Monday, October 12, 2015

Best & Worst of the Synod on the Family's First Week

Last year's Synod on the Family was a nail-biter, and this year's continuation promises to be more of the same. Rewriting it as a drama, I would cast the Synod relator Cardinal Erdö as the well-intentioned but forgettable protagonist, progressive Cardinal Kasper as a villainous modern-day Martin Luther, and Pope Francis as the mysterious mastermind who keeps us guessing until the very end. The first week of the Synod was chock full of both encouraging and disturbing moments. Here's a recap.

1. The Synod's Marching Orders are to "Martyr" a Document

The task of the 2015 Synod is to rewrite the June working document, or instrumentum laboris. Opposition to this document is so strong that one writer called it the execrable instrumentum. Synod bishops have criticized the document for its flawed theology, its overly negative perspective, its incoherent language, and its illogical structure. Cardinal Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, one of the Synod's organizers, said the text “must be ready to be martyred,” and definitely needs revisions. But, as any writer knows, revisions can't fix a document that is irredeemably flawed. And edits by a committee of 270 ecclesial alpha males are unlikely to produce clarity. In my opinion, there is a real danger of "garbage in, garbage out." 

My vote: Thumbs down.

2. Pope Defends Marriage as Permanent Bond Between a Man and a Woman

In his homily during the opening Mass of the Synod, Pope Francis went back to the beginning -- to the natural marriage of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. “This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self,” Pope Francis said.

He also preached on Jesus' famous prohibition of divorce from the Gospel of Mark:
They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.’ So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Mk 10:4-9).
The Church's mission, according to Francis, is to defend "the unity and indissolubility of the conjugal bond as a sign of God’s grace and of the human person’s ability to love seriously." Pope Francis' words were somewhat undercut by a leaked comment by a Cardinal suggesting that the pope be "more merciful like Moses” rather than Jesus. But my money is on Francis following Jesus.

My vote: Thumbs up.

3. Cardinal Erdö Declares Communion Not Possible for Divorced and Remarried

In his role as the Synod's General Relator, Cardinal Erdö of Hungary got the first word. His opening address declared the issue of Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried to be non-negotiable. The cardinal explained that divorced people whose first marriage has not been declared null by the Church are in a state of continuing adultery if they remarry. Adultery is a grave sin, and people who have committed grave sin simply cannot receive the Holy Eucharist (unless they repent in sacramental confession and resolve not to sin again). “The integration of the divorced and remarried in the life of the ecclesial community can take many forms, [but it] is different from admission to the Eucharist,” he said.

The very next day, however, Italian Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli publicly announced that “the question" of communion for the divorced and remarried "is still open.” Certainly, the Synod bishops are still discussing it. Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge estimates that the Synod bishops are 65% against and 35% for admitting the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion. Synod General Relator Cardinal Erdö clearly cannot control the end result. But he gets points for raising the issue and stating his position as clearly, bluntly, and forcefully as possible.

My vote: Thumbs up.

4. The Church is In Danger of Decentralization

One idea for resolving contentious debates among churchmen is to move authority to the local bishops' conferences and let them decide as they will. Surprisingly, Archbishop Coleridge estimates that the Synod bishops are evenly split on the wisdom of that proposal. At first blush, this proposal flies in the face of the catholicity (meaning universality) of the Church. As Catholics have said for centuries, "Roma locuta, causa finita,"or "Rome has spoken; the matter is finished." The saying derives from statements made by St. Augustine in the fifth century, supporting the primacy of the pope over the local bishops.

The primacy of the pope to resolve disputes can be traced to the role of Peter described in the New Testament Book of the Acts of the Apostles. When people in the early Church argued over whether Gentiles could be baptized into the Christian faith, Peter reported that he had a vision from God, showing him through the Holy Spirit that the circumcised and uncircumcised should both be received without distinction (Acts 10 & 11). When the factions heard Peter speak, "they were silenced" (Acts 11:18). Peter did not leave the dispute unsettled.

