:

Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.” … [F]ears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness … will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a “neighbor,” a brother.

The duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged, in whatever area this may be. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (CCC # 1931-1932).

This is Catholic and biblical teaching. One day we shall have to account for how we recognized and treated the Lord in others. God is our Father; you are my brother or sister. Christ the Lord is our brother, too, for He joined our human family; He is not ashamed to call us His brethren (Hebrews 2:11). Wherever you’re from in this world, this origin from God is deeper and older than any earthly origin.

Here on this earth, human movement is constant. We emigrate and immigrate, as individuals, families, and groups. Wars, famines, persecution, economic conditions, the desire for freedom, and educational opportunity all play a role in this movement. Although the phrase seems clichéd, we really are a nation of immigrants. Most of us are from somewhere else, often only a couple of generations back.

Catholics bring a significant experience and witness to immigration to the United States. Many came here during a huge wave of immigration that lasted from about 1880 to 1950. When we came in those years, we were often coming from troubled lands and were extremely poor. There was famine in Ireland; economic and political turmoil in Poland, Lithuania, Italy, and parts of Germany. Many came here not knowing English and at first lived in tenements in large cities. With that poverty went many of social problems: crime, drinking, and so forth. The work of those first generations was anything but easy: laboring in coal mines, laying railroad tracks, working in steel mills, tedious work in textile factories mills. The jobs paid poorly and required long hours; they were jobs that no one really wanted. Additional scorn was heaped upon Catholics due to our faith. The Protestant majority of the time was troubled to see the country suddenly teeming with Catholics, whose religion they often scorned and whose loyalty to the United States they doubted. Slowly, that first wave of Catholics took its place and moved up into better paying jobs. They moved into more slowly into positions of political leadership. Yes, Catholics have endured great scorn in this land, both on account of their religious as well as their status as European peasants.

Prior to 1865, most African-Americans in this country had been brought here against their will. They then suffered great disdain and racism at the hands of the very country that brought them here in chains. The many Black Catholics I have known over the years, especially the older ones, remember well the double scorn they felt for being Black and Catholic.

The most recent wave of immigration into our country is largely from the south. Similarly, poverty and/or persecution are often part of what draws them here. Most of them are Catholic, and like so many immigrants before them, they perform essential services and often take jobs that no one else wants. As was the case during the 19th and 20th centuries, there is crime. And yes, some immigrants are successful, and others remain trapped in poverty.

It is alleged that recently our President, in a moment of anger, said some unacceptable, hurtful things. He spoke not only of nations, but implied that certain nations bring us better immigrants than others. I am not so sure that we have the scales to say who is “better.” Man sees the appearance, but God looks into the heart. It is true that people with technical, scientific, or academic knowledge contribute a lot to our country, but it is also true that we need immigrants at every level of the economy. We need those willing to do all sorts of work, and those with all different kinds of practical know-how.

Personally, I am quite happy with the immigrants who have come to the United States in recent decades. I think that they have added a lot to the economy and to the Church. They are hardworking and want to share in the American experience. By the second generation, most of them speak English well. While I cannot countenance those who enter the country illegally, I am perhaps more willing than many to view their illegal entry as stemming from desperation rather than flippant disregard for our laws.

I recognize that immigration reform is needed. It is a complex issue and concerns for border security are legitimate. We cannot take the whole of the world’s poor or be overrun with every refugee crisis, but we also cannot ever forget that these are our brothers and sisters. Whatever dysfunctional countries or economies they come from, remember that many of us came from similar ones. People don’t typically leave an idyllic environment.

I do not know all the possible legal and social solutions, but something of a picture emerges in Catholic parishes of what things could look like. Cardinal Wuerl paints this picture:

The sight from the sanctuary of many a church in our archdiocese offers a glimpse of the face of the world. On almost any Sunday, we can join neighbors and newcomers from varied backgrounds. We take great pride in the coming together for Mass of women and men, young and old, from so many lands, ethnic heritages, and cultural traditions. Often we can point to this unity as a sign of the power of grace to bring people together (The Challenge of Racism).

Indeed, our parishes are ethnically and racially diverse. The rich beauty of diversity in the unity of our faith is manifest everywhere. “Catholic” means “universal” and it could not be more obvious in Washington, D.C (as in many other regions) that Catholics come from everywhere! This diversity is from God Himself, who has not only created the rich tapestry of humankind but also delights to unite us all in His Church.

“Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me; Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called ‘Mother’ for all shall be her children.” It is he, the Lord Most High, who gives each his place. In his register of peoples, he writes: “These are her children,” and while they dance they will sing: “In you all find their home” (Psalm 87:1-7).

Dr. Martin Luther King remarked on the role of the Church back in the days of the civil rights movement:

There is a more excellent way, of love and nonviolent protest. I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood (Letter from Birmingham jail).

We are currently locked in many fierce debates. Our discourse grows ever more contentious, our language ever coarser. Anger (some of it quite understandable) reaches new levels. In the midst of the ugliness, consider this reminder:

Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are members of one another. … Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up the one in need and bringing grace to those who listen. … Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, outcry and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and tender-hearted to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you (Eph 4:26-32).

We who are Christians should lead the way in helping to lower the temperature. We are past the boiling point now and we are getting scalded more and more.

Maybe the answer begins in asking this simple question: “Where are you from?” Know the answer to this question theologically and religiously rather than nationally. The truest answer is this: “You are from God and so am I.”

If what I have written angers you, I am sorry. If you think me naïve, I ask you to remember something else about me: I am Charles, your brother.

 

Georgetown Sacred Lecture Series: Pope Francis, Synodality and Amoris Laetitia

The Catholic Church has a unique process for confirming Church teaching and setting pastoral guidance. “Synodality” is the process that has been used by Catholic bishops for centuries. But on Tuesday, September 12, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, in Georgetown University’s inaugural 2017-18 Sacred Lecture, explains how Pope Francis has taken this ancient Church ritual and, building on the efforts of his predecessors, expanded synodality to help answer the call to evangelization and pastoral accompaniment laid out in the Papal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. In this lecture, Cardinal Wuerl reflects on how the collegial approach of Pope Francis with the College of Bishops not only builds on the 50-year tradition of synodality after the Second Vatican Council, but opens the door for new and greater opportunities for pastoral care in the Catholic Church today and in the future. Read the transcript of Cardinal Wuerl’s lecture below.

Sacred Lecture Series: Pope Francis, Synodality and Amoris Laetitia

In these reflections, I touch on three points: synodality, an ecclesial experience; Pope Francis’ expansion of the application of this ecclesial reality, and the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, as an expression of the fruit of synodality.

The word synodality refers to “coming together” or, more technically, “journeying together.” It has historically been used to denote gatherings of bishops describing their pastoral walking together to confirm already expressed teaching and pastoral practice, and to explore and apply Church teaching and practice in terms of the circumstances of the day.

The word takes on new emphasis today as Pope Francis applies it in order to express the concept of the whole Church, pastors and flock, walking and working together to explore the needed pastoral responses to the challenges of today.

COLLEGE OF BISHOPS

To start, it might be helpful to make some very brief observations on the ecclesial reality that we call the College of Bishops.  Just as the 12 Apostles constituted a unique and identifiable group with its own nature and function, so, too, today do their successors.  The bishops today throughout the world constitute the College of Bishops.

The coming together of bishops, in its most formal and authoritative form, is an ecumenical council, a gathering of all the bishops worldwide. Other less inclusive and therefore, less authoritative gatherings, at least as they exist today in the Latin/Western Church, are called synods. Pope Francis uses the term “synod” to reflect the structure, and “synodality” to refer to the process whereby bishops play a more active role in discussing significant issues of the day.

The 1998 Motu Proprio Apostolos Suos of Pope John Paul II on the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences goes on to point out that the communion of the College of Bishops has found an outstanding and typical expression in the holding of councils, this includes ecumenical and particular councils, both plenary and provincial (3).  Other gatherings of bishops to exercise certain pastoral functions are a concrete expression of collegial spirit (affectus collegialis) which however “never takes on the collegial nature proper to the action of the Order of Bishops as such…” (12).

