Thank you for your introduction and your warm welcome. I am delighted to part of this conference that has as its overall theme: Mercy, Compassion, Accompaniment: Key to bringing Pope Francis’ Message to Parish Life. I had the privilege last June of addressing a similar group – the Association of United States Catholic Priests, so I tasted the flavor of the challenges, burdens and blessings of your priestly ministry in the American Church. In addition to the other work that I’m doing at the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, I have served as English language attaché at four world Synods of Bishops and as Fr. Federico Lombardi’s assistant for English language since the 2013 Papal Transition. These experiences have offered me countless opportunities to listen to priests and bishops from around the world.
What I will share with you today is not just about Pope Francis ‘from the outside’ but also about him ‘from the inside’. According to Francis, the centrality of mercy is Jesus’ most important message, and he made that very clear to us within a few days of his election in 2013 when he told us why he chose the name Francis: not Francis Xavier – but Francis of Assisi – for three reasons: because of Francis’ love of the poor, Francis’ love of peace, and Francis’ care for creation. We see these three reasons being played out before the eyes of the world on a daily basis. Pope Francis’ episcopal motto, Miserando atque eligendo is a rich expression taken from St. Bede’s homily on the call of Matthew, the evangelist, “Having had mercy, the Lord called him”. The motto was not chosen for the Papal office but one that already accompanied Jorge Mario Bergoglio from the beginning of his episcopal ministry in Buenos Aires, and now as Bishop of Rome.
To illustrate Pope Francis’ leitmotif of mercy, allow me to share with you a little anecdote. A year after Pope Francis’ election to the See of Peter, I was invited to a southern US diocese to speak to business leaders about our new Pope. At a reception prior to the lecture, a woman cornered me and began speaking endlessly about her role as local leader of the Divine Mercy Apostolate. She told me she was the apostle of Divine Mercy for her region. I said, “I had never met someone who with such a huge responsibility and mission!” She went on and on about divine mercy and she lamented that Francis was not speaking enough about mercy. I gently reminded the woman that Pope Francis had begun speaking about mercy in the first weeks and months of his Petrine ministry, especially during the daily homilies at Casa Santa Marta. Following my presentation, there were many questions from the audience. The first question addressed to me was from the woman’s husband who seemed agitated by my reflection on Francis and his understanding and message of mercy. The distinguished-looking businessman said to me aloud: “He’s talking too much about mercy. “Mercy this and mercy that! Does mercy mean we have to care for all these illegal immigrants and offer them health care? What’s all of this stuff about mercy? Tell him to stop talking about mercy.”
This is one of those moments when, as a priest, and I’m sure you’ve experienced it as well, you sigh and mutter quietly, “Lord Jesus give me the right words to respond to such a question and statement.” I simply responded to the man by saying, “I don’t want to get into a domestic dispute here.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You’re sitting next to the Apostle for Divine Mercy for this State. I think you should discuss this matter with your lovely wife first!” He blurted out to me: “I’m not talking about that kind of mercy!” Everyone started laughing in the room!
That little story encapsulates the moment that we are living right now when we hear the emphasis on mercy in this extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy and the various interpretations of this mercy. There are some good people who understand mercy from a devotional or pietistic perspective and other good people who wish to put that mercy into practice on a daily basis. Francis teaches us how to put the beautiful piety and devotion witnessed by Sr. Faustina and taught by St. John Paul II into practice through concrete works and ways of daily life.
What is the story within the story of mercy? What does it mean for us priests? What does it mean for our people? And what is the historical backdrop against which this Jubilee Year of Mercy has been called? I’m 57 years old yet I have to admit that this is the worst state that I’ve seen the world in throughout my life. I lived through the Vietnam crisis. I lived in the Middle East during the Gulf War. I saw bloodshed and violence on a daily basis those years. But as Pope Francis has said correctly, “We’re in the middle of the Third World War right now – a war being fought in many different places at the same time”. There is anxiety in people, fear, terror, destruction, death, random bombings and the phenomenon of ISIS that’s attracting so many young people. Not just those claiming to be observant Muslims, but so many young people are lured into a vortex of evil, violence and darkness. What is all of this saying about the state of the world, about humanity, and what is the antidote to all of this? Pope Francis has said very clearly, “There’s only one antidote and that antidote is mercy”.
