Sunday 29 March 2015

To Support Our Priests -A Message From Andrew

You may wish to go to the Juventutem Durham blog on our sidebar to sign a letter in support of our priests in the face of Cardinal Nichols response to their letter. Thank you.

Friday 27 March 2015

Has Cardinal Nichols Rebuked Priests Or Simply Expressed Disappointment?

Cardinal Nichols has said we should be making our views known to our own Ordinary (our own Bishop), through established channels, rather than in the press.

To be fair to him, I'm not entirely sure he is rebuking those of us who signed the letter; I think he is simply expressing a disappointment that we have not communicated our thoughts through established channels. I think his disappointment arises from the fact that he has misread the letter (or had it shown to him in an unfavourable light) as a statement to our Bishops through a non-ecclesial channel. But it is not a letter which enters into dialogue with our Bishops (that dialogue is indeed taking place in our Diocese by Deanery discussions). Rather, the letter is a simple Declaration of Faith; a support of defined Catholic doctrine and ages-old discipline.

If the Cardinal has attempted to rebuke us, we have the right to ask, 'What is wrong with affirming the Lord’s own teaching; the teaching of St Paul; 2000 years of magisterial teaching and Tradition, and the centuries long discipline of the Church? Since when did loyalty to the Church become a bad thing?' 

To be honest, I suspect fewer Catholics are disturbed by the letter from the clergy than they are by the impression Cardinal Nichols has given by saying he was disappointed in the text of the 2014 Synod: “I didn't think it went far enough, there were three key words as far as I was concerned … ‘respect’, ‘welcome’ and ‘value’. I was looking for those words and they weren't there and so I didn't think that was a good paragraph...I wasn't satisfied with it.”(see here)  In saying this Cardinal Nichols has at least implied that he does not hold to the teaching of the ages and wants the discipline changed, as is reported of him

I think the Popes down would be much more inclined to support the letter’s signatories than Cardinal Nichols appears to be, which is disappointing, because his statement may not have been needed had the letter been read (or shown to him?) correctly. Perhaps we could ask the Cardinal to read the letter again? Meanwhile, let us seem him as expressing disappointment, rather than as rebuking. Charity, I think, requires it. 

Wednesday 25 March 2015

F.T.I.H: A Dream or A Nightmare -Update: “It’s an Invitation”

After Mass last Sunday I had an opportunity to have my questions answered about F.T.I.H (Forward Together In Hope), our Diocesan project to re-invigorate the Diocese. I wanted to know ‘What is being done in the project to promote vocations?’ ‘Are we seeking to establish lay-led parishes?’ I cannot recall a response to the vocations question, but I was happy to hear that what we are doing is inviting folk to [i] become active disciples; [ii] to be open to being missionary parishes; [iii] to offer more varied experiences of worship, and [iv] to energize the youth. These are sound aims –who could not support them? Those I have spoken to who have misgivings about FTIH due to its lack of a vocation drive are behind FTIH in these aims.

[i] The call for an active laity is sound, even essential, and the scope is wide: Music provision, Sick and Housebound Visitation, Church cleaning, Gardening, Building work, Administrative Support, Catechists, Servers, Readers, Counters, Bookkeepers, etc. Such lay activity can supply a sense of ownership of The Faith, and provide folk with the impetus to share their Faith in their venues of work, rest and play.

[ii] The call to be missionary parishes is also sound; I am very supportive of using our buildings for outreach work. 15 years ago in a previous parish I established a mother-and-toddler group to provide support to young mums, and a support group for parents of drug-addicted youth (I have no idea if these continued on after I left the parish), so I know how our buildings can impact the local community in a positive way.

[iii] The provision of a more varied liturgical experience is also sound. At present any sort of gathering (Legion of Mary or SVP celebrations, Scouts, Guides or other annual celebrations) all have Holy Mass with their celebration. It has become ‘Mass with chips’. If we want Holy Mass to be experienced as the source, centre and summit of our worship we need other (‘satellite’) liturgies: the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), Taizé evenings and prayer meetings are all possible without too much difficulty, and providing these will enable us to focus on celebrating Holy Mass as the solemn, sacred celebration it should be rather than as the jolly, entertaining get-together it has become. (Strange though: we are seeking non-Mass liturgies when we have all but abandoned such inspiring things as Marian Processions, Corpus Christi Processions; Tenebrae, Benediction etc  -why not re-establish these glorious devotions of the past?)