Episcopal conferences, for example, meet so that “by sharing their wisdom and experience and exchanging views, they may jointly formulate a program for the common good of the Church” (Motu Proprio citing the Second Vatican Council Degree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, Christus dominus, 37 and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 23) (13).

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is not an intermediary ecclesial structure that directs or orders the dioceses in the United States. Rather, the bishops come together to find ways to identify and agree on a common exercise of their own proper pastoral ministry.

My observations however will be primarily about the ecclesial structure identified as the Synod of Bishops.  It is not a council of all of the bishops.  Rather, it is a gathering of a number of bishops who are intended to be reflective of the episcopate around the world.  The assembled bishops of the synod do not exercise an authority as if they were the College of Bishops.  However, they do reflect an effort at pastoral solidarity usually directed at specific pastoral issues or aspects of Church structure, mission and ministry.  The synod in the Western or Latin Church, unlike synods in the Eastern Churches, does not govern but it does offer counsel and advice.

Then, in light of Pope Francis’ emphasis on synodality and its place in the process of expressing Church teaching and pastoral practice, I will make some observations on the new perspectives offered by the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.

COLLEGIALITY

Even though our purpose is to investigate synodality as a means of expression of the collegial nature of the episcopate our starting point must include a brief consideration on the theological nature of collegiality, as this is significant in the understanding of synodality. We must begin, therefore, by recognizing that the Church Universal is made up of many and varied local Churches.

Granted, the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church is more than just a federation of individual churches. It is, nonetheless, made up of local Churches throughout the world. These local Churches are essentially the same today as they were in the days of Saint Paul – the communities of believers centered in a specific area around one bishop, their bond and symbol of unity in faith and charity (cf. CCC 832-835).

Each local Bishop, therefore, has a relationship not only to his local Church but also to the Church Universal. Each bishop by that title bears some responsibility for the whole Church.

The rediscovery or renewed emphasis on this ecclesiological landscape, which found a clear presentation in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, of the Second Vatican Council was also reflected in the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we find an example of apostolic leadership gathering to resolve a serious issue.  Clearly the coming together or walking together – the root meaning of the word synod – was a somewhat regular experience of Christian leaders – bishops – in the early centuries.

However, in 325, we find the first effort at an ecumenical or general council of bishops.  This meeting was held in Nicaea.  When the Second Vatican Council convened in Rome, from October 1962 to December 1965, it marked the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church.  Seven of these councils are shared with the Orthodox Church.  By contrast, the Orthodox have neither summoned nor sanctioned an ecumenical council since the seventh one in 787.

Other gatherings of bishops in the Catholic Church have been a regular part of the life of the Church.  In our country, for example, we had for a number of years the experience of plenary councils held in Baltimore.  In fact, it is one of these, the third plenary council, that gave rise to the well-known and much used Baltimore Catechism.

SYNODS / SYNODALITY

However, the ecclesiastical structure that we now call the Synod of Bishops has its own identifiable origin and a specific purpose.

The idea of having a synod grew out of the experience of Pope Paul VI and the bishops at the time of the Second Vatican Council.  Then some 2,200 bishops from all over the world, from October 1962 to December 1965, came to Rome to reflect on how well the Church was carrying out her mission to be the continuing presence of Christ and his Gospel in the world.  As the Council drew to a conclusion in 1965, there was the hope that some mechanism might be found to keep alive the collaborative experience of the Council.  Thus was born, at the directive of the Pope, what we now call the Synod of Bishops.

Pope Paul VI’s Motu Proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo, re-established the Synod of Bishops as an ecclesial institution and gave it what was, in effect, its constitution.  The document notes that the aims of the Synod are: to promote a closer union and greater cooperation between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops of the whole world; to see to it that accurate and direct information is supplied on matters and situations that bear upon the internal life of the Church and upon the kind of action that should be carrying on in today’s world; to facilitate agreement, at least on essential matters of doctrine and on the course of action to be taken in the life of the Church.

Saint John Paul II is perhaps the pope that more than any other has underlined the connection between the Synods of Bishops and episcopal collegiality. In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, he referred to the Synod of Bishops as “a permanent organ of collegiality” (51).  In his view, “the Synod constitutes a realization and an illustration of the collegial nature of the order of bishops, of which the Second Vatican Council has, so to speak, come to a renewed awareness” (Address to the Synod of Bishops, October 27, 1990, 7).

In the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa (1995) he elaborated on this very aspect. “The Synod of Bishops is an extremely beneficial instrument for fostering ecclesial communion… the more the communion of the bishops among themselves is strengthened, the more the communion of the Church as a whole is enriched” (15).  “It is my conviction”, the pope continued, “that a Synodal Assembly cannot be reduced to a consultation on practical matters. Its true raison d’être is the fact that the Church can move forward only by strengthening communion among her members, beginning with her Pastors” (17).   It is this sentiment, articulated over 22 years ago, that Pope Francis is now re-emphasizing.

Pope Francis, elected as the 266th Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, and Head of the Church Universal, now stands on all of the foundation work of his predecessors and begins to pick up, once again, the threads of the energizing focus of the Second Vatican Council.

I do not want to pass over, however, the very significant role of Pope Benedict XVI especially in the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.  Up to that time, most of the synods and certainly those presided over by Saint Pope John Paul II addressed in significant part the documents of the Second Vatican Council providing a magisterial appreciation of them. In a certain sense, much of the work of the Synod of Bishops was focused on the life of the Church and her structures. It was Pope Benedict who called for, initiated and presided over the Synod that called the entire Church to turn its attention outward and, once again, to invite people to the experience of Jesus Christ. The 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops gathered from October 7-28, 2012 to discuss the theme, The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. Pope Francis makes his own the work of that Synod and presents it in the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel.

The Synod of Bishops “has been one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council,” Pope Francis has said. “Thanks to God that, in these almost fifty years, we have been able to feel the benefits of this institution that, in a permanent way, is at the service of the Church’s mission and communion as an expression of collegiality” (Pope Francis, June 2013, preparation for 2014 Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod on the Family).

POPE FRANCIS: FRESH PERSPECTIVES

Ecclesiologically what Pope Francis has done is to refocus, once again, on the ministry of the College of Bishops as was the case in the Second Vatican Council in the document, Lumen Gentium.

We can see the Pope’s perspective on synodality with the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.  It follows on the Synods of Bishops that met, one in October of 2014 and the other in 2015, to discuss the challenges to marriage and family today, and reflects the consensus of those meetings and many voices.  In the work of the synod, in the preparation of its documents, and the final exhortation we can see Pope Francis’ appreciation and engagement of synodality.

The Holy Father has highlighted, once again, the role of bishops in collaboration with him in the overall responsibilities for leadership, teaching and pastoral ministry of the Church. In February of 2014, the Holy Father, at a consistory of the cardinals, asked us to begin to reflect on the challenges to marriage today.  He then called for a Synod in 2014 that addressed the difficulties that marriage faces.  It reminded us of the heavily secular culture we live in, of the materialism that is a part of the mentality of many people, the individualism that dominates our culture, particularly in the Western world and in the United States.

It was clear that the overwhelming majority of bishops shared the Holy Father’s vision that there has to be a way to present the Church’s teaching new in ardor, method and expression rather than simply come together to repeat and restate what is already known.  As was quoted later, one bishop indicated that if the purpose of the 2014 Synod was simply to repeat, doctrinally and pastorally, the Church’s teaching it could have ended by the second day and there would have been no need at all for the 2015 Synod.

The open discussion within the synod is clearly a hallmark of Pope Francis’ view of synodality.  At no time was there disagreement on the Church’s doctrine.  But there was lively engagement on how that teaching is received, understood, appropriated and lived in our modern culture, and how in the circumstances of our time do we effectively and pastorally respond.

Pope Francis’ decision to allow free discussion, respect for divergence of opinion, transparency in the process and the publication of the results of the voting by the bishops at each stage of both synods created a refreshing openness that resulted in a new appreciation of a synod.

I have been present in some capacity for eleven synods and as a bishop member for seven.  The last two, the 2014 and the 2015 gatherings were, in my opinion, the most open, engaging and reflective of episcopal collaboration and consultation.

A sign of the growing and expanding nature of synodality can be seen in Pope Francis’ request that there would be a very wide consultation at the level of the local Churches. Invited into this discussion were the faithful of the parishes as well as the voices of Church Institutions such as universities and organizations with a specific expertise in the topic under discussion.