Where did Pope Francis open the first Jubilee door of mercy last December? It wasn’t at St. Peter’s Basilica but in the Cathedral of Bangui in the Central African Republic during a tense, pastoral visit that he was advised not to undertake. He was warned up until days before travelling to the CAR not to go. One of the powerful and lasting impressions that Francis left us from that mostly Muslim, war-torn country has reverberated throughout the world. He invited the Muslim Imam to ride with him in the Pope mobile as they drove through the throngs of people that filled stadium following the Eucharistic celebration. What does this say to us? The Pope wants the Jubilee that we’re experiencing to be the sign that the Church is truly living fully its own moment in history. And what does he say about mercy? “Mercy is the bomb against hatred, violence, and fanaticism that has spread like poison among people.” And it’s not only among people out there, it has also spread to our own countries. Look at the political election campaign that you are enduring right now! Look what’s happening in the Church – the groups that are at one another’s throats, the wars that are waged in the name of God, of orthodoxy and fidelity. Those claiming to be for Benedict XVI or for John Paul II: we’ve heard that before from St. Paul’s experience in Corinth!
Pope Francis has said in his first Angelus address in 2013 that a little mercy makes the world a little less cold and more just. We need to understand properly this mercy of God, our Father who is so patient with us. Throughout his priestly ministry, Jorge Mario Bergoglio sought to give concrete expression to God’s mercy. He has said repeatedly, “Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude, it’s the very substance of the gospel message.” In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the term “Mercy” appears 32 times. Throughout his priestly ministry, he sought to give concrete expression to what he had been saying right along, to what he, himself experienced. Mercy is not just the pastoral attitude, it’s not a project. It’s not another thing on the agenda; it’s the substance of the Gospel. In the programmatic Jubilee text of Luke 4 that presents Jesus arriving back in his hometown synagogue, there’s a very important part of that narrative that we don’t often take into consideration. How many of us have heard that text text proclaimed at our ordinations, anniversaries, professions of vows, installations as pastors: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.. ?” All in attendance hung on every word that came from his mouth and Jesus told them: “today these words are being fulfilled in your hearing.” We hear those same words centuries later and we respond: “Amen!” Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!”
If we keep on reading that text, we see how quickly the rejoicing, adoring, crowd wants to lead Jesus to the precipice of the Nazareth hill and throw him over for his blasphemous language. We don’t read that part of the story at our ordination, profession, anniversary or installation ceremonies! It’s a shocking text, but there’s something even more provocative: in that well known story of Jesus reading from the Isaiah scroll, he omitted the second half of the verse of Isaiah 61:2. The words “year of the Lord’s favor” clearly refer back to the Book of Leviticus and that passage announced the Jubilee Year. Luke’s Gospel does not quote the second part of Isaiah’s phrase which mentions the “day of vengeance for our God.” Jesus didn’t include that in his proclamation of the prophetic reading. It would have certainly been there in the scroll, but he stopped with the year of the Lord’s favor. This is a very important point. The quotation of Isaiah foresees two aspects of divine intervention. The first being the liberation of the Jewish people; the second, the punishment of her enemies. The Gospel has not retained that opposition. This omission has two consequences: first of all, the message contains nothing negative. And secondly, it is implicitly universal. There’s no suggestion of a distinction between Jews and non-Jews. This is a discreet preparation for the universal nature of the Gospel, which will only become explicit after the death and resurrection of Jesus (Luke 24:7). Universal openness, therefore, is an essential character of the proclamation of good news and the sharing of our story. This is a very important thing to keep in mind, especially against those critics of Pope Francis who say there’s too much mercy, too much leniency and openness; let’s close the doors, let’s put up the barriers, let’s keep people out because they will abuse God’s generosity and God’s mercy. There are those who may have desired that this year not be a year of mercy but a year of judgement, condemnation, castigation, excommunication! There’s no condemnation involved in this Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Scripture presents God as infinite mercy, but also as perfect justice. How can these two be reconciled? This of course is the big question with the release of Amoris Laetitia: how do we reconcile these two points? It is precisely God’s mercy that leads us to achieve true justice. In the legal administration of justice, we see that those who consider themselves to have been victims of abuse consult a judge in court and ask that justice be done. This is retributive justice, inflicting punishment on the guilty according to the principle that each person receives what he or she deserves. But this route often does not lead to true justice as in reality it does not conquer evil. It simply limits it. Instead, by only responding with good can evil be truly conquered.
