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.