Allowing local bishops' councils to decide the issue of communion for the divorced and remarried would give the Vatican's tacit approval to the German bishops' June 2014 resolution to admit the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion. This resolution was passed in advance of last year's Synod despite the clear prohibitions earlier stated in the authoritative encyclicals of St. John Paul II. Decentralization would thus be a huge win for the faction led by Cardinal Kasper and an unprecedented power shift.

My vote: Thumbs down.

Stay tuned for the drama of the second week!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Choosing God through Confirmation: My Little Girl, All Grown Up

My eldest daughter Lelia just received the Sacrament of Confirmation yesterday from Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. As part of her preparation, she had to write a letter to the pastor requesting confirmation. When she showed me the letter, I was blown away by this privileged glimpse into her interior life. In honor of Lelia's special day, I'm sharing her letter with you.

Dear Monsignor,

On our journey of faith, we hit certain milestones. These “milestones” that we encounter throughout this journey are called sacraments.  On my journey of faith, I am getting close to the milestone of confirmation.  In order to reach one of these milestones, we need to be ready for it, prepare for it, and want it with all our heart, which I do. Therefore, I am writing you to request that I receive the Sacrament of Confirmation next fall.

One reason why I want to receive the Sacrament is being able to grow closer to Saint Bernadette whom I have chosen as my confirmation saint.  Another reason that I want to receive confirmation is so that I can grow closer to my aunt, Tita Nancy, who is my soon-to-be confirmation sponsor.  Although these are important, the greatest reason why I want to receive confirmation is so that I can grow closer to God and continue in my journey of faith.

I believe that I am ready to receive confirmation because I am at the age that I can make good choices. Over these past thirteen years, I have had time to form my conscience so that I can make correct decisions.  When we are babies, we receive baptism in which our parents say and choose everything for us because we can’t.  But now I believe I can.  With this freedom of choice and free will that God gave us, I will renew the promises made during my baptism by my own choosing.

I have prepared for confirmation in school, at home and through prayer.  In school we have learned about confirmation in religion class and we have completed a journal that helps us to realize how we feel about people, things and our faith.  At home we prepare through prayer and through the choices we make every day. In all truth we have been preparing for confirmation since we were first baptized.  Whether we did it knowingly or not, we have prepared for this our whole lives through developing our conscience through every prayer and every action.

Receiving a sacrament has a tremendous impact on our life. Almost every fundamental turning point in life is connected with a sacrament.  Just like every sacrament I have received so far -- baptism, first communion and first confession -- confirmation will have a tremendous impact on my everyday life.  Every time I go to church, every time I say a prayer, every time I look at a cross, I will know that I chose to go on this path willingly.  This is how the milestone of confirmation has affected me in the present, and how it will affect the rest of my future.

Yours in Christ,

Lelia Santos

Monday, October 5, 2015

St. Francis and the Synod on the Family

The date that Pope Francis chose to begin the second phase of the Synod on the Family could hardly have been a coincidence. When the Synod opened yesterday on October 4, the Church celebrated the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. And even more dramatically, the readings for the day celebrated marriage -- the marriage of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and Jesus' plea that his people give up their hardness of hearts and treat marriage as indissoluble, the way it was meant to be from the beginning.

The readings from the day give us hope. And three major themes from St. Francis' life give us hints as to how the Pope bearing his name intends to conduct the Synod.

1. Rebuilding the Domestic Church

In a vision, St. Francis heard Christ telling him, "Go, rebuild my Church." Francis didn't understand at first what Christ meant. He wondered if his mission would be to repair a crumbling building. In time, St. Francis realized that the scope of his mission extended far more broadly. He was meant to reunite the people of the Church. In one of his most famous quotes, he described his calling: "We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way."

Pope Francis' task through the Synod of the Family and through his papacy in general is to rebuild the domestic church of the family.  The "domestic church" is an ancient expression, highlighting the role of "believing families ... as centers of living, radiant faith"(CCC 1656). In our families, we learn how to love, how to work, how to forgive, how to pray, and how to endure (CCC 1657). We learn how to be Christ for one another and how to see Christ in one another.