The Bible, as Pope Francis has explained, proposes a whole different form of justice, especially Jesus’ message in the New Testament. Victims invite guilty parties to convert; helping them to understand the harm that has been done, and appealing to conscience. In this way, recognizing their blame, the guilty can open up to the forgiveness offered by those harmed or injured. This is the way of resolving conflicts within families, in relations between spouses, and between parents and children. This is a very difficult path, as Francis has points out to us. Only in this way, can justice triumph, as if the guilty party acknowledges the harm that they have done and ceases to do so. Francis also says, “God treats us sinners in the same way. He continually offers us forgiveness. He helps us to welcome Him and to be aware of our evil, so as to free ourselves of it. God does not seek condemnation.”
In his very programmatic homily to the new cardinals, last February 2015, Francis said: “The Church’s way, from the time of the council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement.” I have read this homily many times and find it to be a profoundly moving and stirring call to action. The Church’s way, from the time of Jesus has been the way of mercy and reinstatement. This means welcoming the prodigal son, healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination, rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world.
Just before Lent of this year, Francis’ book, “The Name of God is Mercy” was released. It is a series of interviews with the Italian Vaticanista, Andrea Tornielli. The main theme of the book is mercy, and he gives the reasons why he called the Jubilee the year of mercy. He says, “Jesus’ most important message is mercy”. “Mercy is essential because all people are sinners and in need of forgiveness”. “Mercy is God’s ID card.” Francis insists repeatedly throughout the book that mercy is the essence of God. Jesus did not come for the healthy, who do not need the doctor, but for the sick. Last Sunday, at the ordination of new priests in Rome, he told the priests to be merciful. And addressing the priests with his own diocese of Rome several weeks before, he said, “Be merciful, and remember the confessional is not a torture chamber.
If any of you followed the Pope’s visit to Lesbos last week, the entire world witnessed powerful, heart wrenching images of Pope Francis with refugees and displaced persons packed into refugee centres: one man crying out, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Another person crying and hugging the Pope’s feet; one child showing him the pictures that he drew of the sun that was crying. On his return flight to Rome, the Pope shared his deep emotion on his meeting with so many refugees. He held up the design of one of the children he had met and said to the papal media group, “If the sun was crying in this little kid’s drawing, then we should be crying too at certain moments like this.”
What did the Pope’s visit to Lesbos say to the world? At Lesbos, mercy and justice met and embraced. It was a strong lesson to the European community – to many EEC members that had decided to close doors and build walls rather than bridges. It was a jarring message to countries in the west that have reacted with fear, trepidation and zenophobia to the massive, world refugee crisis. Francis invites the world to build bridges, not walls. And yesterday, another ship of 500 people capsized in the Mediterranean, that has now become a huge burial ground for thouands of men, women and children who did not make it to safe harbor. Through the prophetic words and gestures of our Pope, Francis offers the world the lesson of mercy in action.