[iv] Energising the youth is essential. This however, requires that we give them Truth to feed on rather than theological opinion or emotional meanderings. Improvised liturgies with readings, hymns, dance, drama and mime can present the faith in an entertaining way -and allow us to keep the celebration of Mass solemn and sacred so as to give an experience of the numinous (an experience of God which is at once both awe-inspiring and captivating). 

The danger in all of this that I and others note, is that we might progress to a lay-led ‘model*’ of Church; one of ‘sheep without shepherds’, the very scenario Our Lord lamented over. Lay-led models are not authentic expressions of the Church (cf. Redemptionis Sacramentum, #146, CDF/CDWDS, 2004): they are not simply flocks without shepherds, but bodies without a head. We must avoid giving the impression that such parishes are good and authentic. “The lay faithful...must acknowledge that the ministerial priesthood is totally necessary for their participation in the mission in the Church”. (Christifideles laici #22). While we ought to “ought to acknowledge and foster the ministries, the offices and roles of the lay faithful that find their foundation in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, indeed, for a good many of them, in the Sacrament of Matrimony” yet we must remember that “the exercise of such tasks does not make Pastors of the lay faithful: in fact, a person is not a minister simply in performing a task, but through sacramental ordination.” (ibid, #23). We might also remember "Parishes are communities of the baptised who express and affirm their identity above all through the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. But this requires the presence of a presbyter, who alone is qualified to offer the Eucharist in persona Christi. When a community lacks a priest, attempts are rightly made somehow to remedy the situation so that it can continue its Sunday celebrations, and those religious and laity who lead their brothers and sisters in prayer exercise in a praiseworthy way the common priesthood of all the faithful based on the grace of Baptism. But such solutions must be considered merely temporary, while the community awaits a priest...The sacramental incompleteness of these celebrations should above all inspire the whole community to pray with greater fervour that the Lord will send labourers into his harvest (cf. Mt 9:38). It should also be an incentive to mobilize all the resources needed for an adequate pastoral promotion of vocations... (Encyclical letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #32, John-Paul II)

To counter the danger of progressing to a lay-led model, many of us believe actual vocation drives must be central to the life of the Diocese, and the role of the priest acknowledged as essential to each community. Let’s be honest: the reason we have to consider changing the ‘model* of Church’ scripture gives us is because we have too few priests to serve our parishes. However, any proposal to “Let the people run the parishes themselves” would simply be a re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: a re-arranging of the current situation, not a plan to get out of it. It would do nothing to keep the ship afloat. I’m sure it’s expected that an active laity will produce vocations. It won’t. It hasn’t done so for the last 40 years of increasing ‘lay ministry’. Indeed, it’s during those 40 years of vigorously promoting lay roles that vocations fell precipitously.

I also think we cannot avoid asking ‘What is being done to help the laity undertake their proper role as the leaven in the world; in those places where they work, rest and play?’ We have Vatican II declaring the apostolate of the laity as that of being leaven in the world, but we do not appear to be promoting this or forming the folk for this.

A second danger is that we override the lay person’s Divine vocation to be the leaven in the world. Here we need to consider the problem of language. We need to be careful about our use of the words ‘vocation’; ‘call’ and ‘ministry’: to emphasise equality of clergy and laity (which obviously exists on the level of personhood) we have equated active lay roles with vocations: we now have people saying they ‘have a vocation’ (or a call) to be a Reader or Catechist. This makes the mistake of equating the Ecclesiastical Call to service with the Divine Calling to the ministry of Holy Orders. The laity (most usually) have the vocation to Marriage as part of levvening the world, so speaking of an ecclesial service role as a call can not only override the call to be the leaven in the world but can even diminish the dignity of the vocation of Marriage, which comes to be seen as ‘just another lay call’. It is anything but.

Misused language and promotion of lay roles can also hinder vocations to the priesthood in that a man called to Holy Orders may hear it as a call to lay activity; he might think that by becoming a Reader and an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion that he has answered his call. If the call persists, he may only add lay activities to his résumé: Funeral Minister; Wedding Minister; Baptism Minister -and miss the call to priesthood altogether. He may then marry and settle for ordination as a Deacon rather than priesthood.