Today, the family is indisputably in crisis. Faith is in crisis as well. Young people are not getting married and they aren't going to Church. If the youth are our future, then where are we going? There is even a push by many German priests and bishops to reformulate Church doctrine on contraception, divorce, remarriage, and homosexual unions. Contentious arguments at synod meetings last October showed uncomfortable divisions between the princes of the Church. What we need badly from this year's discussions is for Pope Francis "to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way."

2. Taming the Wolf

In the story of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio, the inhabitants of a small Italian town were being terrorized by a wolf attacking their livestock and even the humans themselves. The townspeople tried to destroy the wolf without success. But St. Francis went out to meet the wolf without fear. He invoked the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. He spoke to Brother Wolf, told him to stop terrorizing the town, offered him mercy, and promised reconciliation with the townspeople. The wolf laid his paw in St. Francis' hand to show that he understood and agreed.

The characteristics of the saint meld easily with the characteristics of the pope. Pope Francis has never sidestepped a controversial issue or question. He has offered mercy over and over again, to the divorced, to homosexuals, to women who have gotten abortions. He has embraced everyone from the disabled to the dissenters. We can hope that he will wrangle a reconciliation between arguing factions within the Church.

3. Seeking to Understand

The famous Prayer of St. Francis contains a line: "grant that I may not so much seek ... to be understood, as to understand." Pope Francis' words are often spun by misunderstanding media. When he says "Who am I to judge" homosexuals, some people assume the pope will change doctrine on homosexuality. When he says "the divorced are not excommunicated," they assume he will allow the divorced and civilly remarried to receive communion. When he says that Catholics don't have to "breed like rabbits," they assume he disapproves of large families. From numerous, less well-reported papal statements, it is clear that none of these assumptions is warranted. But Pope Francis has frequently been misunderstood.

Moreover, he has been criticized for not being clear enough. But a hallmark of Pope Francis seems to be his desire to hear and to listen and to understand his people and their troubles. When he speaks, he responds in mercy to what he has heard. Truth is always clearer than mercy. It's more logical and it makes more sense. There is a certain illogic to mercy, but mercy nonetheless lies at the heart of Christianity.

In Pope Francis' homily at the opening Mass of the Synod, he explained this yoking of opposites:

I remember when Saint John Paul II said: “Error and evil must always be condemned and opposed; but the man who falls or who errs must be understood and loved… we must love our time and help the man of our time” (JOHN PAUL II, Address to the Members of Italian Catholic Action, 30 December 1978). The Church must search out these persons, welcome and accompany them, for a Church with closed doors betrays herself and her mission, and, instead of being a bridge, becomes a roadblock.

Like Francis, may we also seek to understand rather than condemn, to tame rather than destroy, and to bring home those who have lost their way.

St. Francis, intercede for us, for the bishops, the Pope, the Synod, and the Church!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Papal Pilgrims Struggle Through Massive Crowds in Philadelphia

Because of my sprained foot, my husband pushed me in a wheelchair for hours through massive Philadelphia crowds to see Pope Francis. And none of our six kids got lost! Philadelphia during the Popealooza was an almost surreal experience. Here's my report for Catholic news site

Papal events in Philadelphia this past weekend were too arduous to be called anything other than a pilgrimage. Travel tips warned visitors to “be prepared to walk up to 3-4 miles to your destination” in the city center. Many streets were blocked off with massive concrete barricades, feeding the crowds toward one of fifteen security checkpoints.

National Guard soldiers in gray-green camouflage, police in stark black, and volunteers in brilliant orange t-shirts thronged the city. Their most common response to a request for directions was “I don’t know.”

Past the security barriers, on the periphery, Spanish-speaking seminarians marched proudly, drumming and singing “Aleluya, Aleluya, Resucito!” Alleluia, alleluia, He is risen! A block away, a dark-haired, muscular man blared on a bullhorn that the Catholic Church was the Whore or Babylon and the pope was an anti-Christ. Slow-moving emergency vehicles patrolled streets closed to all other automotive traffic, adding an eerily apocalyptic feel.