There’s a very powerful scene that Francis describes in the book The Name of God is Mercy. He speaks about a Capuchin priest in Buenos Aires who went to Cardinal Bergoglio one day and said, “Monseñor, I’m very worried that I’ve been too merciful when I’ve heard confessions.” The archbishop asked the Capuchin, “Have you prayed about this?” The Capuchin priest said to Bergoglio, “I go to our chapel, and I stand in front of the tabernacle, and I say to Jesus, ‘Lord Jesus, forgive me if I’ve forgiven too much, but you’re the one that gave me the bad example.’”
It’s the sheer humanity of these stories, which really penetrate our minds, hearts and guts. The daily homilies in the Domus Santa Marta chapel are remarkable for their simplicity, profundity and way of communicating. The Pope’s daily message is unscripted. And of course, unscripted popes cause certain angst at the Vatican and elsewhere but these homilies are the fruit of a profound spiritual life of a pastor who has known the Lord and walked among his flock. The homilies reveal a shepherd who truly has the smell of the sheep.
I remember one of the many provocative images Francis used in a daily homily. Speaking about the possession of many riches and inviting the audience to consider a simplicity of life, Francis said to group in the small chapel at his residence: “How many of you have seen a hearse going to the cemetery with a trailer attached to it?” Those listening laughed, nodded their heads and said “Oh, he’s talking about us, about our many possessions!” He uses very practical, human examples that get right to the point. Some of his messages and lessons, including those given during his memorable visit to the United States were truly masterful. The morning he addressed the special session of the United States Congress, I was in the rotunda of of the US Senate Building with all of the major networks. When the Pope started naming the ‘heroes’ of America: Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton, one of the network TV anchors tapped me on the shoulder when the Pope was speaking and asked me: “Is it normal that many of us here would be crying?” I assured the man that it was normal. I, too, had tears in my eyes. Francis did not chastise or condemn the United States Congress, as some would have wished. As one of the other network heads said to me: “He’s calling for our better angels.” For Francis, the Church does not exist to condemn people, but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy.
The question remains: how can the Church put this mercy into practice in the midst of so many challenges and crises assailing us each day? In the Pope’s own words, “In order for this to happen, it is necessary to go out. To go out from the churches and the parishes. To go outside and look for people where they live, where they suffer, and where they hope. I like to use the image of the field hospital to describe this church that goes out. It exists where there is combat. It is not a solid structure with all the equipment where people go to receive treatment for both small and large infirmities. It’s a mobile structure that offers First Aid and immediate care so the soldiers do not die. Mercy is the fundamental law that dwells inside the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy is the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.”
Many thank that Francis coined the expression ‘field hospital.’ It’s not his expression. It’s drawn from the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. ‘Field hospitals’ are tents set up in the midst of battle. The wounded who arrive at these emergency health stations don’t come for analyses of cholesterol levels or other such lab tests. That’s done at a later stage. Field hospital workers are trained in triage, they recognize very quickly the wounds, stop the bleeding, and initiate the process of healing; field hospitals refer patients to specialists. It is a very apt image for the Church, especially for those of you working on the front lines in parishes, chaplaincies, etc. What does life in the field hospital require of us? That we know, first of all, the many battles that are being waged: those public battles, and those less evident. We have to know about doing triage work and assess wounds and brokenness that at times are not evident to our eyes: the psychological wounds, the wounds of alienation, the wounds of sadness, the wounds of grief. Francis invites us to be warm, welcoming, and forgiving, as Jesus has modeled to us on every page of the New Testament. He reminds us day after day of his Petrine ministry and leadership of the Church, that we have a Lord and master who shared in the joy of the spouses of Cana in Galilee, and the anguish of the widow of Nain. A Lord and master who enters into the house of Jairus, touched by death, and the house of Bethany, perfumed with nard. He took upon himself illness and suffering, to the point of giving his life in ransom.