Examples of Pope Francis’ new perspective include his innovative use of the synod structure by calling for two back-to-back assemblies.  In this way, he engaged a very large number of bishops in the one process since the membership of both synods was elected by conferences of bishops and during the interval each conference of bishops was asked to be actively engaged in responding the first synod, 2014, and preparing the material for the second synod, 2015.

I would add that his invitation to openness among the bishops in these discussions reflects his perspective on the significance of dialogue.  We can recall his advice at the beginning of the synod 2014-2015 process to the bishops to speak with openness and clarity, to listen with humility and to be open to the Holy Spirit.

Another very evident element in Pope Francis’ understanding of synodality is the recognition that while the bishops are the official teachers and guardians of the faith, the faith is also expressed and voiced among all of the faithful.  While it is a synod of bishops, it does not mean that the bishops are somehow detached from or not engaged with and immersed in the life of the local Church that the individual bishop serves.  Synodality for Pope Francis carries with it the notion of journeying together – all the members of the Church, clergy, religious and laity.

At the end of all of the discussions and all of the reflections carried out over two full years, there emerged the 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia that I would call a “consensus exhortation.”

AMORIS LAETITIA / POST-SYNODAL APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION

This apostolic exhortation confirms for us the Second Vatican Council’s call for collegial reflection, that is, the bishops coming together and working together, always with and never without Peter (cf. Lumen Gentium, 22).

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis draws deeply and richly on the teaching of his predecessors and from the heart of the Catholic theological tradition.  This engagement is evident in the reaffirmation of the doctrine of the Church in regard to marriage and the moral life—a point which the Holy Father makes repeatedly (Amoris Laetitia, 307). The teaching on marriage and human love of Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, and Benedict XVI is featured prominently in the document.

Now Pope Francis picks up the threads of the energizing focus of the Council while standing on the foundational work of his predecessors. But this is more than mere repetition of certain points of doctrine.

There is a sense in which one can see in this exhortation a renewed call to recognize our Catholic identity, our connectedness to the Church and how our ministry is validated precisely in our participation in and adherence to the articulated Magisterium of the Church.  This articulation includes that of all of the popes, not just the ones some might deem more Catholic than others.

In Amoris Laetitia specifically, we find long-held, theologically sound teaching that displays the reality of practical, pastoral guidance that is offered to someone who, like all of us, is struggling to live up to the fullness of the norm, but within the circumstances and situations in which they find themselves.

In many ways the document’s teaching is a further response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for a renewal of Catholic moral teaching and practice and the response to this call by the subsequent papal magisterium.

The assertion of the primacy of love does not in any way diminish the role of law.  What the exhortation is calling us to is a recognition that the starting point or principle from which our pastoral actions flow must be the revelation of God’s love and mercy.  Church law certainly has great importance but it is not the only point of reference in pastoral ministry.

The document clearly sounds important notes of its own, and significantly contributes to and applies these hallmarks of post-conciliar renewal.  The focus on the person and his or her dignity is carried forward in the Holy Father’s critique of what he calls “a culture of the ephemeral” (cf. AL, 39) — a culture which views and treats others as sources of affective or sexual pleasure to be discarded when this pleasure runs dry.  This pursuit of a shallow happiness falls short of the joy of which the Exhortation speaks.  As was true for the Council, the dignity of the human person is fully disclosed in Christ but in this case especially in Christ’s embrace of families with their struggles, in children and other vulnerable persons, and in sinners.

LISTENING

One can say that Amoris Laetitia is itself the fruit of very intensive LISTENING on the part of Pope Francis.  The two synods on family called by the Holy Father were themselves preceded by consultation of local churches throughout the world on the lived situation of families, their challenges, and their experience.

This worldwide consultation involving the clergy, religious and laity touches on a significant aspect of Pope Francis’ vision of synodality.  It includes the experience, faith and voice of all the members of the Church, not just the bishops.

Pope Francis understands the process of listening to the faithful and to his brother bishops to be a key part of his own teaching and pastoral ministry.  It is part of the “synodality” or “journeying together” which he sees as essential to the Church at every level.    The fruit of this listening is reflected in the generous citation and engagement of the reports of the two synods in this exhortation.

ACCOMPANYING

Another activity on which the document focuses is ACCOMPANYING, the pastoral accompaniment of all who seek to find a way closer to God.  In many ways this is an extension of listening and of the synodality to which it gives rise.  The journeying together of all of the members of the Church implies this accompaniment.  But it also calls for a change in pastoral style and intensity.

Pope Francis calls pastors to do more than teach the Church’s doctrine—though they clearly must do that.   Pastors must “take on the ‘smell of the sheep’” whom they serve so that “the sheep are willing to hear their voice” (EG, 24).  This requires a more careful and intensive formation of all who minister – all who invite people to renew their faith.

Yet it is precisely in this closeness, the proximity to the faithful that another level of experiencing and living the faith develops. It is this challenging and struggling experience of the lived faith that Pope Francis welcomes as that “walking together” that is synodality.

Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia and the bishops in the 2014 and 2015 synods renew the understanding that the Church’s pastoral mission and ministry must include not only the presentation of Church teaching (her doctrine), but also take into consideration how that teaching can be and is actually received or grasped by individuals, particularly given their situation and circumstances, and also how pastors of souls can engage in the company of the faithful in the journey towards embracing more fully the Church’s life-giving message.

DISCERNING

The Church’s pastoral ministry is intended to help the faithful to grow in the art of DISCERNING.  A key part of discernment is the formation of conscience.  The Holy Father insists that the Church’s pastors must “make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations.  We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL, 37).

Admittedly, this individual process of discernment may not be easy.  A person may know full well Church teaching, Pope Francis notes, yet have great difficulty in either understanding its inherent positive value, or in being able to fully embrace it right away because of circumstances (AL, 301).  Yet, the underlying moral principle which should inform both that personal discernment and the priest’s ministry is that a person whose situation in life is objectively contrary to moral teaching can still love and grow in the faith, he or she can still take steps in the right direction and benefit from God’s mercy and grace while receiving the assistance of the Church (AL, 305).

EVANGELIZING

Amoris Laetitia is not a list of answers to each individual human issue.  Rather, it is a call to compassionate accompaniment in helping all to experience Christ’s love and mercy.  To the extent that our ministry does this, it is also an EVANGELIZING action.  As we recall the challenge to go out, to encounter, and to accompany, we also recognize that this is at its heart an act of the evangelizing disciple.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods on marriage and family and the process they represent of sharing, listening, discerning and receiving are beginnings of a fuller and richer concept of synodality. We see in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, a magisterial expression of the fruit of synodality.  It is now seen as a manifestation of the fruit of the whole Church under the guidance of bishops with Peter walking and discerning together.

CONCLUSION

We began these reflections with an understanding that the word synodality means coming together – journeying together. This concept seems to be central to Pope Francis’ understanding of the nature of the Church, how the Church carries out her mission and who all is engaged in the understanding and articulation of that mission.

Just as Jesus said to his disciples as he prepared to return to his Father in glory: “You will be my witnesses” so Pope Francis is calling the whole body of disciples together in a process of discerning the richness of the proclamation of the faith, accompanying one another as we try: to embrace and appropriate the faith, and to announce it to the world today as much by our actions as by our words.

What Pope Francis is doing is helping us all understand that to be true witnesses to Jesus we have to walk together in witnessing and supporting one another. Only in this way can we truly accept the challenge: “You will be my witnesses.”

Watch the Facebook Live Stream of the Cardinal’s Lecture

Every Life is a Story, Only Known Fully by God – A Meditation on a Moving Video

Last Known Picture of Charles Pope Oct 2006When my father lay dying, I remember that one of the losses I began to grieve was that he was the keeper of so many family stories. He was the one who could look at an old family photograph, identify all the people, and tell you something about each one. As I saw him lying there, no longer able to talk much, I thought of all the memories stored up in his mind, all the stories, all the people he once knew and had spoken of so vividly.

And it was not just the family stories he held; he was also a great historian and a great wellspring of the classics. He had read all of the “Great Books,” all of Shakespeare, all of Sacred Scripture, and so many other worthy writings. And he had memorized many lengthy quotes from each.

