The headlines, and the stories could not be more different.
From Italy, (via Google Translate): A Child Moves the Synod; divides the Host with this divorced father.
We read that Pope Francis and 270 Synod Fathers listened with emotion today in the Synod Hall to the story of a bishop who witnessed — while celebrating a parish First Communion Mass — the scene of a child who came to the altar to receive the consecrated host in his hand, on his own initiative took steps to break it in two, giving half to the father who accompanied him, but who couldn’t receive it directly because he was divorced remarried.
A small episode but emblematic of the suffering of Catholics who live in irregular situations, kept out by the sacraments. And above all it testifies that the children of divorce, a sizeable percentage of kids today, cannot accept the exclusion of their parents from this central dimension of Christian life. And in fact many of these children do not continue their journey of faith in the Church precisely because they feel an injustice…Some [synod] fathers, as was underlined by the spokesman of German Bernard Hagenkord, sided “in defense of Catholic doctrine today…arguing that no one has the authority” to change and act on God’s word. Many others, however, say that “following the path of Jesus,” the Church cannot permanently exclude someone from the sacraments.
For the record, annulment is not anywhere discussed within the piece as an available reality.
Meanwhile, from America, we read: NJ archbishop sets rules for barring Catholics from Communion
Even as Pope Francis and Catholic leaders from around the world debate ways to make the Catholic Church more inclusive, Newark Archbishop John Myers has given his priests strict guidelines on refusing Communion to Catholics who, for example, support gay marriage or whose own marriage is not valid in the eyes of the church. […] In the memo, Myers writes: “The Church will continue to cherish and welcome her members and invite them to participate in her life to the degree that their personal situation permits them honestly to do so.
“Catholics,” he continues, “must be in a marriage recognized as valid by the Church to receive Holy Communion or the other sacraments. Non-Catholics and any Catholic who publicly rejects Church teaching or discipline, either by public statements or by joining or supporting organizations which do so, are not to receive the Sacraments.”
Myers issued these guidelines even though he is scheduled to retire next July when he turns 75, turning over the reins to Archbishop Bernard Hebda.
I’m not sure what to make of that last line. Are pastors nearing retirement supposed to just drink their Ovaltine and pipe down until they are replaced?
Then again, I’m not sure what to make of much of the Italian piece, either, as it seems meant to make us feel sad. Kid’s father is divorced? Well, Pope Francis just reformed the annulment process. Why is that ignored, and not part of the story?
For that matter, why is the action of seeking an annulment never part of the discussion coming out of the synod? There is this pretense that there are no options for people, that divorced people can never again worthily receive Holy Communion because the church isn’t merciful.
Which is crap. The church is merciful; annulments are all about looking at the marriage and the divorce with eyes of mercy.
So much concerning this question seems structured to appeal to emotions and engage people’s passions. Perhaps that’s because this contentious issue touches the core of our Catholicism. The Holy Eucharist is the true Flesh and Blood of Christ Jesus; it is the means by which our encounter with Christ is brought into fullness. As such, there is an argument about Justice that has been made since Saint Paul first spoke it: one must not receive that fullness “unworthily”, i.e., when one’s soul is not fully reconciled to Christ and his Church.
There usually follows, an argument about Mercy that has some teeth: “Jesus is God, and can do anything, even bring the fullness of an encounter with him, to an unworthy soul, which he did in the Gospels.”
And there are other arguments, too:
- Because Jesus is truly Present in the Eucharist, how do we stand between him and a soul in need of healing?
- Parents unable to receive communion because they are unwilling or unable to pursue annulment often leave the church, and their children leave with them; does the church dare putting so many souls at risk?
- The Eucharist is not a reward for good behavior; it is an encounter with Christ, who never withheld himself from sinners.
- Priests should not hold anyone back from meeting Christ.
In truth, we are called to hold ourselves back from approaching Communion, like the publican who prayed “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus told us that parable himself, and it illustrates Justice, declared through our own self-knowledge, seeking Mercy — which is always given, when it is truly sought. When a Catholic recognizes an unfitness to receive Holy Communion at Mass, and refrains from doing so, he or she is echoing the Publican. Jesus said the Publican was most pleasing to God.
Christians, it has been said, should be about the business of pleasing God, before pleasing themselves, (First Commandment, etc.).
Now, an over-fixation on rules can render us Pharisaical, it’s true. An under-appreciation of them can place sentiment and expediency over what is honest. Honest discussion about the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics must also address annulment, or it’s not honest discussion.
Divorced Catholics who have pursued and received annulments often call the process a “healing”, and refer to Christ telling the beneficiaries of his mercy to “go show yourself to the priests” and then do what was prescribed in the law in order to be fully readmitted to the worship community.
The determined move to allow people in irregular marriages to receive communion without first being healed and then “showing themselves to the priests” for readmission to the community seems strange, then. Why would our pastors prefer to deviate from Jesus’ own measures, rather than teach marriage (and yes, annulment) in a better, fuller, (and yes, merciful) way?
It makes no sense at all to pretend that annulment is irrelevant, unless you’re not being honest.
If the Synod Fathers are caught in a chasm that has developed between Justice and Mercy, it may well be because somewhere there is dishonesty. For resolution, they are going to have to go back to the One who is All-Justice, All-Mercy, and who is always Honest, and take the words of the Incarnate Word as guidance, articulated from the very mouth of God.