If we proclaim to be followers of Christ and to be his priests and ministers, we have to go where Jesus went. We have to take upon ourselves, like the good Samaritan, the man we encounter along the road, the one we encounter in seeking the lost sheep. To be like Jesus we have to be close to people. Francis invites us to eat with tax collectors and with sinners. He wants us to forgive the woman caught in adultery, while admonishing her at the same time to sin no more. He wants us to welcome and respect foreigners and refugees, even those who are enemies or potential threats. And above all, the plea has been consistent: stop judging. He’s spoken simply, powerfully, and beautifully about returning to a lost unity, a desire to achieve a missing fullness, a desire to witness to the beauty and the love of Christ.
Francis also desires that the Year of Mercy have an interfaith dimension. It must link us to Judaism and to Islam as well, both of which consider mercy to be one the most important attributes of God. The themes of rachamin (Arabic) and chesed (Hebrew) come from places deep within the human being. In an age of major challenges in relating to the Muslim community, the Jubilee Year of Mercy is an opportunity to bebuild bridges of dialogue and peace. The Pope’s recent gesture in Lesbos to bring back to Rome twelve Muslims (3 families with children) and care for them through the auspices of the Vatican has given a profound lesson to the world.
Pope Francis has invited all of us this year to take seriously those lessons of the corporal works of mercy that many of us memorized as children. We know them and may have memorized them during our school years. to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, heal the sick, shelter the homeless, give drink to the thirsty, bury the dead, and welcome in the stranger. What do they mean practically for us today? How do we activate them? Feeding the hungry: see to the proper nutrition of loved ones; support and volunteer in food pantries, soup kitchens, and agencies in our parish communities and cities that feed the hungry. Make sandwiches and hand them out to people that are on skid row or sleeping on the streets each night. Educate ourselves about world hunger. Avoid wasting food – a major area of concern for Pope Francis.
What does it mean to shelter the homeless? Help neighbors care for their homes and do repairs, especially when there are elderly people whose home might not be cared for as we would wish. Support or volunteer at homeless shelters. Connect with the Salvation Army or similar groups. Build homes with Habitat for Humanity. Advocate for public policies and legislation that provide housing for low-income people. Become a foster parent. What does it mean to clothe the naked? Go through our drawers and closets and find good condition clothes to donate to agencies or St. Vincent DePaul, or other such groups that provide assistance.
Participate in programs that provide towels and linen for hospitals or palliative care centres. Volunteer to work at clothing drives and shelters where clothing is distributed. Support the work of the wonderful people of the St. Vincent DePaul societies. What does it mean to visit the sick? Spend quality time with those that are sick and homebound. Take time to call or send a card or email people that are sick, or text them. Volunteer to drive people to doctor’s appointments. Volunteer at hospitals or nursing homes. Assist those who are full-time caregivers, or family members with Alzheimer’s. Give a caregiver a break for an afternoon. Spend time with persons who are ill so that their caregivers may have some space and breathing time. Who can deliver meals to the homebound? What does it mean to visit the imprisoned? Support and participate in ministries to the incarcerated. Support agencies that advocate on behalf of those that are unjustly imprisoned. Support efforts, such as Sr. Helen Prejean’s heroic efforts to abolish the death penalty, work with victims, and take a stand for those who are falsely accused and imprisoned.
What does it mean to give to the poor? Take small bills or lose change with you wherever you go and be ready to give it out and not judge that person who’s incapable of having a job. Make regular monetary donations to legitimate charities. Bury the dead. Be faithful to attending wakes and visitations, especially of those people who are not going to have a big crowd or loved ones at their funeral. Volunteer at hospices for the dying. Spend time with widows and widowers and let them grieve aloud after the funeral is over. Support ministries that offer free Christian burials to those that are unable to afford a burial. Follow up with the bereaved after the person has died. These are suggestions that are inspired by the mercy of Jesus and the example of Pope Francis. These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas but daily, practical gestures that we can do to share in the mission of mercy.