Deacons running parishes is not the answer either. While they can baptise, conduct funeral services and wedding services as an Ordinary Minister (not Requiem or Nuptial Masses), all of these can be done by a lay person if absolutely necessary. That said, a Deacon can preach which a lay person cannot, and is an Ordinary Minister of Holy Communion (they weren't always, practically speaking. When Holy Communion was under one kind only it was invariably the priest alone who administered Holy Communion). Historically, they are Ordinary Ministers, especially of the chalice. As men in Holy Orders they are to be preferred to laity running parishes, but since they are not ordained to the office of shepherd, which requires a participation in the ministry of binding and losing ‘in persona Christi Capitis’, it is less than the ideal and does not reflect the Church as Christ established her.

Another danger is that if we have visiting priests (with laity distributing Holy Communion at Services of the Word due to the absence of the priest), we are in danger of practically (rather than ontologically) turning an Extra-ordinary Ministry into an ordinary one, for the distribution of Holy Communion is proper only to the priest who, in the person of Christ is to ‘take, bless, break and give’. On the two occasions in the Gospel when Christ does not Himself distribute (the feeding of the 5000 ad the 4000) it is precisely the Apostles who distribute and who collect the fragments (purify?) The integrity of the four-fold action of the priest acting in the person of Christ is lost if Holy Communion is routinely distributed by laity acting alone, rather than as acting an assistant to the priest at Mass on atypical occasions.

A further problem arises in speaking of the giftedness of the laity, which is frequently done without a wider context. As Andrew said to me yesterday, “We never hear about the giftedness of the priests, so we wouldn’t know what gifts in us could indicate a call to priesthood. In fact, Priests appear a bland lot next to us ‘gifted laity’.”

To sum up: the problem being the lack of priests, the answer is to promote vocations. We have to avoid arriving at the stage where we have sheep without shepherds; bodies without heads. We have to avoid removing of the laity from their God-given, baptismal call so as to install them as simulated shepherds.

So yes: there is much in F.T.I.H. to support: lay participation is necessary and good; the idea of varying liturgies is sound and good; a focus on invigorating the youth is sound and good; building parishes that are missionary to the local community is sound and good. I am fully behind the F.T.I.H. in these aims. But the dangers are real and we shouldn’t dismiss them. If we come to a point where we are speaking of lay-led parishes we are speaking of a non-scriptural ‘model of Church’ which fails to tackle the core problem: the dearth of vocations. A vocation drive is missing, as is promotion of the proper lay role in the world. Other than that we can have high hopes for the project.

Finally, given that attendances and vocations have plummeted since the 1960’s, we might live again as a Church if we were to clearly teach that contraception remains a grave sin, and if we encourage people to see children as a gift from God to be embraced, rather than a burden to be avoided.

*I hesitate to speak of ‘models of the Church’ because what we have received from the Lord is a Divine Constitution, not a mere model which we can alter at will. What has developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit over the last 2000 years is not to be disposed in order that we reflect the socio-political trends of the day. 

Saturday 21 March 2015

Seminaries, Clergy and Today’s Church: Let Truth & Charity prevail...

I encourage readers to visit Torch of the Faith for Friday, 20th March, go to a post entitled

It includes a sad experience of Ushaw seminary which is, I suspect, familiar to not a few. (I know one young man who was on a ‘taster weekend’ at Ushaw [not a Selection Conference] whose experience was for him and his sensibilities, rather scandalous). It is a charitable piece which mentions no names and ruins no one, but very honest in its presentation of today’s crisis.

I have to say that when we become disheartened at the state of the Church today we should remember that the seminary staff and Curias who sought to make the changes from which we now suffer were simply holding a mistaken understanding of what Vatican II sought from the laity when it spoke of lay mission: such seminary staff and Curias were not deliberately wicked. It is simply that after Vatican II (and somewhere very early on along the line) the word ‘mission’ was replaced with ‘ministry’ -and from this, all the trouble began. What was being promoted was not what Vatican II sought (Mission to the world) as clarified by John Paul II in Christifideles Laici, but something Vatican II never spoke of: Lay Ministry. 

