August 26, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Pope Francis wants all included in Church life

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

After more than three years of exposure to the ministry of Pope Francis, we might summarize his pastoral style as: No sinner left behind. The pope, who defined himself in response to a journalist’s question as “a sinner,” has a keen appreciation for the variety of ways that all of us fail to measure up to the standards set by the Gospel. None of us is perfect. All of us stumble, and fall on the road to heaven.

This is why Pope Francis insists that the Church, like Jesus himself, minister to the sick, not the healthy. Our Lord was accused of associating with tax collectors and sinners. He ate and drank with people who were outcasts, and he criticized the scribes and Pharisees who regarded themselves as better than most people because they rigidly followed the law.

Pope Francis affirms the Divine Law and Church teaching concerning marriage, divorce and remarriage, but he goes out of his way to remind us that those who have failed to meet these standards are not excommunicated. It’s true they may have failed, sometimes grievously, but they remain our sisters and brothers, members of the Church called to live holy lives and to participate in the common life.

The Holy Father makes it clear that “any breach of the marriage bond is against the will of God” (“The Joy of Love,” #291). He also states clearly that, “In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur” (#307). And yet, we all know that while many couples live their marriage vows to the best of their ability for better and for worse until death, many others fall short of this grand ideal.

How do we propose the ideal—working to help couples live it fruitfully—while reaching out to those who have divorced and remarried, but still want to belong to the community of faith?

The answer Pope Francis gives is challenging: “I am in agreement with the many Synod Fathers who observed that the baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal” (#299).

Once again, the pope reminds us that those who have divorced and remarried are not excommunicated. They are, in fact, “living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel” (#299).

All of us are sinners, the pope insists, and none of us should be without recourse to the infinite love and mercy of God.

“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” the pope argues. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who while clearly expressing her objective teaching, always does what good she can, even if in the process her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street” (#308).

This is another of Pope Francis’ colorful images: shoes soiled by the mud of the street, pastors who take on the smell of the sheep, the Church as a field hospital called to care for those who are wounded in battle.

Whether on muddy streets, in remote pastures or on the field of battle, the Church is called to offer God’s mercy and forgiveness to all—saints and sinners alike.

I share Pope Francis’s conviction that the moral theology we teach today must “emphasize and encourage the highest and most central values of the Gospel, particularly the primacy of charity as a response to the completely gratuitous offer of God’s love” (#311).

This means knowing and understanding God’s law.

It also means accepting the fact that mercy is the fullness of the Divine Law “which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope and above all integrate” (#312).

With our Holy Father, I encourage all pastoral leaders in central and southern Indiana to find appropriate ways to include rather than exclude all who wish to share in our Church’s life and ministry, including those who are divorced and remarried.

Since all of us are sinners, we can all benefit from each other’s experience, strength and hope as we journey together toward our heavenly home. †

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