Now let me speak about Amoris Laetitia. Many of you have probably not read it yet; it is a brick of a book, and the Pope says very clearly in the beginning, “It is not meant to be read in one sitting”. There’s something in it for everybody. I would simply say, start reading it with chapter 4 which should be the manual for marriage preparation programs, for newly married couples, and great reflections for us, pastoral ministers. It reflects on things that we don’t expect a pope to be speaking about. Is this exhortation an accurate, transparent reflection of what went on at the synods?” I say, “Absolutely”. Amoris Laetitia a very clear snapshot of the two-year synodal process that we have just experienced. It reflects the questionnaires, the discussions, and the heated debates and most especially the consensus that has emerged from two important Synods of Bishops for the Universal Church. Pope Francis has revived the institution of the Synod of Bishops. He’s restored the Synod of Bishops to its original purpose: to be a sounding board, an instrument of honest dialogue, an experience of authentic collegiality and synodality.
Last October marked the 50th Anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops by Blessed Paul VI in 1965. During the commemorative ceremony to mark that anniversary on October 17, 2015 there were two addresses given of note: the first was by Pope Francis who gave a masterful lesson on synodality and collegiality, and how these important themes must permeate the entire Church at all levels. The second excellent address that was given at that 50th Anniversary commemoration was by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the renown Dominican theologian and Archbishop of Vienna, who was the general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I strongly encourage you to read both texts.
When the Vatican released Amoris Laetitia, The Joy of Love, on April 14 of this year, we learned immediately from the title given to Francis’ exhortation of the central thrust of this Papal teaching: the very title says it all: The Joy of Love. The title does not state the problems with marriage nor does announce the sinfulness of those living in irregular situations. It doesn’t talk about the disasters of love. It begins with Amoris Laetitia. Having experienced the two Family Synods of Bishops from within, and listened to every single intervention in the Synod Hall in 2014 and 2015, what we think are the only issues are not the only issues. The most provocative and touching moments for me, were when bishops of the Middle East shared what was happening on the ground in their war-torn, blood-stained lands. The Synods on the Families taught the time honored principles in the Church that not even the most exhaustive code of Canon Law must replace prudence and wisdom. That’s what we have been invited in to do: to reflect on wisdom, on prudence, and discernment in our dealings with the people of God, our flocks.
The exhortation says, and I quote, “General rules set forth a good, which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation, they cannot provide absolutely for every particular situation. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment, in particular circumstances, cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.” These are wise reflections. Some people are alarmed that Francis’ suggestions mean that even the best rules have exceptions, while others are very disappointed with his refusal to turn the exception into the basis for new rules. But rigor or laxity of the rules themselves was never, and is never the purpose of the Pope to call these Synods because rules were never the main concern of the Synod.
The Pope’s critics know that even the Church’s strictest teachings often have exceptions. If there’s one thing we can confidently say about Francis, Bishop of Rome, he’s not a legalist. Right at the beginning of Amoris Laetitia, the Pope rebukes those who reduce the Gospel message to a set of rigid disciplines. He said they’re nothing but stones to be hurled at people. And he wants to remind us that what Christ said of the Sabbath is also true of the sacraments and the rules surrounding them: they were made for us, not we for them. The rules exist not to protect the sacraments from being soiled by contact from sinners, but to protect us, the children of God, for whom the sacraments were instituted in the first place. The Eucharist, for example, is to be understood primarily as a gift that brings healing and nourishment, not as a remote display of supernatural power to be approached only with trepidation, as a food for the perfect, the clean, the upright and morally just.
