Saturday, 24 October 2015

Pope Francis: refresh hearts, don’t hide behind Church’s teachings

Francis synod smile

The second Synod on the Family has concluded this afternoon with a vote on its final report - the Relatio Finalis - all of whose 94 points were approved with a 2/3 majority by the Synod Fathers, followed by and closing speech given by Pope Francis and then a final Te Deum. Here I would like to just share what I think are the core passages of Francis's address to the Synod, but I would very much like to encourage you to read it in full, available here in English.

Pope Francis starts by asking himself what this whole synodal process was about and first dismisses two potential false expectations:

"Certainly, the Synod was not about settling all the issues having to do with the family, but rather attempting to see them in the light of the Gospel and the Church’s tradition and two-thousand-year history, bringing the joy of hope without falling into a facile repetition of what is obvious or has already been said.

Surely it was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family, but rather about seeing these difficulties and uncertainties in the light of the Faith, carefully studying them and confronting them fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand."
Neither is the point here to settle all the questions, not to jus repeat what has always been said while ignoring what is going on around us. Instead, the point is a reading of reality through the eyes of the Gospel:
"It was about urging everyone to appreciate the importance of the institution of the family and of marriage between a man and a woman, based on unity and indissolubility, and valuing it as the fundamental basis of society and human life. [...]

It was about trying to view and interpret realities, today’s realities, through God’s eyes, so as to kindle the flame of faith and enlighten people’s hearts in times marked by discouragement, social, economic and moral crisis, and growing pessimism."
Francis then had some hard words for those who, like the Pharisees in Jesus' time, want to hide behind doctrine and impose unbearable burdens, but he also pointed to the fruits have have come in spite of such erroneous attitudes:
"It was about bearing witness to everyone that, for the Church, the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would “indoctrinate” it in dead stones to be hurled at others.

It was also about laying bare closed hearts that frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families. [...]

In the course of this Synod, the different opinions which were freely expressed – and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways – certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue; they offered a vivid image of a Church which does not simply “rubberstamp”, but draws from the sources of her faith living waters to refresh parched hearts."
Next, he yet again set out his vision of a Church that is a Church of sinners, open and welcoming of all and whose mission is to spread the beauty of the Gospel:
"It was about making clear that the Church is a Church of the poor in spirit and of sinners seeking forgiveness, not simply of the righteous and the holy, but rather of those who are righteous and holy precisely when they feel themselves poor sinners.

It was about trying to open up broader horizons, rising above conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints, so as to defend and spread the freedom of the children of God, and to transmit the beauty of Christian Newness, at times encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible."
Francis then spoken about the heterogeneity of the Church as she is today:
"[W]e have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion. Cultures are in fact quite diverse, and each general principle needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied. The 1985 Synod, which celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, spoke of inculturation as “the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity, and the taking root of Christianity in the various human cultures”. Inculturation does not weaken true values, but demonstrates their true strength and authenticity, since they adapt without changing; indeed they quietly and gradually transform the different cultures."
Here Francis agains drew a golden thread from a challenging, even negative, situation to the hope that springs from the Gospel (which is reminiscent of St. Paul's "inculturating" the Gospel in his advice to slaves and slave owners and thereby sowing the seeds of that system's destruction).

After a reminder that God "desires only that “all be saved” (cf. 1 Tm 2:4)", Francis again attacked those who adhere to the letter of the law, while trampling on its spirit:
"[T]he true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulae, laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his Mercy (cf. Rom 3:21-30; Ps 129; Lk 11:37-54). It does have to do with overcoming the recurring temptations of the elder brother (cf. Lk 15:25-32) and the jealous labourers (cf. Mt 20:1-16). Indeed, it means upholding all the more the laws and commandments which were made for man and not vice versa (cf. Mk 2:27)."
Francis then spoke powerfully about the economy of salvation and underlined its gratuitous nature and the supremacy of mercy over condemnation:
"[T]he necessary human repentance, works and efforts take on a deeper meaning, not as the price of that salvation freely won for us by Christ on the cross, but as a response to the One who loved us first and saved us at the cost of his innocent blood, while we were still sinners (cf. Rom 5:6).

The Church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord (cf. Jn 12:44-50)."
That this is not a break with tradition - the lived tradition that is the Mystical Body of Christ as opposed to a "dead" tradition of formulae and laws not made for man - is then underlined by Francis when he spends about a sixth of his speech quoting his predecessors' teaching about mercy:
"Blessed Paul VI expressed this eloquently: “”We can imagine, then, that each of our sins, our attempts to turn our back on God, kindles in him a more intense flame of love, a desire to bring us back to himself and to his saving plan… God, in Christ, shows himself to be infinitely good… God is good. Not only in himself; God is – let us say it with tears – good for us. He loves us, he seeks us out, he thinks of us, he knows us, he touches our hearts us and he waits for us. He will be – so to say – delighted on the day when we return and say: ‘Lord, in your goodness, forgive me. Thus our repentance becomes God’s joy”.

Saint John Paul II also stated that: “the Church lives an authentic life when she professes and proclaims mercy… and when she brings people close to the sources of the Saviour’s mercy, of which she is the trustee and dispenser”.

Benedict XVI, too, said: “Mercy is indeed the central nucleus of the Gospel message; it is the very name of God… May all that the Church says and does manifest the mercy God feels for mankind. When the Church has to recall an unrecognized truth, or a betrayed good, she always does so impelled by merciful love, so that men may have life and have it abundantly (cf. Jn 10:10)”."

And in a beautiful footnote on the meaning of the family, he adds: "no family should feel alone or excluded from the Church’s loving embrace, and the real scandal is a fear of love and of showing that love concretely."

Having read and listened to the interventions, articles and interviews of and with the Synod participants, and to Pope Francis' homilies and catecheses!, over the course of the last three weeks, and now reading Francis' closing remarks at the Synod leaves me with a tremendous sense of optimism and it leaves me looking forward to what he will do next, to make the Church better positioned for a greater welcoming of all who want to be part of her. The Church is a loving mother who cannot but be close to all her children if she is to remain faithful to her Spouse's example and to His living in and among us today.