Communion in the Body of Christ
I must say, I didn’t have time to follow the ins and outs of the Synod debates, and I’m glad I didn’t. (I remembered Bishop Robert Barron’s analogy from last year – the synod is a little like a sausage-factory and you don’t want to see how sausages are made… He quotes Blessed Newman: “those who love the barque of Peter ought to stay out of the engine room!”)
And yet, as the Synod was rumbling away, we were in the midst of a series of sessions on marriage and family life with the Catechumenate, using great resources such as Humanum, and the excellent video, The Third Way, on homosexuality and the Catholic Church. So, week in and week out, we found ourselves teaching and witnessing to the beautiful and timeless truths of the Church, teachings that seemed to be new and fresh for many of our seasoned catechumens and candidates, some of whom are engaged to be married. A number of things struck me from this experience (apart from being enormously touched by the openness and receptivity of everyone to these teachings – thanks be to God).
All of us who belong to the Body of Christ are sinners. Yes, someone who experiences same sex attraction does experience a “disordered” desire, but so does someone with a pornography addiction, or someone who could eat ten donuts in one sitting, or someone who spouts all kind of hate to another person on social media. (I am not saying these are all comparable… but I am saying we all experience disordered desires of one kind or another.)
And yet, Christ calls each of us to belong to his Body, the Church. He gives us the grace and strength – if not to overcome – then to cope with our disordered desires, and bring them frequently to him in Reconciliation (if we have a firm purpose to leave our sins behind). Yet, leaving behind the intricate web that has woven around our desires and by which we have propped up our lives – perhaps a gay lifestyle, perhaps a cohabiting situation – can be extraordinarily difficult and painful. One of the women in The Third Way film speaks about the need for the Church to offer a social alternative to those who are trying to leave behind a gay lifestyle that is as compelling and warmly accepting as what they have experienced in the gay scene.
It is also true for young couples who are not married who we tell that they should not be living together. How will the Church (by which I mean her whole Body, all her disciples) offer them practical support to achieve this?
And we as the Church need to support those who, for whatever reason – perhaps they are civilly remarried – find themselves outside the sacramental communion of the Church.
My guess is that much suffering of people could be alleviated in these situations when the Church truly enacts the communion that it celebrates sacramentally. What do I mean by this? If our experience of the Church is a reductionist, Mass-on-Sunday-only experience, then of course a person’s suffering at not sharing sacramentally in the Eucharist in this one-hour-a-week-activity is heavily pronounced. And of course someone who is trying to break with their old lifestyle, even if they are sustained by the Eucharist once a week, will struggle to make changes.
But, if this communion spilt over into joyful community life, into outreach to the poor, into mid-week small groups, into a wide network of friendships and social activity based on faith and discipleship… yes, the suffering at not receiving the Eucharist would still be there, but I think the pain would be relieved by the experience of other types of communion. And yes, it would still be a struggle to break from an old lifestyle, but you would now have a whole new network of friends, activities and outreach with which to replace your old network.
Here is Section 84 on divorced and remarried Catholics from the Synod’s final report:
The logic of integration is the key to their pastoral accompaniment, so that they not only know that they belong to the Body of Christ which is the Church, but that they can have a joyous and rich experience. They are baptized, they are brothers and sisters, and the Holy Spirit pours out gifts and charisms on them for the good of all. Their participation can express itself in diverse ecclesial services… They not only must not feel themselves excommunicated, but they can live and mature as living members of the Church, feeling it to be a mother who always welcomes them, taking care of them with affection, and encouraging in the path of life and the Gospel… For the Christian community, taking care of these people is not a weakness in its own faith and its witness as to the indissolubility of marriage; indeed, the Church expresses its own charity through this care.
A Church who is a mother doesn’t hide or distort the truth from her children; but she also wants to share her children’s suffering when they feel they are carrying burdens too great to bear. When we reveal to someone the truth of Christ’s teaching, and they realise that their life is not in order, this can seem to them like an extraordinary burden, and it is one we have to help them carry. I think of Jesus’ words,
“you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46)
Perhaps too often, our approach has been not even to raise these difficult questions (those who receive Communion who should not, the vast numbers who seldom if ever go to Confession, couples contracepting within their marriage, or living together while not married): perhaps we are afraid of this seeming “burden” of truth and think it’s “kinder” for people to remain in ignorance (of course, when you live life in Christ freely, you discover it is not a burden at all, but a yoke that is “easy”, “light” and good to bear).
But, just as importantly as speaking the truth, we have to help people come out into the light of Christ – not, hopefully, into a cold, bare Church that will not help them – but as a mother who will walk with them every step of the way. This ‘mother’ is the Body of disciples who have experienced Christ’s saving love themselves, who know how much mercy has been shown to them, and who want others to know that salvation too. If our communion spilt over outside of Sunday Mass into deeper discipleship, more heroic love of each other and greater care for each other’s needs, we would relieve a lot of people’s burdens, we would make it more possible for others to live lives of heroic love, too.
As always, the crisis is not one of doctrine. It is a crisis of discipleship. We have to love heroically so that others can see how God is calling them to love heroically.