Such an encyclopedic mind! He was full of vivid thoughts and vivid memories. He was the keeper of our family story. And though I knew he would take it with him in his soul, I grieved that his magnificent mind was now closing to me. I regret that I did not more carefully retain all he told me over the years.

Thankfully, he wrote a family history that stays with us. All his many photos and family films, that we worked to preserve, stay with us. We, his sons, are moving much of this to the digital realm, but it took Dad’s living presence to really bring these things home.

The video below put me in this reflective mood. It depicts an old man who lies dying in a hospital bed. In various flashbacks we see his life, told almost as if from God’s perspective. We see his story, his good moments and his tragedies—and then he passes.

I remember a Bible verse my father jotted down on the frontispiece of a book he was reading at the time of his own father’s death:

But as for man, his days are like the grass, or as the flower that flourishes in the field. The wind blows, and he is gone, and his place never sees him again (Psalm 103:16).

Reading that as a young teenager, I realized for the first time that the Bible was very beautiful. And I was startled to think that the house in which I was sitting would one day “never see me again.” All the stories, all the memories would be gone with the proverbial winds.

The photo at the upper right is the last one I ever took of my father. He standing in front of our family home. I took the picture as he was leaving it for the last time. He moved into a retirement community for a brief time, but was not much longer for this world. There he is, standing in front of the place that would “never see him again.”

Yes, there is something very precious about our memories, our stories. They are meant to be shared, handed down. But there is something irreplaceable, something that dies with each person: a personal glimpse of history, a personal story, something that can never be fully shared with anyone but the Lord.

Only the Lord really knows our story, and he knows it better than we ourselves do:

O LORD, you search me and you know me.
You yourself know my resting and my rising;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You mark when I walk or lie down;
you know all my ways through and through.

Before ever a word is on my tongue,
you know it, O LORD, through and through …

For it was you who formed my inmost being,
knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I thank you who wonderfully made me;

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being fashioned in secret
and molded in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me yet unformed;
and all my days were recorded in your book,
before one of them came into being …

at the end I am still at your side … (Ps 139:varia)

Yes, the Lord knows. He knows all about us.

An old spiritual says, “Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody but Jesus.” For in the end, He is the keeper of every story: my father’s, mine, and yours. And whatever is lost in death will be restored a hundredfold, with understanding besides, in the great parousia. Not a story, not a word will be lost. We shall recover it all and tell the old, old stories once again.

Enjoy this poignant and moving video of a man’s life, told almost as if from the standpoint of God, the God who knows. Though the man seems to die alone, someone is remembering his story. Maybe it’s God who is doing the remembering.

Focused on a Functional Family: A Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

122714Here in the middle of the Christmas Octave, the Church bids us to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. On the old calendar, the Feast of the Holy Family falls on the Sunday after Epiphany, which makes a little more sense since the gospels appointed for the feast often take us far forward in time mere days after He is born. The gospel this year is only forty days into the future  (unlike other years when the gospel takes us twelve years into the future), but today’s gospel is still well past the Feast of the Epiphany, which we have yet to celebrate.

Nevertheless, here we are. Perhaps it is a good time to reflect on family life. For, at Christmas time, family and extended family often gather together.  We are also in the midst of a reflection by the Church at Synods in Rome on the modern problems associated with the family.  These problems are rooted in the loss of God’s vision for human families and sexuality. Pray for the synod members, that they will look less to diseases now and more to the solutions given in God’s Word. It is true that we must understand the problems, but it is even more important that we understand what God teaches and effectively proclaim it.

In terms of this Feast of the Holy Family, let us consider marriage and family along three lines: structure, struggles, and strategy.

I. Structure – All through the readings for today’s Mass, we are instructed on the basic form, the basic structure of the family. For example,

  1. God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sirach 3:2).
  2. May your wife be like a fruitful vine, in the recesses of your home; your children like olive plants, around your table (Psalm 128:3).
  3. Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so that they may not become discouraged (Colossians 3:20–21).
  4. Each year, Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover … Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety … (Luke 2:45, 51).
  5. And he was obedient to them; … And Jesus advanced in age and wisdom and favor before God and man (Luke 2:51–52).

And thus we see the basic structure of family:

  1. A father in honor over his children
  2. A wife and mother, supportive of her husband and his authority
  3. A mother, having authority over her children, supported, loved, and encouraged by her husband and obeyed by her children
  4. Children who both honor and obey their parents
  5. Fathers, and by extension mothers, who instruct and admonish their children, but not in a way that badgers and discourages them, but in a way that encourages and builds them up
  6. A family structure that helps children to advance in wisdom and age, and in favor before God and man
  7. So, a father, a mother, and children, all reverential and supportive of one another in their various roles and duties.

Here, then, is God’s basic teaching on family and marriage. Here is the basic structure for the family as God sets it forth: a man who loves his wife and a woman who loves her husband. And in this stable, lasting, and faithful union of mutual support and love, they conceive and raise their children in the holy fear of the Lord.

Add to this, the principal description of the book of Genesis, which lays out how God sets forth marriage: “A man shall leave his father and mother, cling to his wife, and the two of them shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). And to this first couple, God gives the mandate, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22).

Note, too, how the structure of the family takes its basic form based on its essential work: procreation and the rearing of children. Why should marriage be a stable and lasting union? Why is Adam told to cling to his wife, to form a stable and lasting union with her? Why? Because this is what is best and just for children! Children both need and deserve a stable and lasting union of their father and mother, and the complementary influence of the two different sexes. This is what is best for children to be raised and formed. Hence, the family structure of a father and a mother, a male and a female parent, flows from what is best and just for children. The structure of the family, as set forth by God, is rooted in what is best and just for children. This is what is sensible and best, sociologically and psychologically, for the proper development of children.

Even before we open the Bible, it makes sense that a child should have a father and a mother, the influence and teaching of both a male and a female. There are things that a father, a male, can teach a child that a mother, a female, cannot teach as well. Further, the mother, a female, can teach and model for children what only she knows best. Both male and female influences are essential for the proper psychological and sociological development of the child. Clearly, then, God’s biblical mandate that marriage should consist of a father and a mother is not without basis in simple human reason and common sense.

To intentionally deprive a child of this context is both unjust to the child and unwise. Hence, we see that the basic structure for marriage takes its shape from what is best and just for children. Both God and nature provide for a father and a mother, a male and a female, to conceive and raise a child.

It also makes sense, based on simple human reasoning, that that relationship should be stable, something the child can depend on from day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year, through all the formative years.

Here then is the proper structure for marriage. It is set forth both by God and human reason.

II. Struggles – And yet, what should be obvious to us as a culture seems to be strangely absent in the minds of many. Let us be clear: sin clouds judgment and makes many think that what is sinful and improper is in fact okay or even good. It is not. In our current culture we gravely sin against God and against our children by consistent misconduct and by the refusal to accept what is obviously true. The words of St. Paul are fulfilled in our modern times: their senseless minds were darkened, and they became vain and foolish in their reasoning (Rom 1:21).

It is clear today that the family is in grave crisis. And it is also clear that it is the children who suffer the most. Our modern age in the western world shows forth a mentality that is both deeply flawed and gravely harmful to children.

Marriage and family are in great crisis due to the willful and sinful habits of the vast majority of adults in our culture regarding sexuality, marriage, and family life. The rebellion of adults against the plan and order of God has caused endless grief and hardship, and has set forth a culture that is poisonous to the proper raising and blessing of children.

Previously, there has commentary on this on the blog regarding this. Without repeating  whole blog posts, the following excerpts stands forth:

Children have much to suffer in this world of our collective making. And while not all of us are equally guilty of contributing to the suffering of children, none of us is wholly innocent either, if for no other reason than our silence.

Consider that most children born today are no longer born into the stable and lasting family units they justly deserve, with a father and mother committed to one another till death do them part.

The problems begin with fornication, which is rampant in our culture. And while most do not think of this as a sin of injustice, it is. It is so because of what it does primarily to children.

