Dear Deacon Ditewig, I remain confused!

Dear Deacon Ditewig,

As one Catholic blogger to another, both ordained Catholic ministers with PhDs, I have to say that despite your recent post, I remain confused. I don’t disagree with Pope Francis – I can’t, because I don’t fully grasp what he is is asking me to do. Perhaps that’s because of a different kind of polarisation, which has nothing to do with traditional/liberal viewpoints in the church and everything to do with the way we think about right and wrong.

I fully recognise that I live in a polarised church. Many Catholics, particularly those formed in the 60s and following decades, are humanitarians. They fully embrace the command to “love your neighbour” and are rather uncomfortable with those church teachings (e.g. about divorce, contraception, abortion) which make life more difficult for people in already-difficult situations (many don’t seem comfortable with the idea of a God who reveals Himself and speaks with authority). Meanwhile, a generation of young Catholics, particularly upcoming seminarians, have taken refuge in the outer trappings of identity, taking comfort in cassocks, Latin, and various traditions dating back 500 or 1000 years, though not to the time of Christ himself.

The thing is, I find myself in neither of these groups. I am an evangelical Catholic, seeking the voice of Christ in Scripture, Apostolic Tradition, and the Magisterium, and willing to set aside my own preferences for the sake of obedient unity. Before Pope Francis, I did not wash women’s feet at the Maundy Thursday Mass. A year following his election, guided by his example (and sensing that he wished to lead by example rather than issuing documents), I washed women’s feet at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper for the first time. But I felt more comfortable about doing so after the Vatican had made it official.

I want to live out my Catholic priesthood faithful to Jesus Christ and to the directives of the Magisterium. But I find it difficult to make sense of Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis says explicitly he does not intend to set out case examples to guide us, because we as parish priests need to “accompany” and “discern” individual cases of persons who have entered a second union after a failed marriage. But what is it that I am to discern?

Do I recognise that there is moral good present in a relationship which is faithful and expressive of agape love, but which lacks the Church’s blessing? (AL 292) Yes, of course.

Do I recognise that some Catholics don’t have a fully developed understanding of their call to faithfulness in a marriage blessed by the Church? (AL 295) Yes, that too.

At the root of all of this is the teaching of Our Lord himself, who forbade divorce (with the exception of ‘porneia‘, which the scholars still argue about), tempered by St Paul’s privilege for a Christian abandoned by an unbelieving spouse.

The problem with marriage is that, for a person to be validly married, they must stand up in public and declare themselves to be freely entering into an unbreakable, lifelong, commitment. Now, if in my conversation with the person, I find that they didn’t understand this, I have grounds to believe the original marriage was invalid. But if they did understand this, what is left to discern?

In AL 300, Pope Francis sets out that there are many different cases of second unions, and priests may need to accompany such partners in an examination of conscience; in some cases, we may find that there was “no grave fault” on the part of the divorced person. The Pope says there can be no double standards and there is no “gradualness in the law”. I take this to mean that in working with such a person, I can help ease the guilt they may feel about the failure of the first relationship, but I must also help them understand that they have made a promise to God to live in lifelong fidelity to that partner, since the same law applies to every sacramental marriage.

Pope Francis then points out (AL 305) that a person in objective sin may partially or even totally lack subjective culpability and still be living in God’s grace. In footnote 351 he reminds us that the Confessional must be a place of mercy and the Eucharist is medicine for the sick. Clearly by placing these footnotes where they are, the Pope is asking me to consider whether I should offer absolution or holy communion to a person in a second union. But how can I absolve a person for breaking a promise of life-long faithfulness if that person is not yet willing or able to resume keeping the promise?

Reading on (AL 308), Pope Francis indicates his preference for a “less rigorous” approach which intrinsically allows space for confusion. Well, I am certainly confused. I am not helped by noticing that while the Polish Bishops have affirmed the status quo, the Maltese Bishops have indicated that in certain circumstances, persons in second unions might receive absolution and communion, and be admitted as godparents. If the Magisterium says it is not possible to give clear rules or even case studies of when I should say yes or no, how am I to make my discernment?