I am not saying that none of those who sought to engineer a new-style Church were not devious or not actively seeking to dismantle the Church -some may well have been- but my experience of my brother priests is that they are sincere men who believed and believe they are doing what is right and good; that they are truly listening to the Holy Spirit. I think those who were devious or actively seeking to dismantle the Church of the Ages were few and few between –but sadly, also very influential. It was their ideologies that formed priests (of both presbyteral and episcopal rank) over the 50 years which have followed Vatican II; the dismantlers gave today’s priests a tool kit that was deficient; fit only for dismantling, not building. Since one works from what one has in one’s tool kit, today’s priests can only work with the toolkit the dismantlers gave them. So remember to criticise opinions and plans, not people. While we can and must be honest (transparent) when seeking to correct directions and to provide new tools, we must retain charity and respect for persons and their good name. Let Truth & Charity prevail. 

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Forward Together In Hope: A Dream or a Nightmare?

In a previous post I noted that our Diocese is currently looking at ways to ensure we remain a vibrant, flourishing Church with fewer priests and fewer priestly vocations. We were invited to share our thoughts on the project (called ‘Forward Together In Hope’) which aims at achieving this flourishing state.

Now it is possible that at the end of the day we will rediscover how vital the presence of an ordained priest is in a community, since parishes deprived of the fullness of the sacramental life will surely hunger for them and encourage vocations. It is also possible that ownership of The Faith will swell in those who are only likely to live it out if they have practical responsibilities. These would constitute the ‘Dream’ outcome. But there is also the possibility of creating a ‘Nightmare’; an outcome wherein folk think a priest is not necessary but simply there to ‘deliver the bread’, like the old bread vans that toured the Newcastle streets when I was a kid back in the sixties. We could well be creating ‘Congregationalist communities’ rather than Catholic communities; congregations where priests are seen as servants who deliver goods to keep the parish family alive, rather than as Father and Head of the family who serves by teaching, sanctifying and governing (as the Catholic Faith proclaims they are called to do by the Lord). We must then, I think, proceed with caution. Here is the substance of the email I recently sent to the Project Director outlining my questions. I can’t imagine that these sincere Catholic men will have overlooked the concerns I raised in the email, but I believe it was important for me to voice them.

Dear N,

I wonder if you can clarify some things for me concerning Forward Together In Hope?

Firstly, while we know we must engage the laity in the running of the parishes (not simply to make up for the lack of priests but to enable them to gain a sense of ownership of the Faith), in what way is lay involvement going to differ in F.T.I.H? As it stands, all our parishes already have a Finance Committee and a Pastoral Council of some description (ours is called the Pastoral Action & Care Team to highlight the fact that it is not a governing body but one which is geared toward discerning pastoral needs, planning responses to those needs and implementing the responses which are approved by the priest). Similarly, all the parishes have Bookkeepers, Collection Counters, people who do the banking, Catechists, Extraordinary Ministers for the sick and housebound, Readers, etc.. I ask because I believe we must avoid promoting lay-led parishes as the answer, bearing in mind the teaching of the Church that “There can be no substitute whatsoever for the ministerial Priesthood. For if a Priest is lacking in the community, then the community lacks the exercise and sacramental function of Christ the Head and Shepherd, which belongs to the essence of its very life.” (Redemptionis Sacramentum, #146  2004, CDF/CDWDS). While we cannot function well without support from the folk, I am concerned that F.T.I.H proceed authentically.

Secondly, in that the ordained priest is essential to the authentic Catholic community, what is being done in F.T.I.H to promote vocations to the priesthood in F.T.I.H? Whatever roles are handed to the laity must not diminish the unique and essential role of the ordained priestly ministry. Vocations have tumbled since we opened up ministry to the laity, and we need again for the folk to recapture the reality that the ordained priesthood is vital to the Church; not just as ‘magic men’ who administer sacraments but as making present Christ the Head and shepherd of the flock; to remember that they are men who, in union with the bishops, exercise the service of teaching, sanctifying and governing communities of the lay faithful.