Amoris Laetitia draws on the long history of Church teaching and reflects a very intense Synodal experience that extended over two and a half years. It draws from both the new and the old. What’s new about it is the idea of accompaniment; we must never deprive anyone of our accompaniment along the way. Francis, like his predecessors, recognizes the complexity of modern family life. We can no longer speak of the ideal family or the perfect family. The exhortation puts an added emphasis on the Church and her ministers to be close to people no matter what their situations may be and in no way is this exhortation a theoretical text with no connection to real problems. It addresses just about everything. The very title suggests the positive thrust that despite all of these challenges, despite the failures, there is a joy of love, and a beauty of marriage. If we want to talk about a future for humanity, we must talk about families. And the question of vocations is directly related to that. Some say that this is a long document, 261 pages. How are we supposed to read all of this? Or is it only for experts or bishops, or pastors? Francis tells us in the introduction: do not rush through Amoris Laetitia. People should pay attention to what applies to them and their specific needs. Start off with Chapter 4 if you want to know about the beauty of marriage and about practicalities and about erotic love and about struggles and about growing old in marriage.
Then read Chapter 5, which result in fruitful marriages and children, and questions of education of children. Read Chapter 7 about education. Read Chapter 8, which is probably going to be the most difficult for us as pastoral ministers. It requires a maturity and a discernment, and it should leave us all uncomfortable. In reading Chapter 8, I have to be much more than I am right now as a priest. Much of the controversy of the past two Synods was about people who were married and divorced, civilly, and their permission to receive Holy Communion. But, if we pay attention very closely, the exhortation does not pronounce definitively on this issue. Some people are perplexed and even angry about this. The Synod discovered, and the Pope knows, that winners and losers are never productive. What was productive was taking a deep look at family life, marriage, and the people of God as they strived to live out their vocation in troubled and complex times.
Chapter 8, which deals with guiding, discerning, and integrating weaknesses, offers an in-depth look at how general rules do not apply straight-forwardly to every particular situation. How many of you are familiar with the internal forum solution? It’s not candy to be given out cheaply. But it’s something very important and it was discussed in the small language groups of the Synod. It is still valid. It is still something that requires discernment, accompaniment, reflection, and integration. And the Pope acknowledges that we should all feel challenged by the new problems and the new questions that are before us.
A word that runs throughout this particular exhortation and one very common in Francis’ mind and heart is the word of discernment. Francis is a true Jesuit and we know that discernment is part of the Jesuit DNA. Our world today doesn’t like discernment. We Google things to find the answer right away. We want a quick response, a quick solution to every problem. We must acknowledge, first of all, that people coming to us to seek our advice and counsel are searching. We must presume goodness and enter into the stories, experiences and hearts of those seekers who come to us in need. We detect the infirmity and weakness. From what are they suffering at present? Is not our role to teach the truth in charity and to remind people that God loves them as they are but doesn’t want them to remain there… God always leads them and us to something greater. The Lord invites us to change our lives in order to live a healthier, holier life.
Discernment is a constant effort to be open to the Word of God that can illuminate the concrete reality of everyday life. One of the things that emerged at this 2015 Synod is the proper formation of conscience. A very important paragraph of Amoris Laetitia speaks to the Synod’s great respect for the consciences of the faithful as well as the necessity of formation of consciences:
“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to 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)
The Church does not exist to take over people’s conscience but to stand in humility and before faithful men and who have discerned prayerfully and often painfully before God the reality of their lives and situations. Discernment can never be separated from the Gospel demands of truth and the search for charity and truth, and the tradition of the Church. The fifth point in the minds of many regards the many Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried who are struggling to do things right in bringing up their children in the Church. What does Amoris Laetitia offer to them? It offers them the guarantee that the Church and its ministers care about them and their concrete situations. It wants them to feel and to know that they’re part of the Church. They’re not excommunicated. They’re not thrown out. What is the mission of the Church? It is one of reaching out to reinstate people. The key concept of the exhortation is integration. Do everything possible to help people, to be included in the life of the community.