My PhD is not in Theology (though I have a first class Bachelor’s in Theology) – it is in Astrophysics. While you sail the seas, I navigate the heavens. I have a mathematical mind, trained in logic and principles. And perhaps that is the problem. These days, we understand that people have different thinking styles. Not everyone’s brain tackles moral problems the same way. Some brains see things more in terms of principles; others see consequences. It might be the case (I’d love to have the research time to test this) that professors of moral philosophy are more likely than average human beings to be biased to think in terms of principles. Perhaps Pope Francis, and Jesuits in general, have an aptitude for discerning imperfect courses of action which lead a step closer to God’s will without reaching its fullness.

Pope Francis does not want to throw the floodgates open for everyone. But he does want me, as a parish priest, to discern whether a particular individual might approach the sacraments without ruling out that possibility. “Discerning” means I can’t decide a priori to allow everyone or no-one to do so. But without (non-binding) case studies and examples, I don’t know what I am looking for.

There have been many times in my life when I have chosen to act on principle even though I foresaw the consequences may have been problematic. I did so before I became a Catholic; and once I was a Catholic, I took comfort in the idea that the Church teaches that there are intrinsic evils, so morality depends on principles rather than consequences. I know that saints have been martyred for holding to their principles. But I also know that a strong reason that I live by my principles is that I am “wired” to do so, and not all human beings are wired like me.

Deacon Ditewig, you have suggested that those who say Pope Francis’ words are “confusing” are really hiding the fact that they disagree with him. But please hear me when I say that if the Magisterium teaches clearly that I am to deny communion to those in second unions, I will do so; if the Magisterium teaches clearly that I am to admit them, I will do so (while still maintaining that such relationships are prima facie adulterous; I recognise that the Eucharist can be medicine for sinners). As a parish priest I have been charged with “discerning and accompanying” individuals towards a possible decision to admit them to communion, a process which is as alien to my science-shaped mind as it seems intuitive to Pope Francis (who graduated as a chemical technician, and is therefore skilled in providing solutions).

Therefore I remain, respectfully,

Confused of Cardiff.

(Revd Dr Gareth Leyshon, PhD, MInstP, MA (Oxon), BTh, Director of Ongoing Formation of the Archdiocese of Cardiff – views are my own)

First Communion

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A.

Children, this is a very special weekend, one I hope you will remember for the rest of your life. It is special for two reasons. First, because it is the weekend when you will make your First Holy Communion. But secondly – and you might have seen this in the news already – because it is the weekend Pope Francis declared two children to be saints.

Those children were Francisco, aged 8, and Jacinta, aged 7, when 100 years ago this weekend they saw the Virgin Mary for the first time. She appeared five more times to them that year. But this wasn’t the first time something amazing happened to them. The previous year, they had three visions of an angel – and the third time, the angel gave them Holy Communion – it was their First Holy Communion, given to them from Heaven!Grey statue of an angel holding a Host and Chalice

The angel explained that there were lots of people in the world who didn’t believe in Jesus or were even rude to Jesus, and this makes God very sad. There are many people who don’t treat each other with respect and kindness too, and this also offends Jesus, because Jesus lives, hidden, in every human being – including those we are rude to. But there is something we can do to make up for this.

When we come into the presence of Jesus’ body and blood – and remember, every Catholic Church has a tabernacle where we keep Jesus’ body – we can say a special prayer. We can say: “Jesus, I love you, and I am so sorry for the people who ignore you or are rude to you.”

But wouldn’t it be so much better if the people who were rude to Jesus, or don’t care about Him, started caring and loving Him? The angel asked the children to pray for this to happen – we call this conversion. The angel taught them another prayer: “Heavenly Father! Jesus is holy, remember how much he loves us! You kept our Mother Mary free of all sin, remember how much she loves us! Because of their love, convert many souls to love Jesus and Mary in return!”