F.T.I.H must avoid presenting to the folk a picture of the Church as healthy when a community has no priest, that being the very state of affairs (sheep without shepherds) that Our Lord grieved over: “Seeing the people He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. "Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers to His harvest." (Mark 9v36-37). This is what the Church is pointing out when she says “The activity of a pastoral assistant should be directed to facilitating the ministry of Priests and Deacons, to ensuring that vocations to the Priesthood and Diaconate are awakened ... It must [] never be the case that in parishes Priests alternate indiscriminately in shifts of pastoral service with Deacons or laypersons, thus confusing what is specific to each. ((Redemptionis Sacramentum, #150-152. 2004, CDF/CDWDS).

My own suggestion in the present situation would be first, a concerted effort to promote the priesthood by presentations in schools and parishes, so that the folk realise how vital priests are and how holy the work to which they are called. A strategy must be developed to actively promote vocations. Second, where necessary we could unite several communities of lay faithful without a resident Pastor into a ‘pastoral area’, with each pastoral area being served by a Priest as a kind of Head Coach/Manager, with the day to day running of a Parish being undertaken by a Lay Co-ordinator/Captain until such times as vocation drives are successful and the authenticity of the community as both Head and Members is re-established across the board.

I do not think it is for us in 2015 to abandon the model of Church given us in Scripture and Tradition (Revelation) with semantics about lay involvement. Indeed, the teaching of Vatican II is that their authentic call from the Lord is to be the leaven in the world as opposed to substitutes for shepherds: “In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission. Christ conferred on the Apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling in His name and power. But the laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world. Their activity [is] directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ.” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #2).

We were invited to share our thoughts; I hope you do not mind (and can appreciate) me doing so.

With prayers

Sunday 15 March 2015

Following Christ or the World? A Tale of Two Gospels.

Lifesite news (here) brings us a report of two Cardinals who have been speaking recently in England.
Voiceof the Family relates Cardinal Burke observing that western cultures are profoundly confused and in error about the fundamental truth of marriage and the family, and that this confusion has entered the Church.

“In a world in which the integrity of marriage has been under attack for decades, the Church has remained a faithful herald of the truth about God’s plan for man and woman in the faithful, indissoluble and procreative union of marriage. In the present time, certainly under pressure from a totally secularized culture, a growing confusion and even error has entered into the Church, which would weaken seriously, if not totally compromise, the Church’s witness to the detriment of the whole of society.” (here)

The Telegraph reports on Cardinal Tagle:

 “Part of it is also the shifts in cultural and social sensibilities such that what constituted in the past an acceptable way of showing, given our contemporary mindset, may not be any more viewed as that.”
He said that the past approach in Catholic schools and other institutions had often been to dictate rules and tell people that they were “for your own good”.
“Now with our growing sensibilities, growth in psychology, we realise that some of them were not as merciful,” he said.

Certainly social trends change, and our understanding of humanity develops, but the Gospel which must be applied in new trends and new understandings is always the same Gospel and always seeks to bring wayward sheep back to the Truth. It does not seek to accommodate the errors of the wayward sheep. Indeed, to seek to modify the living-out of the Gospel and its teaching in light of contemporary trends and understandings is to see the world as a source of on-going Revelation.

When Vatican II asked us to read the signs of the times (Gaudium at Spes 4) it did so in order that we respond “in language intelligible to each generation...”. It did not ask us to follow the times in which we live. This is what many of our shepherds, of both Episcopal and Presbyteral rank, are seeking to do. They seem to have lost sight of the fact that “the Church maintains that beneath all changes [in society -GD] there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever.” (ibid. 10) Indeed, the new movements in human wisdom are to be moderated by the Gospel: man “must be penetrated by the spirit of the Gospel and protected against any kind of false autonomy. For we are tempted to think that our personal rights are fully ensured only when we are exempt from every requirement of divine law. But this way lies not the maintenance of the dignity of the human person, but its annihilation” (ibid, 41).

I think the core problem in the Church during the last fifty years is that of the Church’s shepherds allowing the world to teach the Church; an error by which they have sought to modify the living-out of the Gospel so that the Church is seen as modern; as ‘up-to-date’ as the social trends and psychologies of the day. This is an abandonment of the Gospel and Christ by following contemporary ideologies. It has been painted as a growth in mercy, but that is an erroneous and dangerous depiction: highlighting even the central focus of the Gospel (mercy) to the detriment of each of the Gospel’s intrinsic parts (repentance, conversion, justice) is to be unbalanced and make mercy meaningless; mercy becomes a jigsaw piece without the rest of the jigsaw. Mercy only makes sense after repentance and conversion, or it is simply ignoring the sin –and endangering the soul.