The soaring high notes of a children’s choir, echoing from giant Jumbotrons, competed discordantly with the sirens of police cars clearing the papal motorcade route. Buskers played violin or electric bass guitar, hoping for coins. Tracks from the Priests of Beat album “Sanctus Electronimus” shuddered from speakers: “You are Peter. P-P-Peter.” Like the sun fitfully shining through the clouds, the City of God tried to break through into the earthly city.

Wheelchairs were a common sight. One mother in a flowered dress and white high heels tended her disabled daughter with the help of six of her other children, including 13-year-old quadruplets. Her oldest child, Benjamin, had auditioned and won a spot in the choir singing for Pope Francis. The mother and her wheelchair-bound daughter had tickets for the papal Mass, but the quadruplets were given the task of tending their two younger siblings behind the barrier in the non-ticketed area.

The separation between ticketed and non-ticketed areas gave many people only the tiniest chance to approach anywhere near the pontiff. But pilgrims still surged through the city, hoping. Jerusalem on Palm Sunday must have experienced a similar sense of excitement.

On Saturday, one mother stood with her children on the same square of asphalt for 17 hours in order to have a direct line of sight to the Holy Father. On Sunday, she gave up and returned home with her exhausted children, donating her four tickets for the papal Mass to another pilgrim.

People who attended the Mass felt the full power of Peter. Sitting in the front row, author and blogger Lisa Hendey described the atmosphere as “electric,” grace-filled and glorious. But outside the security barriers, “there were a lot of very disappointed people,” said one pilgrim.

Ticketed people who arrived two hours prior to the Mass discovered that they were already too late. They waited three hours in a line that moved forward by inches. Stuck in quasi-purgatory, they tossed plastic beach balls around for fun and sang Marian and Eucharistic hymns. By the time many of them reached the security checkpoint, the Mass had already concluded. “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first,” shouted one pilgrim hopefully.

Pilgrims who succeeded in passing the barriers to Benjamin Franklin Parkway were treated to a stirring homily by Pope Francis. He told listeners not to be scandalized by the freedom of God, and to bypass bureaucracy, officialdom, and inner circles. He proclaimed: “Would that we could all be prophets! Would that all of us could be open to miracles of love.”

In the quintessential paradox of Christianity, the way to accomplish this grand prophetic mission is by little acts of service. Dinners, lunches, hugs and kisses are all ways that families contribute to creating a culture infused with God’s love, said Francis. Wise pilgrims took note.

A pilgrimage to see a pope is a grand gesture, but only a few days in the life of a dedicated Christian. The real test is whether the patience and fortitude displayed by the pilgrims in Philadelphia will manifest itself in the progress of their daily lives.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

What it Feels Like to Concelebrate Mass with the Holy Father

Several fortunate priests and deacons from dioceses in New York State got the chance to assist the Holy Father at his Mass in Madison Square Garden on Friday, September 25. Reporting on behalf of, I interviewed two men about their experiences there -- Fr. Michael Duffy, a 30-year-old Associate Pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Farmingdale, N.Y., and Deacon Peter Haight, a 75-year-old married permanent deacon at Sacred Heart Parish in Newburgh, N .Y..

What was your role in the Mass?

Fr. Duffy: My role was quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and yet for me was tremendously grace-filled and important. I was one of the hundreds of concelebrants sitting behind the Holy Father. I had no public role, other than joining the Holy Father as he celebrated the Mass. As I stood there, participating with the Holy Father in the Eucharistic prayer, I couldn’t help but feel as though we priests formed a huge living wall, a living backdrop to the sanctuary. Anyone that looked at the Holy Father saw us. In a real sense I felt like we were there to silently say, Holy Father, we have your back — not just here and now, but always. We priests are your faithful sons. After the end of the Mass I heard one priest remark quite sincerely “after that Mass I would follow that man (Pope Francis) into battle.” I couldn’t help but think that we do that every day of our lives. We follow him into battle, the battle that is waged every day between good and evil, between light and dark. Thank God, we already know that we’ve won the war.