The fact is, many children are conceived of fornication. Tragically, most of these children who are thus conceived are outright murdered by abortion. 85% of abortions are performed on unmarried women. And for all the vaunted declarations of how contraception makes every baby a wanted baby, nothing could be further from the truth. Abortion has skyrocketed with the availability of contraception. This is because the problem is not fertility; it is lust, promiscuity, fornication, and adultery. And contraception fuels these problems by further enabling them with the lie that there is no necessary connection between sex and procreation. The promises associated with contraception are lies; contraception does the opposite of what it promises.

Thus fornication and the contraceptive mentality (founded on lies) cause grave harm to children, beginning with their death in huge numbers. And the children conceived of fornication who do (thankfully) survive are nevertheless subjected to the injustice of usually being born into irregular situations. There are single mothers, some single fathers, and many other irregularities.

Add to this picture the large number of divorced families. And make no mistake about it, these shredded families cause great hardships and pain for children that include children being shuttled back and forth between different households each week, having to meet “daddy’s new girlfriend” or “mommy’s new boyfriend,” and all sorts of other family chaos. Blended families also dramatically increase the likelihood of sexual and emotional abuse, since legal relationships seldom have the built-in protections of natural relationships.

All of this misbehavior, individual and cultural, harms children. Not being raised in a traditional marriage dramatically increases a child’s likelihood of suffering many other social ills, starting with poverty.

The chief cause of poverty in this country, is the single motherhood, absent fatherhood.
71% of poor families are not married.
Children of single parent homes are 2 times more likely to be arrested for juvenile crime,
2 times more likely be treated for emotional and behavioral problems,
Twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school,
33% more likely to drop out of school,
3 times more likely to end up in jail by age 30.
50% more likely to live in poverty as adults,
And twice as likely to have a child outside of marriage themselves
. [*]

And add to the burdens children must experience, the new trend of same-sex adoption. Never mind that it is best for the psychological development of a child to have a father and a mother, a male and a female influence. No, what is best and just children must be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. Same-sex couples must now be given equal consideration under the law (in many states) to heterosexual couples. It’s the adults and their rights that seem to matter most here; what is best for children is quite secondary.

Here then are our struggles. Our families are in grave crisis and MOST children in our culture are not raised in the stable and committed homes they deserve. And let us be even more clear: to intentionally deprive children of this sort of home by raising them outside of marriage, or in same-sex unions, etc., is sinful, wrong, and an injustice.

Disclaimer – Let us also be clear that it is not possible to personally judge every case of a broken family. The modern world has experienced a cultural tsunami and many have been influenced by lies and other false promises. It may be true that, if you are divorced, you tried to save your marriage but your spouse was unwilling. Perhaps in a moment of weakness, perhaps before your your conversion to Christ, you fell and bore children outside of marriage, but have done your best to raise them well.

But in the end we must say that children have had much to suffer on account of adult misbehavior in our culture. It is a true and sad fact, and we need to repent and beg God’s grace and mercy to undo our grave sins of commission, omission, and silence. We have set forth a bitter world for our children to inherit.

III. Strategy – What are we to do? In a phrase, “Preach the Word.” Whatever the sins of us in this present generation (and there are many), we must be prepared to repropose, unambiguously, the wisdom of God’s Word to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Even if many of us in the current generation have fallen short, we cannot hesitate to announce God’s plan for sexuality, marriage, and family.

Our strategic proclamation must include these key elements:

  1. No sex before marriage, ever, under any circumstances. Sexual intercourse is rooted in the procreation of children and there is no legitimate use of it outside of marriage, ever.  There are no exceptions to this.
  2. Children deserve and have the right to expect two parents, a father and a mother, committed to each other till death do them part. Anything short of this is a grave injustice to children and a mortal sin before God.
  3. Gay unions, or single mothers and fathers are NOT an acceptable alternative to biblical marriage. To intentionally subject children to this, for the sake of political correctness or for the perceived needs of adults, is a grave injustice to them.
  4. Marriage is about what is best for children, not adults.
  5. Married couples must learn to work out their differences (as was done in the past) and not rush to divorce courts, which offends God (cf Malachi 2:16).
  6. The needs of children far outweigh the preferences and needs of adults.

Whatever the personal failings of any of us in this present evil age (cf Gal 1:4), our strategy must be to preach the undiluted plan of God for sexuality, marriage, and family to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

In short, “Back to the Bible! Back to the plan of God! Away with modern experiments and unbiblical schemes!” God has given us a plan. And we, thinking we had better ideas, have caused great sorrow and hardship for our descendants. We have acted unjustly, murdered our children through abortion, and, sowing in the wind, have caused those who have survived our misbehavior to inherit the whirlwind. It is time to repent and help our heirs to rejoice in chastity, marriage, and biblical family. Otherwise we are doomed to perish.

God has a plan and it must be our strategy to get out of our struggles and back to God’s structure for our families.

This song says, “So, humbly I come to you and say. As I sound aloud the warfare of today. Hear me, I pray. What about the children?”

Is There Anyone You Know Who Might Have Been Forgotten This Christmas?

Volunteers at St. Matthew’s Cathedral serve a hot breakfast to guests at the Christmas breakfast on Dec 15.Christmas is a beautiful time of the year for most of us, most of the time. But it is also true that Christmas can be a very painful time of year for some, especially those who have experienced recent loss or who, for various reasons, have fewer family options at Christmas. Yes, Christmas can be the best of times or the loneliest of times, the most wonderful time of the year or the most painful.

The video below reminds us that Christmas can also be a time to reach out to others who have a hard time experiencing Christmas. Perhaps it is a relative or friend who has lost a spouse this past year and who will be alone for the first time this Christmas. Perhaps it is someone who is left out because his family is far away. Perhaps it is someone who is shy or even a little antisocial. But somewhere under all the grouchiness we see their pain and know that they need some attention at Christmas. I know that I have some sick parishioners who need a special visit this week.

Whatever the reason, there are always those who need to be included, those who for various reasons feel excluded.

In the video, a hare and a bear are fast friends. Unfortunately, the bear always misses Christmas because he is in hibernation. Something inside the hare tells him that Christmas will not be Christmas without his friend, and without his friend being able to experience the joy of Christmas. It occurs to the hare that there is a particular gift that would help his friend the bear to enjoy Christmas, even if only for a moment. And so he gives the gift, which you will see at the end of the video.

I leave it to you to watch the touching conclusion and to ask yourself who the bear is in your life.  Who is it that you need to reach out to in this season of Christmas? For me it was an old family friend that I had lost touch with this past year, and whose mind is beginning to fade with age. She had been good to my father in his dying process, and so I sought her out and we had a nice talk.

How about you? Who is that someone in your life who needs some special attention this Christmas? Christ will surely be pleased if you give the gift of love.

Focused on the Dysfunctional? A Consideration of the Need for the Synod on the Family to Refocus ON the Family

122114Many breathed a sigh of relief when the summary document of the extraordinary Synod on the Family was much improved and the seriously flawed sections (which no one seems to know who wrote!) were removed.  But in this case we cannot allow the better to become the enemy of the best. And frankly the relatio, though improved, ought not escape sober scrutiny by those who seek to allow the upcoming (Ordinary) Synod to become what it really ought to be: a synod on families, not on dysfunction.

No doubt the family is in grave crisis, not just in the West, be really throughout most of the world. But to focus only on the dysfunction and to make it the main matter of discussion is to miss the solution which comes from focusing on what is functional and healthy.

Consider the medical world. It is clear that they must look to the pathologies and diseases that afflict the human family. But the definition and picture of what is healthy must drive everything doctors do (except perhaps in the palliative care department). The role of doctors is not to make sick people feel better about being sick, it is to make them well; it is to restore them to good health. I suppose it is not a bad thing that doctors make patients feel welcome and comfortable in the office or hospital, but that is secondary. If I go to the doctor with cancer and all the doctor says is “I affirm you! Don’t feel embarrassed or hurt; lots of people are sick. Heck, I get sick too.” Well then I am going to have to say, “Thanks Doc, but how about the cancer? What are we going to do about that?”

Yet too often in the Church today those entrusted with the care of souls talk like that chatty, affirming doctor. Too easily it’s all “bedside manner” stuff, and not enough good, strong medicine that calls disease what it is is and points to the charts and indicators of what true health is.