There is no other way of saying it: modification of the Gospel by contemporary philosophies and ideologies leads inexorably to the overthrowing of the Gospel. As has been stated by the Anglican Clergyman William Ralph Inge, “He who marries the spirit of the age is destined to become a widower in the next”.

Our shepherds are in danger of poisoning the sheep in their care (the Church herself will not fed us the poison but individual shepherds may mistaken;y do so) and need to remember that we have been given a Deposit of Faith that is unadulterated Truth and that their task is to hand it on, not sit in judgment over it. They may claim not to be doing any judging, but by refusing to pass judgment on the lifestyles of today in accord with Divine Revelation they are inevitably passing judgment on Christ, His Gospel and His Church as it has existed over the last 2000 years. They have stopped judging the world (to which we do not belong cf. Jn.15v18-20; Jn.17v14; Jas.4v4; 1.Jn.4v5; ) and taken to judging Christ in His Church and His teaching (Lk.10v16). To alter the lived Gospel according to human ‘wisdom’ of social trends and contemporary psychology is nothing less than to reject what God handed to us for safe keeping 2000 years ago. It is also, inherently, to seek to teach God: “Your Gospel is a little bit wrong; your Church has been a little bit wrong. Today, we can get it right”. There is no development here in the sense of deepening the Church’s teaching consistent with what has gone before, but a distortion of its teaching; a distortion which demonstrates a profound arrogance.

Sadly the modifying-approach is one favoured by many in the very highest echelons of the Church. Yet even if their approach were to be favoured by the majority (and even by a Pope), the reality is that Truth remains Truth and error remains error, and to contaminate Truth with error is to poison the Lord’s sheep (whom He feeds with Truth, Matt.4v4; Jn.21v17). As Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “Error is error even if everyone believes it, and Truth is Truth even if no one believes it”. Simply stated, even a majority can be in error; deceived by the Father of Lies (Gal.1v6; 2Cor.11v4; 1Jn.2v18-20). If individual members of the Catholic hierarchy feed us what is not True we shall –even if without malicious intent on their part- be poisoned.

Claims that we can change discipline without changing doctrine are poisonous because they are wrong: doctrine forms practice and practice lives out the doctrine; they are two sides of the one coin. We cannot split the coin in two, re-shape one side and say it still fits with the other half; we simply cannot have a coin which is circular on one side and hexagonal on the other. Those who propose changing discipline but not doctrine (those who claim to be able to change one side of a coin but not the other) are either lacking in their Catholic Faith or in intelligence (or are simply deceitful) because no such coin can exist and they either do not see this or will not admit it. In either case, they cannot be given our confidence.

I understand the desire to have all men become aware of their dignity and value before God; and I agree that we should avoid heartlessly offending people in ‘irregular lifestyles’ (occasions of sin) but surely we want to inform them so that they are challenged by Truth, and turn to a lifestyle in harmony with the Truth? After all, Truth alone sets us free from the grasp of Satan and the self-rule he initiated in us at the time of the Fall (Gen.3v4-6).

Finally, I cannot see the supposed pastoral problem as set out in the question, ‘how do we help those in irregular situations (occasions of sin) feel welcome?’ We already welcome them: we encourage them to join us in our worship and trust themselves to the mercy of God; we encourage them to continue with acts of charity; to continue to join us in our social life, on our pilgrimages and in our devotional life. They are not excluded from the community. But let us be clear: they have knowingly and willingly chosen to live out a lifestyle or life situation they knew would exclude them from the Sacraments, and if we are really going to affirm them in their choices, then we must respect their choice to forgo the Sacraments, and encourage them to do the same. Those who seek to admit them to Holy Communion are not helping them but harming them and their chances of salvation by affirming them in their error and the abandoning of the Truth, which is Christ.

