Once again Pope Francis demonstrated that mercy is more than sympathy or even empathy but requires action when he made a compassionate pilgrimage to the Greek island of Lesbos at the invitation of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II in the company of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
The three hierarchs made a joint plea to European countries to reopen their borders to the thousands of Middle Eastern refugees detained in Greece. Then, in an extraordinary gesture, the Holy Father brought three Syrian refugee families to Rome as guests of the Vatican.
On the return flight the Pope was asked if his recent Apostolic Exhortation offered any hope of returning to the Eucharist for divorced Catholics remarried without annulments. Pope Francis answered yes and referred the questioner to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s remarks when the Vienna Archbishop introduced Amoris Laetitia at a Vatican press conference on April 7. Since many have asked this same question I am offering a quote of the portion of Cardinal Schönborn’s remarks referred to by Pope Francis.
What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which “guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God”. But Pope Francis also recalls that “this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church”.
Pope Francis mentions two erroneous positions. One is that of excessive rigour: “a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings” (AL 205). On the other hand, the Church must certainly never “desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur” (AL 207).
Naturally this poses the question: what does the Pope say in relation to access to the sacraments for people who live in “irregular” situations? Pope Benedict had already said that “easy recipes” do not exist (AL 298, note 333). Pope Francis reiterates the need to discern carefully the situation, in keeping with St. John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio (84) (AL 298). “Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God” (AL 205). He also reminds us of an important phrase from Evangelii gaudium, 44: “A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties” (AL 304). In the sense of this “via caritatis” (AL 306), the Pope affirms, in a humble and simple manner, in a note (351) that the help of the sacraments may also be given “in certain cases.” But for this purpose he does not offer us case studies or recipes, but instead simply reminds us of two of his famous phrases: “I want to remind priests that the confessional should not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (EG 44), and the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (EG 47).
Is it an excessive challenge for pastors, for spiritual guides and for communities if the “discernment of situations” is not regulated more precisely? Pope Francis acknowledges this concern: “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion.” (AL 308) However, he challenges this, remarking that “We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.” (AL 311)
Pope Francis trusts in the “joy of love.” Love is able to find the way. It is the compass that shows us the road. It is both the goal and the path itself, because God is love and love is from God. Nothing is more demanding than love. It cannot be obtained cheaply. Therefore, no-one should be afraid that Pope Francis invites us, with Amoris Laetitia, to take too easy a path. The road is not an easy one, but it is full of joy!
For those who would like to read the full text of the Pope’s document, it is available at www.cathdal.org/joyoflove. I urge you to do so. Cardinal Schönborn says of Amoris Laetitia, “It must be said that the documents of the Church often do not belong to one of the most accessible literary genres. This text of the Pope’s is readable, and those who are not dissuaded by its length will find joy in its concreteness and realism. Pope Francis speaks about families with a clarity that is not easy to find in the magisterial documents of the Church.”