It would seem that an awful lot of the time at the Synod, at least in the discussions that were most publicized, was spent talking about what is dysfunctional and trying to make people in dysfunctional situations feel better and “included.” It would seem that less time has been spent looking at what true family health and functionality is and working to rebuild that by insisting on it, preaching it, and getting people used to it again. Where is the focus on functional families? How have they succeeded? What are the elements that most contribute to family health? Where are the panels of couples married 25, 40, and 50 years being consulted for solid advice? Where is the pointed and solid exegesis of scriptural texts, teachings from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and witnesses to married love down through the centuries?

Sadly, most of the oxygen thus far has gone toward what is not working. The “Synod on the Family” might need to be renamed the “Synod on Divorce, Remarriage, and Alternative Families.”  As such, we seem more like the “cheerful” doctor above who spends all his time welcoming and reassuring but misses his most essential role: combating pathology and restoring health.

A recent article in Catholic World Report highlights the seemingly skewed emphasis in the Relatio and in current discussions. The article highlights what the Synod did NOT say and focuses on two specific omissions. Here are some excerpts from the article (by Matthew Christoff) in bold italics, with some additional commentary by me in plain red text. The full article can be found here: The Bishops and the Man-Crisis.

Christoff begins by listing two serious omissions he sees and then detailing them. (Remember I am presenting excerpts.)

The Synod completely ignored the essential importance of men in the faith lives of the family and the broader Catholic “man-crisis.” The second shocking omission is that the Synod failed to acknowledge and address the majority of families in the pews, families with married moms and dads who are facing crushing challenges with successfully passing on the faith to their children.

Omission 1: Men

In the Relatio Synodi, the Synod Fathers offered only one sentence with 25 words addressed to men and fathers who represent about half of Catholics. For perspective, homosexuals, who represent 1-2% of Catholics, merited two whole paragraphs. Wow, ONE sentence, ONE. 

Rather than recognize the contributions of fathers or their unique spiritual and evangelization needs, the Synod Fathers offered this short, critical admonishment to men and fathers:

Fathers who are often absent from their families, not simply for economic reasons, need to assume more clearly their responsibility for children and the family (Paragraph 8).

Well, admonishment is good. A lot of men are sinfully absent and/or passive husbands and fathers.  

But admonishment without instruction is ineffective. This is especially true today when many men hear the message that seeking to be the head of their household, to provide for their wife and children, and to be be a leader are bad things. Men who talk like this are often scolded for being patriarchal, insensitive, misogynistic, etc.

Thus scolding without teaching men, women, and even children of the biblical vision of a man as the head of his family, is ineffective because it does not provide men or families with a framework that clarifies the “responsibility” the bishops speak of and how it is to be properly described and fulfilled.  

It is strategically flawed to believe that the Church can bring the New Evangelization to the family without addressing the Catholic “man-crisis”. The New Emangelization Project has documented that there is a Catholic “man-crisis” that is widespread and serious. Fully one in three baptized Catholic men in the U.S. have left the Church … Of those who remain  50-60% are … men who don’t know the faith, don’t practice the faith and are not committed to passing the faith along to their children … Men are essential in the passing along of faith to the children. Various studies have been published that underscore the essential nature of the father in the transmission of the faith. The active involvement in the faith of an evangelized and catechized father is the single biggest influence on whether the children will remain in the faith when they become adults. The reason the Church is losing so many young people is that the fathers have not been evangelized and catechized. This is the essence of the Catholic “man-crisis.”

OK, are we clear: the Synod has to focus a LOT more on men and their role as husbands and fathers. One sentence is NOT enough. Some teachings regarding men that should be emphasized for the restoration of good, healthy families should include: What does scripture teach of the role of a man as a husband and father? What does scripture mean in calling a man the head of his wife? How is this role properly exercised (and not set aside as outdated)?  What are ways the Church can once again summon men to leadership roles in the parish and community? How can we better form young men to be husbands, fathers, priests, deacons, or religious? 

ONE sentence? Really? Major omission! Much more has to be said and done about the “missing man syndrome” in the Church and in the family. 

Omission 2: Intact Families

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (Marriage in the Catholic Church: A Survey of U.S. Catholics – 2007), sacramentally married Catholics represent the single biggest portion of Catholics (some 35-40%). These Catholics received no pastoral emphasis by the Synod. N.B. There are still a lot of functioning families. Not enough to be sure, but there ARE still a good number.

[Instead, the Relatio] focuses on five [other] types of families for pastoral care: engaged couples, married couples in their early years, couples who are not sacramentally married, divorced and remarried couples and single parent families, and homosexual persons. Here is the relative emphasis based on word count:

Those to be married (7% of the word count)
Those newly married (7% of the word count)
Those living together or civilly married (17% of the word count)
Those who are divorced or single (61% of the word count)
Homosexuals (7% of the word count)

Each of these groups are certainly worthy of evangelization and are rightly acknowledged in the document. What’s missing is the largest portion of those families who are Catholic: sacramentally married with intact families.

Once again, WOW! 61% of the word count on the divorced or still single and almost nothing on functioning, traditional families. True, the engaged and newly married receive 14% of the word count. But the skew is clearly toward what is at variance with God’s plan and is dysfunctional: cohabiters, the divorced, and those with same-sex attraction. Hence the wonderment as to whether this really is the “Synod on the Family” and not the “Synod on Divorce, Remarriage, and Alternative Families.” I will admit that I am not sure how these percentages were determined, so I am just assuming the count as reliable, though I suppose what category every word goes into may be a matter of some debate, at least at the margins. 

Intact [traditional] families face grave issues that desperately require the Church’s attention. Many of these families are casual in their faith and will not be able to successfully transmit the faith to their children without dramatic new enthusiasm, catechesis, and skills.  All the trends suggest that the Church is failing in helping intact families pass their faith along to their children: since 2000 in the U.S., 14 million Catholics have left the faith, parish religious education participation of children has dropped by 24%, Catholic school attendance has dropped by 19%, baptisms of infants has dropped by 28%, baptism of adults has dropped by 31% and sacramental Catholic marriages have dropped by 41%. Something is desperately wrong with how the Church is evangelizing and catechizing existing families.

To use a common sense analogy from business: Businesses that flourish are extremely attendant to their loyal customer base (for the Church, those sacramentally married couples with children in the pews); great emphasis is placed on helping these customers grow in their loyalty (for the Church, helping parents grow in their faith and successfully pass their faith along to their children) and increasing their use of the product (increased Mass attendance and participation in Reconciliation). A losing strategy in business is to focus marketing efforts on wooing back those customers who don’t like the product (for the Church, those who reject the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality) and have stopped using the product (those who have left the Church).

Admittedly, this analogy is only partially correct for the Church; Christ teaches that the lost sheep should be pursued, and so they should. But Christ’s last words to Peter are repeated three times: “feed my sheep.” Sadly, in the Relatio Synodi, the largest portion of families are completely ignored; the sheep in the paddock are not being fed. Amen! 

Christoff concludes with a plea to Bishops:

As fathers, bishops, and priests must begin to take responsibility for their own families (their dioceses, their parishes) and develop new ardor, methods, and expressions to successfully evangelize and catechize men and intact families in the pews….it is imperative that the Church realize and correct the Synod’s shocking omissions and realign attention to the evangelization and catechesis of men and those intact families who are in the pews. Without a new and dramatic hands-on effort to “feed the sheep” (i.e., men and intact families), the flock will continue to wander off in the coming decades.

Amen.

Here’s a complex song. But among other things, it celebrates the formation that takes place in families.

Pope Gregory the Great: Advice to the Married

121814Every now and again when I write on Holy Matrimony, especially the Church’s more staunch biblical teachings (indissolubility, no contraception, etc.), someone will inevitably write in with a kind of sneer and wonder at or even laugh at a celibate man advising married people about marriage. To be sure, inner experience of something has its place, but so does external observance. I remember as a youth that my swimming coach, who was out of the water, would often correct us if our form was wrong, and advise us on how to adjust it to swim better and faster. His perspective from out of the water gave him an understanding that even I, an experienced swimmer in the water, could not have. I might think my form was perfect, but he could see that it was not.