Thursday 5 March 2015

A Pastoral Approach

The reflection questions related to the forthcoming Synod have been around for a while now, and I was discussing my responses with another priest the other day. We agreed that it is extremely difficult in today’s world to engage in a pastoral encounter without the risk of offending the person we speak to, who may well –with their entire family- alienate themselves from all participation in the life of the Church (which no one wants to see happen). We discussed how some priests seem to accommodate everyone with open arms, while some are perhaps coldly black and white and refuse Communion even at the altar rail. I want to share with you my own approach to things, and will begin with two experiences from my own ministry.

Some years back, in another parish, I preached on chastity and noted that while we must always uphold the Church’s teaching and be willing to say what constitutes sin, that we must never judge the person or leave them feeling judged, since only God can judge a soul. I don’t know how well I did, because at the end a young man asked to see me privately, at which meeting he said he was grateful not to feel judged because of his situation. I reassured him that we never judge and condemn persons, at which point he said, “I can see that, which is why I wonder if you would marry me and my partner. We’ve been living together for some years and never thought we’d find a priest willing to bless our union”. When I asked if whether he or his girlfriend had been married before, he informed me that his partner was another man. “What do I do now?” I thought, “I don’t want him to feel judged but I can’t give approval to his lifestyle”. So I simply said it wasn’t possible for me to bless his relationship because while the Church would not judge him or his soul, we are obliged to assess situations and acts as being in harmony with or contrary to God’s law, and objectively his lifestyle was not in accord with God’s laws, which puts his soul in jeopardy. I advised him that if he wished to continue sharing his life and home with this man, that they should refrain from genital acts and put strategies in place that will help them to avoid such acts and value other each as persons. He left without any harsh words of anger, but disappointed and frustrated.

A second encounter was with a man who, having heard roughly the same homily some years later, told me he was angry because I had suggested because he was living with a divorced woman whom he was planning to marry he shouldn’t come to Holy Communion, while his own priest had told him it was fine because after all they were not kids; they were in their sixties and planning to marry. The approach I used that day is one I have used ever since.

First off I asked him what he understood to be the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Having listened I said that my understanding of he Church’s teaching was that outside of marriage all forms of intercourse are gravely sinful, and that perhaps his own priest had not fully understood his situation: would the man be willing to look at the Catechism with me so we could check out the Church’s teaching together? He agreed, but on reading the relevant sections thrust the book towards me and said he disagreed with and would continue doing as he was doing now; that it was his own priest he was going to heed, not me or some book from an old man in Rome. He refused a further appointment and left the presbytery very angry with me (in reality with his Church; I’m only its mouthpiece).

These experiences shared, I explained to my fellow priest that my pastoral approach with all those in irregular situations is basically the same: I begin by asking them what they understand to be the Church’s teaching about their situation/lifestyle, and why she teaches it. I then ask if they are willing to check this out with the Catechism (this allows them so challenge themselves by such information-receiving, rather than be rebuffed by me and left feeling that no exploration has been done). If they are in situations where they ought not to receive Holy Communion, and when they have looked at the Catechism with me but still say they will continue to receive Holy Communion, I advise them not to, and say that if they do, then they should do so in a parish where they are not known so as to avoid giving scandal; that if they approach me for Holy Communion I will give them a blessing but cannot give them Holy Communion since I don’t want to compound their situation with unlawful reception of the Sacrament.

My approach has always been the same. Some folk I have spoken to have regularised their situations; others have abstained from Holy Communion while others have been determined to live by their own choices. But I have informed without enforcing which is, I think, all I am asked to do, which leaves me at ease with my conscience.

What leaves me irritated is that many clergy seem to allow all and sundry to receive Holy Communion and to baptise whatever comes to the door, whether there is any practice of the Faith or not. Such clergy are respected as good, caring men, while priests like myself who initiate pastoral strategies that are not undemanding but which uphold the proclamation of the Faith while enforcing nothing, are seen as rule-bound or cold-hearted. Yes some folk are offended by our support of the Faith in our pastoral encounters, but they are at least given the Truth so as to stand before God with their decision-making and self-responsibility intact, rather than facilitated in situations damaging to their souls. Well-intentioned, good-hearted pastors whose pastoral encounters focus on caring for the feelings of folk rather than their souls provide comfort to folk for this world only, and not necessarily for the other.