Then, when the angel gave the children Holy Communion, he said: “Eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who is so hurt by seeing how ungrateful people are. Say prayers to make up for them and show your love for God.”

Jacinta and Francisco took the angel’s message seriously. They looked for ways they could help other people, and when they gave away some of their time, or the things they owned, to help someone else, they said “Jesus, it is for love of you and Mary, so you can convert sinners.” But they didn’t live for very long.

In those days, we hadn’t invented the medicines we have today, and there was a terrible outbreak of ‘flu across Europe. By the year 1920, three years after Our Lady had appeared, both of the children had died. And yet, although neither of them lived long enough to become teenagers, this weekend Pope Francis has declared that they lived such holy lives we can call them saints. This means you are not too young to live as saints, too! But to be saints you must keep remembering to tell Jesus that you love him.

Now, a word to the grown-ups here today. Many of you have come to support these First Communion children – thank you for being with us. Maybe this story sounds very far-fetched to you. Even for Catholics, many of us will be thinking “Can it really be true that an angel appeared from heaven and gave Communion to these children? Can things like that really happen?”

During the last 200 years, there have been many claims that the Virgin Mary has appeared from Heaven. The Catholic Church has investigated these and found 15 of the cases to be worthy of belief. In those places, many people have experienced their prayers being answered in powerful ways; some have claimed miraculous healings. Lourdes and Fatima are the most famous places, but there are others. Even so, no Catholic is required to believe that these things really happened – it’s just that the Pope or the local Bishops think there’s really good evidence that the claims are true.

There is one thing all Catholics ARE required to believe, though. It’s that on Easter Sunday, two days after being nailed to a Cross, Jesus Christ walked through a locked door, without opening it, and showed himself to his friends. If that’s true, it makes the meal Jesus celebrated the night before he died, the Last Supper, the most significant dinner ever eaten on Earth. If it’s true, then the God of the Universe is inviting each of these children here today – and inviting all of you, too – to be fed by him every weekend in your nearest Catholic Church.

Receiving communion is a holy gift – this is why our children have to prepare by making their First Confession. This is why we don’t offer every guest Holy Communion; to receive God’s gift of love we must first sort out our lifestyle, and make sure we are trying to live the way Jesus asked us. That includes being in obedience to the Pope, which is why we don’t offer communion to Christians from Protestant churches – and also includes being married if we are in a partnership. Why are we so protective of Holy Communion? It’s because even when it comes at the hands of priest rather than an angel, we still believe it is God’s gift from Heaven. But if something in your heart is stirred by what you have heard today, maybe God is inviting you to become a Catholic – for 100 years now, those who believe in the message of Fatima have been praying for you!

So children, I’m going to stop preaching now so we can move to our prayers and ask Jesus to become present on this altar. But because of what the Pope has done this weekend, we can make a little bit of history. We can do something we’ve never done in St Philip Evans Church before this weekend. There’s a Catholic rule that says when someone is declared ‘Blessed’ you can only ask for their help in a public church service in their own country, but once they are declared to be a ‘Saint’, you can call upon them at Mass in any church in the world. So on this weekend of firsts, join me in our responses:

St Jacinta – pray for us!
St Francisco – pray for us!
Our Lady of Fatima – pray for us!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Who do you think you are?

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.A tree with six logos as fruit - think-bubble, hand, heart, pound sign, envelope, cross

Who do you think you are?

There’s a television programme by that name, which helps celebrities trace their family trees. This can be a risky business! Olympic rower Matthew Pinsent discovered that he was a descendent of King Edward the First! But consumer rights campaigner Esther Rantzen discovered that her great grandfather became a fugitive, accused of serious fraud!

The good news is that our family tree doesn’t define who we are. In the words of Jesus we hear today, we are told that we are “salt for the earth and light for the world”. If we read further in the New Testament, we find other passages which speak about who we are in Christ.