Similarly, priests and other celibates (such as religious) DO have something to teach about marriage. What we teach is not better than the advice of married people, but it is different; it is given from a different perspective. From our position, sometimes we can see things about Holy Matrimony that even the married have trouble seeing. Further, it is to be hoped that priests and religious are also well-versed in the Biblical teaching on Matrimony and family life and can offer the benefit of our study of God’s Word and our relationship with the Author of Holy Matrimony.

With that introduction, I would like to present some of the teaching of Pope St. Gregory the Great and his advice to the married. For spiritual reading, I am currently finishing up his Pastoral Rule, which contains this teaching. Since he is a priest and Bishop, his advice is less on practical things (such as communication, conflict resolution, etc.) and more at the level of theology and priorities. And yet it does have very practical importance. The following excerpts are taken from his Pastoral Rule (III.27) and are presented in bold, italics.

My own comments appear in red text.

Those who are joined in marriage should be advised that, as they mutually consider what is good for their spouse, they should be careful that when they please their spouse, they do not displease their maker. In other words, they should conduct their affairs in this world without relinquishing their desire for God … They should remain aware that their current situation is transitory and what they desire is permanent.

And in this is the heart of St. Gregory’s advice: God comes first. And even if a spouse may pressure one to forsake what God teaches, or to neglect to pray or attend to sacred duties, let that one with charity and confidence withstand any temptation to negligence of or disobedience to God. Pleasing God is more important and more required than pleasing one’s spouse. And while these two are not necessarily or even usually in conflict, when they are, God must be preeminent.

St. Gregory also reminds that Matrimony is of this world and therefore transitory, while the things of God remain forever. We frequently forget this and focus instead on passing things, joys, and troubles, and forget or minimize the things of the life to come, which have greater significance since they are permanent.

Such an insight is focused on seeing not only marriage’s joys in their proper and passing perspective, but also its sorrows and difficulties. “Trouble don’t last always.” And in this is a remedy that helps to endure difficulties and to see beyond the crosses to the glory that waits and endures.

[Though] as [the married] cannot completely abandon the temporal things [they] can desire union with the eternal … therefore, the married Christian should not give himself entirely to the things that he now possesses, or else he will fall completely from that which he ought to hope … St. Paul expresses this well and so simply saying for he who has a wife should act as though not having one. [In other words he means that] he who enjoys the consolation of the carnal life through his wife, but does so in such a way that his love for her does not divert him. He also has a wife as though not having one, who understands that all things are transitory. 

Here, too, while the love of one’s spouse and the goods of marriage are not necessarily, or even usually, in conflict with the desire for eternal things, nevertheless the married must not fail to consciously work to keep these desires connected and to not allow worldly desires to eclipse or attenuate the desire for heavenly things.

This happens in other areas beyond marriage, too. For example, we have attained great comfort in the modern age with electricity, running water, entertainment, good food in abundance, etc. And sadly, there is a pronounced diminishment today for spiritual things and the things of Heaven. Even many Christians in their so-called spiritual life and prayers, pray more and longer for better finances, improved health, and worldly things than they do for holiness and even Heaven.

Thus the joys of this world and those of matrimony ought to be seen as a mere foretaste of far greater glories to come for which we must more truly long.

The married should be advised that they endure with mutual patience those things that occasionally bring displeasure and that they exhort one another to salvation … They should be advised that they not worry themselves so much about what they must endure from their spouse, but consider what their spouse must endure on account of them. For if one really considers what must be endured on his account, it is all the easier to bear the things of others.

It is so easy to list the sins and shortcomings of others. But every spouse should begin by saying, “My marriage is not perfect because I am in it … I am a sinner and I married a sinner, knowing he was a sinner … I am living in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and I myself have a fallen nature.”

The patience that Pope Gregory reminds us of is a reference to the Cross. And the Lord tells us that we must be willing to endure the Cross or we cannot be His disciples. Frankly, people often lay the heaviest crosses on those whom they love. This is because they care about them.

And love brings vulnerability. The word “vulnerabilty” is rooted in the Latin word “vulnera” meaning “wound.” Thus to be vulnerable is to be able to endure wounds out of love. And patience is rooted in the Latin word “patior” meaning “to suffer.” Hence patience bespeaks a capacity or willingness to suffer on account of others.

The married should be advised to remember that they come together for the purpose of producing children, but when they become immoderately enslaved by intercourse, they transfer the occasion for procreation to the service of pleasure … Thus St. Paul, skilled in heavenly medicine writes “Concerning the things you wrote to me, it is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman, but on account of fornication, let everyone have his own wife and every woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:1).  And thus, by beginning with the fear of fornication, Paul did not extend this precept to those who were strong, but rather showed the couch to those who are weak, so they would not fall to the ground. He then adds, “Let the husband give what he ought to his wife, and similarly the wife to her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:3). … [He says this] because there are many who [though] clearly forsaking the sins of the flesh [i.e., fornication], nevertheless, in the practice of marital intercourse have not limited themselves solely to the confines of righteousness (i.e., intercourse without procreative intent).

And thus, though marital intercourse is both licit and noble, like any pleasure it can take on an importance either too large, or out of connection with its truest purposes.

In the modern age, the contraceptive mentality insists that there is no necessary connection between sex and procreation. When this error (contrary to both natural law and revealed truth) is indulged, sex is reduced to the thing itself and we divide what God has joined. Sex merely for pleasure too easily devolves into demeaning, even unnatural behaviors and to the reduction of others, even spouses, to sexual playthings, rather than eventual parents. A man who looks at his wife as (potentially or actually) the mother of his children sees her differently than if he sees her as a sexual plaything.

It was in this context that Pope John Paul controversially stated that it was possible even for spouses to lust after one another in violation of the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5:28. And what is lust? Essentially, it is reducing the human person to his or her body and the pleasure that body can provide. It is forgetting that this is a person to be loved for his or her own sake, even if his/her body is not available for pleasure, or becomes less “desirable” through age or sickness.

Thus sexual desire, though beautiful and given by God, is, on account of our fallen nature, unruly and must be governed carefully by reason. It must not be allowed to eclipse what is right and what is greater than sex—God and the new life and the family life of which it is in service.

St. Gregory therefore interprets that St. Paul also teaches that a man ought to give his wife what she is due: not merely his body, but himself, wholly. He also should give her what is due by loving not merely her sexual charms, but her very self, her whole self. Likewise for the wife in return are all the same duties. 

If marital intercourse is just about pleasure and not about bigger and lasting things like the other person and children, pleasure has a way of running its course and becoming routine or boring. Building a marriage on things more lasting than pleasure and happiness is essential. Hence Pope Gregory uses creatively the notion that St. Paul shows couples the couch of true marital sexuality and bids them fall on that couch rather than all the way to the ground through lust, contraceptive sex, or fornication. 

Some wisdom from a great Father, pastor, and Saint of the Church. St. Gregory the Great, Pray for us! 

Pondering”Gradualism”and the”Midterm”Report

"St Peter's Square, Vatican City - April 2007" by Diliff - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
“St Peter’s Square, Vatican City – April 2007” by Diliff – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0via Wikimedia Commons.

The so-called “midterm” report of the Synod is out. Please remember, it is only a rough draft and the final report may in fact look very different. Frankly, I am not sure why we are even being permitted to look at a rough draft. Nevertheless, presuming the Pope is serious about inviting discussion, let me consider a certain aspect of the report and a few particulars.

A governing principle that seems to permeate the report’s reflections is one that some refer to as “gradualism.” As a pastoral strategy, gradualism can be an effective, even necessary approach in order to lead people more deeply into the moral and spiritual life of the Church. However, as with any pastoral strategy, there are serious concerns and pitfalls to avoid.

What is gradualism? While I myself have never personally called it this, gradualism is a way in which we meet people where they are and seek gradually to draw them more deeply into the true life of a Christian. All of us who have journeyed toward Christ realize that we have we have not always been where we are today, and that future growth is necessary. Growth usually happens in stages and by degrees, ideally leading us more deeply to Christ.  