For some people, the Synodal journey over the past two years seemed to offer at one moment a broad new acceptance for gay persons in the Church. Reading Amoris Laetitia, those same people are saying that this exhortation doesn’t do anything for gay persons. What happened? First of all, this exhortation and the Synods from which it comes, was about marriage and family life. There’s no question that the Church teaching remains clear: marriage is between a man and a woman. Homosexual unions can never be placed at the same level of Christian marriage. That being said, we also know that such unions may be life-giving, they may be good, some people may consider them holy, but they are not marriage and we have to make that point very clear. Nevertheless, the people involved in those relationships are oftentimes our family members, brothers or sisters, former priests, former seminarians, nieces or nephews. They are our flesh and blood and we must keep them close to us and we must remain close to them.
The Church makes her own the attitude of Jesus, who offers boundless mercy to all, and the exhortation offers this mercy to every person without exception. Amoris Laetitia also speaks to countless people who are not married; this includes single parents, widows and widowers, celibate men and woman, every one of who has family ties. Another point that comes up is that Amoris Laetitia appears to be critical in speaking about past practices, especially in paragraphs 36, 37, and 38. People have been quick to point this out: there’s an emphasis on doctrinal and moral issues that denounce a decadent world without offering much that’s positive. Is this a criticism of past papacies? Is Francis undoing what his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI have done? Hardly… If you look carefully at the footnotes you will how extensively John Paul II is referenced, especially from Familiaris Consortio, which was the exhortation of the Synod of 1980.
Pope Francis appeals to Deus Caritas Est, from Pope Benedict XVI. Francis’ exhortation offers hope in abundance and is rooted in the tradition of the Church. It also refers to the efforts and works of episcopal conferences on the question of marriage and family life. One of the biggest concerns of couples in our day and age is the spacing of births. Yet this is not a major subject in Amoris Laetitia. Some may wrongly ask why the Pope is not following the same direction of his predecessors in this regard. The topic of contraception and spacing of births and responsible parenthood is addressed in numbers 42, 68, 82, and 222. While noting that greater emphasis has to be given to the fact that children are truly a gift from God, Humanae Vitae is referenced several times. But there’s an important stress on that the fact that spouses be aware of obligations concerning responsible parenthood. The exhortation encourages natural methods of regulating births since they respect bodies and the whole person.
Ultimately what’s the greatest challenge of this apostolic exhortation that comes to us right in the middle of the Jubilee of Mercy? The biggest challenge is to read this and to not rush to put everything into practice in the next 72 hours or in the next month. It lays out new pastoral proposals and strategies for the Church, and invites us to change our focus regarding the family: to accompany, to integrate, to remain close to anyone who has suffered the effects of wounded love. Above all it challenges us to be understanding in the face of complex and painful situations. Francis would have us approach the weak with compassion and not judgment, and to enter into the reality of other people’s lives and most especially, to understand the power of tenderness. And most of all, Francis wants us to recall what St. John Paul II taught us and Benedict XVI repeated in the Petrine Ministry: “The future of humanity passes through the family.”
The final point I wish to make is this: people are calling Francis the great revolutionary. The only time he uses the word “revolution”, is in Evangelii Gaudium paragraph 88, when he speaks about the revolution of tenderness of the Son of God who took on our flesh. I also think that there is another revolution that Francis is offering us: the revolution of normalcy. What Francis is showing us and modeling for us is normal Christian, pastoral behavior. Rather than focus on all the eye-catching, buzz-generating aspects of this Pope: the Ford Focus, the little black Fiat, the black traveling briefcase, the orthopedic shoes instead of red shoes, the cold phone calls and hand-written messages, and everything else, it’s normal human, Christian behavior at the heart of Pope Francis’ ministry to the world. Whenever we are confronted by such normal, simple Christian behavior, it throws some of us for a loop, because it’s more of a reflection on our own abnormal behavior and human cravings for ways of the world rather than the path of Gospel living that leads to holiness here below and in the life to come. Pope Francis, normal Christian behavior is for each of us a challenge, a consolation, and a form of tenderness that we’ve desired for, for a long time. Pray for him and pray for all those who work day by day to spread his message and example to the world that so badly needs it.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, a Basilian priest since 1986, is the founding CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation. He also serves as English language attaché to the Holy See Press Office.