This is Good News! Jesus wants to give us our identity, our security, and our authority.

Did you stop for a moment as you entered this church to bless yourself with Holy Water? If you did, you reminded yourself that you were baptised “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. By baptism, you were made a member of the Body of Christ and adopted as a son in God’s family – yes ladies, that includes you too! You are the body of Christ and individually members of it (I Cor 12:27): your baptism gives you your identity in Christ.

As members of Christ’s body, we are invited to receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. Just before we come forward for communion, we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We ask for our “daily bread”. But what are we asking for? One meaning is “give us what we need for life today”. Jesus told us not to be anxious about the basics of life because our Heavenly Father knows all our needs (Mt 6:24-34). But the word we translate as “daily” has two meanings in Greek, and St Jerome – who made the first great translation of the Bible into Latin – couldn’t decide which one was meant. In his version of St Matthew’s Gospel he chose the other possible translation – give us today our supernatural bread, the bread which has come down from heaven. We believe that every time we receive Holy Communion, our venial sins are forgiven and we are re-connected to Heaven, receiving the Bread of Life which we must eat to inherit eternal life (Jn 6:36-69). Receiving Holy Communion gives you your security in Christ.

To be a full member of the Catholic Church, you must receive three sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation. Here in the West, we usually wait until the age of about 13 for confirmation. But in Kerala, where it is called the “sacrament of anointing”, it is given to babies when they are baptised. In both East and West, the minister declares that this is a “seal” of the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the ancient word a seal was used in the way we use an identity card or passport today. But it’s not our own identity card – it’s God’s! And when we are sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, God promises us power to be his representative in the church and in the world. It was that power St Paul was writing about in his letter today. Being anointed with Chrism gives you your authority in Christ.

So who do you think you are?

Jesus thinks you are the salt of the earth. You have the power to make the world around you a better place, just as salt can cure meat and grit treacherous paths.

Jesus thinks you are the light of the world. That’s high praise, coming from Him! In St John’s Gospel (8:12) He called Himself the Light of the World, and said that if we followed him, we would make it to Heaven. Wow! That’s a challenge! Jesus says you must be the kind of person that if other people imitate your behaviour, they will go to heaven!

What kind of actions is God looking for? The First Reading instructs us to support the hungry and the poor; we do this through our taxes and through giving to charity, in the form of money or the foodbank and clothesbank we have here. We’ll have an opportunity to help some very special people at the end of today’s Mass, when we take a collection to help handicapped children visit Lourdes this Easter.The Bible suggests that for people who don’t know about Jesus, such good works will be enough to get them to heaven (Rom 2:12-16).

Now, it’s also true that Jesus warned us not to show off our good deeds in front of other people – in fact that’s in the very next chapter of the same Gospel (Mt 6:1). He’s concerned that we don’t get proud about our good deeds. But as long as our motivation isn’t to show off, we’re not to hide our Christian actions either – because otherwise we can’t inspire other people to follow us to heaven.

Is it enough to only do good works to help the poor? NO! You are forgetting your identity in Christ.

We are God’s family. We know the family secret, that to have life to the full, we must receive the Bread of Heaven. The example that God wants us to set for others is the example of being people who come every week to receive our supernatural bread! By doing this, we can help people who follow our example find their security in Christ. Remember, Jesus Himself said that if we do not eat of his flesh we will not have life within us! (Jn 6:53)

So who do you think you are?

If you think you’re a good person who doesn’t know Jesus, being kind to needy people will probably get you into heaven.

But if you’re a Catholic and know you’re a member of God’s family, God expects more of you! You are the salt of the earth! You have your identity, your security and your authority from being a brother or sister of Christ our King! But if you lose your saltiness, look out – even God’s identity card won’t get you through the gates of heaven if you claim to be like Jesus but turn out to be a fraud!