Perhaps an analogy involving a doctor and patient may help. Suppose a doctor meets a man in his late 50s who presents with a large number of health issues. There are many things wrong with the man (obesity, hypertension, diabetic tendencies, pulmonary and cardiac issues, etc.). Many aspects of the man’s lifestyle (drinking and eating to excess, poor diet, smoking, lack of exercise, etc.) may be contributing to this deterioration in his health. Seldom does a doctor give a patient a list of 25 things to do immediately. Such a “prescription” might leave the patient discouraged and unlikely to comply. So most doctors choose to chip away at the problem. What are some small changes that the patient can reasonably make in the next month? Perhaps it is beginning to take short walks, or making small  changes in his diet.  And thus the doctor begins with what he thinks is reasonable and achievable right away, and then gradually draws the patient to a more healthy lifestyle and better health. Small changes can eventually lead to a lot of progress.

In the pastoral ministry, similar strategies are often employed and they sometimes make good sense. People who show up at the front door of the rectory (or at our RCIA or marriage preparation programs) often present in a state of extensive spiritual disrepair. Many unhealthy and sinful moral issues or spiritually irregular practices are evident. Many have also been influenced by modern errors and misinformation. In many cases, the best place for a priest to begin is with a conversation, laying a foundation of trust that will assist the person in being conformed once again to the truth of the Gospel. During these conversations, the priest can clarify doubts and errors, display careful reasoning based on Scripture, and explain why we teach certain things. This approach can inspire repentance from sinful habits or patterns.

Priests and other pastoral leaders engage in this process frequently even if we don’t use the term “gradualism.” Not everyone is ready to go right into the confessional. Most people must be carefully prepared and led back to the truth. It is obviously a process that will vary considerably from person to person depending on his or her needs.

However, as with any pastoral strategy, there are pitfalls that must be avoided. Here are a few concerns that the practice of so-called gradualism might raise:

1. Gradualism works best when the one who administers it remains committed to seeing the whole process through and is not simply trying to evade the difficult work of restoring people. Again, for example,  the doctor who begins in small ways to help a person to better health must remain deeply aware of how serious things like heart disease, pulmonary disease, etc. are. Well-trained doctors must have a proper sense of urgency for the overall goal of actually restoring health. Today in the Church, however, it is not certain that a similar urgency is evident among the laity, the rank and file clergy, and I would suppose even some bishops.

However, the prevalence of “universalism” (the unbiblical view that all are saved in the end no matter what) in the Church has led to a profound lack of urgency. Very few in pastoral leadership today have a strong sense of concern about the fact that so many people are confused, are in darkness, and are living in serious, unrepentant sin. In the midst of a great moral crisis, many pulpits remain strangely silent and most parishes seem more focused on the next chicken dinner or the upcoming fundraiser than about how to reach out to those who live in darkness.

It is very troubling, akin to a doctor suddenly saying, “Well, heart disease, cancer, etc. are not really big deals, so in the end it doesn’t really matter whether we do anything or not.” And yet for many in the Church this is exactly the way they speak, at least implicitly. Apparently, for many, it is no big deal that people are living in great moral confusion, or that many are not coming to Mass, receiving sacraments, or explicitly confessing Christ, or that many are fornicating, divorcing, and engaging in or celebrating homosexual acts. If, as universalism implies, everyone will be saved in the end, who really cares all that much that people do these things?

This widely held pastoral stance has left many in  the Church without an appropriate sense of urgency to reach out to people who may in fact be lost.

In such a climate, gradualism is not likely to work well since there is no necessary goal to which we must urgently summon those to whom we minister.  In such a climate of little urgency, the emphasis is more on how people might feel. And even if gradualism is attempted, at some point, even in gradualism, there are difficult things that have to be said and unpopular truths that must be announced. Without that urgency to drive it, it’s hard to imagine a “gradualist” approach really moving the ball much.

Only if the priest or pastoral leader is deeply committed to the truth and is aware of the urgent need for people to live that truth, can gradualism bear the necessary fruit. Do such leaders exist? Yes, but how numerous they are is debatable in the Church today, so infected is it by universalism.

2. Gradualism as a strategy is poorly attested to in Scripture, where an urgent call to conversion and repentance is more the norm. The biblical evidence paints a picture of prophetic urgency and a strategy that strongly, even sternly asserts a clear contrast with the sinful world. The call to come away from worldly thinking is unambiguous and is to be done singularly and without lots of careful steps laid out.

For example, Jesus says, If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me (John 15:18-21). And Paul admonishes,  Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2).

Some will argue that Both Jesus and St. Paul were dealing with a small window of time and thus had to work urgently and in this manner. Fine. But Scripture cannot be wholly set aside as a model for evangelization. And even though our culture may prefer the “kinder, gentler” approach, and gradualism has its place, it must be balanced with other pastoral strategies that emphasize contrast and urgency.


3. Gradualism is a personal pastoral strategy, not  a global strategy. That is to say, it is directed to a specific person. The skilled pastor will have to adapt such a strategy to the specific needs of different people. Gradualism is a very complicated thing to try to pull off toward a group.

On any given Sunday, a pastor looks out upon a congregation filled with people at all different stages of spiritual and moral growth. He cannot possibly have a homily perfectly crafted to draw every one of them in stages, gradually closer to the truth. He will have to speak generally, but also very clearly, to the issues.

St. John Vianney was reputed to have remarked that a pastor should be tough in the pulpit and more gentle in the confessional. This illustrates to some degree the problem with gradualism applied to a large, diverse group such as a typical Catholic congregation. It works better as a personal strategy wherein a confessor or pastor can help a person work on particular areas in order to lay the ground for other areas. But this is very personal and varies widely from person to person. 

And this leads to the next point.

4. The cultural climate also presents challenges for the widespread use of gradualism. Generally, in these days of rapid cultural collapse and deep cynicism about biblical morality, a silent, quiet, or highly gentle approach is likely to be regarded as evidence of implicit agreement. Many today will say, “See, I went to this parish or that confessor and no one said anything to me about what I’m doing; no one seems concerned. So I guess it’s all right.” Thus, gentleness is confused with approval.

The Synod “midterm,” as published, contains a lot of ambiguous language about being “welcoming” and finding what is beautiful in non-traditional expressions of family and sexuality. OK, I get it; even a broken clock is right twice a day. And in certain personal settings, we can sit down with people and find areas of agreement. But when “gradualist” notions are issued to a wide, unbelieving, skeptical world such broad notions are subject to a thousand interpretations and may signal to some that the Church has “moved” in her doctrinal stance. Gradualism must be more carefully articulated. Signaling this approach without proper distinctions clouds more than it clarifies; it blurs the Church and her teaching.

Thus, when the document speaks about homosexuals and being open to the gifts they bring, to whom is it really referring? To those homosexuals who are living celibately? Or to those openly living in unions and engaging in activity that the Catechism calls gravely disordered and sinful? One can surely see that celibate homosexuals heroically living chastely in a world gone mad would indeed have the gift of heroic witness to offer, among other gifts. I am less certain that whatever gifts an openly practicing homosexual would bring would not be eclipsed by the scandal and confusion caused by that open practice.

When the document speaks of “accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation …”  and goes on to state rather generally that many such “unions” have “reached a notable level of stability through a public bond … characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring …” one wonders what “gradualism” is necessary for seemingly so lovely a thing. It sounds like the Synod is equivocating between true marriage and the endless arrangements of the world that clearly vary from God’s plan.

One can see a pastor working quietly with a cohabiting couple and encouraging them to validate their union, even telling them that their relationship appears beautiful and strong and that the Church’s blessing will make it even better. But for a Roman document to use such broad and affirming language to an unspecified audience is to invite the notion that affection equals approval.

Our modern culture is not usually going to understand these “outreaches” as an invitation to come to Christ, but rather as a capitulation by the Church to the status quo. The subtle approach of gradualism does not translate well to a culture that takes a mile when the Church offers an inch.

The better approach is that reputed of St. John Vianney: the Church should be clear in the pulpit and work quietly and in stages with people who struggle to meet the norms (and that is all of us, really). Let the norms and teachings of the Church be clear. Let local pastors and clergy work carefully within guidelines to clear obstacles, apply canonical remedies, and draw people (gradually) through preaching and teaching to a deeper adherence to the true and clear teaching of Christ and His Church.

Gradualism has its place: as a local and very personalized strategy under the direction of Church norms. I do not think it is viable as a worldwide pastoral strategy, one which will surely be misunderstood and likely misapplied.