Dcn. Haight: My role was to distribute Holy Communion to over 200 people seated in section 210 of the Garden. In my white alb and diaconal stole, I gave the Bread of Christ to communicants of all ages, some wheel chair bound, parents holding tiny babies, religious sisters…. A true microcosm of the Church.

Have you attended any previous papal events? If so, how did they compare to the Mass with Pope Francis?

Fr. Duffy: Last year I was in Rome in October for the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops. I wasn’t able to concelebrate that Mass as I was this one. It was moving and solemn. The feeling at Madison Square Garden was completely different. I was sitting with well over a dozen brother priests. The camaraderie and fraternity was palpable. The joy of being in our own city and in the presence of the Successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ was simple overwhelming. Every other time I’ve prayed with the Holy Father I’ve gone to him. This time he came to us.

Dcn. Haight: I’ve attended several other papal events, both in the United States and in Rome. In 1995 when John Paul II came to Central Park, I was supposed to serve in the papal Mass but the bus for clergy never came to the parking lot, so they tried to fit everybody on only two buses. There was a feeble, elderly priest who couldn’t see or hear well. He said he would give his last dying breath to see the pope and serve concelebrate mass with him. When he was told there was no room on the bus, he cried. I gave my spot on the bus to him, but then I cried all the way home! I loved John Paul II, and I love Pope Francis because he is a people Pope and so aware of the needs of the poor. But it’s important to remember that every priest has the power to satisfy our spiritual hunger at every Mass.

What will you remember most about this event at Madison Square Garden?

Fr. Duffy: I think I’ll remember the prayerfulness and the silence most of all. This was the most well behaved, prayerful congregation I’ve ever been a part of. Real prayer was happening there. Serious prayer.

The second thing I’ll remember most occurred after the final blessing. After the Holy Father kissed the altar he turned around and waved to us priests. We all went nuts and waved back. A few of us shouted “Viva Il Papa”. Then the Holy Father simply blessed us. That simple sign of affection and love made the entire day.

Dcn. Haight: I will most remember the fact that I was able to share the Mass with my daughter Kristen who took the place of my wife, who stayed home due to health reasons. It brought back memories of how I held up Kristen’s older sister in the air so she could see JP2 in Yankee Stadium decades ago.

Has Pope Francis shaped your understanding of what it means to be a priest or deacon? And how has he done that?

Fr. Duffy: The Holy Father leads us by his own example. He teaches us what kind of pastors we should be by his own way of life. Even during his visit here to our country, in his attention to those on the margins he teaches and challenges us. He has helped me to remember the poor in our midst. Additionally, Pope Francis has reminded us continually of the importance of Joy. A joyful priest attracts others to his own vocation and to the one from whom Joy comes. The last thing this church needs is a curmudgeon. Pope Francis challenges me to be joyful every day.

Dcn. Haight: Agreed. Pope Francis reinforces what it means to be a minister/deacon by being a servant of God himself.

How do you think Pope Francis’ visit has impacted the local Church and all American Catholics?

Fr. Duffy: I pray for a new springtime in the American Church. I pray for a renewal among young people who yearn for fulfillment and completion, which ultimately can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ. So many non-Catholics, or fallen away Catholics were fascinated by this visit and the message of Pope Francis. I pray that his words may attract them and encourage them to return to the faith. I think our local church will benefit from this visit for some time. Peter has come, Peter has encouraged and blessed us.

Dcn. Haight: A young girl Anna was serving me breakfast at a local restaurant, and I offered her my daughter’s extra ticket for the Mass. She yelled, “I got a ticket! I got a ticket!” and the entire place started cheering for her. She sat next to my daughter during the pre-Mass show and started crying when Harry Connick, Jr. sang “How Great Thou Art.” This 24-year-old girl said that it was her mother’s favorite song, and her mother died not too long ago. After speaking with my daughter and experiencing the papal Mass, she was convinced to try to go back to Mass regularly. I’m sure that there are many more stories like this one.

Image courtesy of Morguefile