Pastoral Pain


I was recently in Ireland for a sad occasion. Whilst there I had a chat with a priest of sixty or so years of age, in the company of some of my aunts of a similar vintage. One very dear aunt mentioned to father that she was worried that some communicants at Mass she knows had not been to confession for many years and were living in irregular marriages, or in similar positions which would be widely regarded by all those present in the conversation as problematic for a Catholic going up to communion. The priest didn't hesitate and replied that he didn't think such things mattered. That God sorts all that out and he doesn't worry about it.

I was, in a word, gutted. But, coward that I am, I didn't say anything...Was it for me to contradict the priest? In over-clericalised Ireland, would anyone think I was anything other than extremely petulant? Mother and I exchanged pained glances across the table and I bit my tongue.

After some reflection, I now I wish I had spoken out. I think I might have said something like: "But that's not what the Church teaches, is it father?"

Of course, this is a really tough one for the priest. Often you hear it said that theology isn't as important as compassion, and I guess that's what the priest was trying to do here; show some compassion, especially in the context of a funeral. Perhaps one might hypothesise that he would rather welcome people back to Church than appear stand-offish. But does it really have to be one or the other? And does his position actually serve to do anything but relativise the faith? I mean, if it doesn't matter, then none of it matters, right? I have a sneaking suspicion that the faith would actually seem more real and important to those people, its sacraments and its forgiveness more potent, if they were something that mattered to all of us who hold the faith, let alone those who teach it.

I can't help but feel that in real terms, the damage  done by what he said could be catastrophic. He was talking to people who I know learned their Penny Catechism off by heart. the Penny Catechism (#273) states:
It is a great sin to receive Holy Communion in mortal sin; 'for he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself'. Cor. 11:29
So what would these women have made of the priests statement? That this rule has been abrogated? That the teaching of the Church has changed (obviously). But it hasn't. So why say it has? because you believe it? Or because it's easy?

There's a lovely little bit on the Birmingham Oratory's website they posted about communicants at Mass at Christmas time.

It says that if you have been away from the sacraments, perhaps even away from God, it is a great joy that you have come back, and, at Mass for the first time in a long while, you have an opportunity to refresh your memory about the gift of faith you have been given. The Lord never rejects those who approach Him with a sincere heart. If we have been absent He receives us back almost with no questions asked (so to speak). God does not sulk. He does not stand on His infinite dignity. He does not require convoluted explanations. In His omniscience He is already fully acquainted with all the facts, more accurate than any self-justification that we could offer. Pope Francis has reminded us that God never grows weary of forgiving us. It is we who grow weary of asking for His mercy.

The Holy Father also says this: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 47). Thus Pope Francis assures us that God does not wait for us to become perfect before He starts to takes us seriously. But this does not mean that we ourselves have no part to play in being reunited with Him. It is a two-way encounter. We approach, He welcomes. Our reception of Christ in Holy Communion is the assurance of our welcome back, and the remaking of our friendship with Him. All that He is He gives, all that we are He welcomes. In that two-way encounter, our weaknesses are known and understood. And if we cooperate, they can also be healed.

Receiving the life and strength which the Lord offers us in Holy Communion will only be of benefit if we are properly disposed. Nobody is ever completely ready for Communion, but we must try to be as ready as we can. That is not meant to sound unwelcoming. Of course we do not want to ring-fence the Lord’s Eucharist. But precisely because Christ is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament we must do our best to be well prepared to receive that saving Presence into our body and soul. The Lord Who was born into squalor and poverty at Bethlehem has infinite riches to offer each of us. How sad if we raise or strengthen barriers inside ourselves which keep Him out and so obstruct His gifts.

God’s people should always feel welcome when they come to Mass. Jesus of Nazareth wished to be called the friend of sinners and was born into our world to restore health to the sick. All of us suffer from various spiritual malaises, and we all need the heavenly Physician to heal us. If we have been away from the Lord, the sacrament of Confession is the best way of preparing to receive Him in Holy Communion. Confession cleans out the poison, and Communion repairs the damage. That cleansing and healing give us the joyful certainty that we are indeed welcome back.

Surely this shows that Church teaching is not unnecessarily harsh, but is demonstrative of an authentic love that is didactic with respect to relationship and fosters a proper sense of dignity?


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