There is a certain amount of pastoral wisdom that is gained by my 43 years as a priest – a few of which as a monsignor, no less! I’ve learned that invariably, Catholics are either gained or lost at Baptisms, Weddings or Funerals! A beautiful, gracious and welcoming celebration of one or the other of these significant sacramental moments have garnered such comments as, “Father, I was so moved by the beauty and prayerfulness of this celebration, I might just consider coming back to mass!” Or, “Father, I’m not Catholic, but I felt so included in this special moment for my friends. How can I find out more about the Catholic Church?” Sadly, through the years, I have also heard such painful stories and comments such as, “It was clear that Father didn’t want to be at the Baptism. He rushed through it as if he wanted to be anyplace else but in that Church!” Or, “Father didn’t even get the names right. He was a robot, totally disengaged from any human feeling.” The most painful comment, however, that a priest can ever hear is one that goes like this, “My father was dying. He hadn’t been to Church in years but we knew that deep in his heart, he loved the Lord and was connected to the Church in his own way. I called for a priest and his first question was, ‘Are you registered in the parish?’ When we said, we weren’t, he said that he wouldn’t come. That was the last time we had any contact with the Catholic Church.”
It is within this context that I painfully read the news of the recent Decree from the Bishop of Springfield, Il. When one reads such an astonishingly heartless and cruel judicial directive, any priest with an ounce of human compassion, let alone, pastoral sensitivity, is left breathless and rightfully, angry. Now, I want to be clear. The received teaching of the Church regarding what constitutes marriage is unambiguous. One need only refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church in reference to what it is that we believe about marriage. I certainly am not questioning this reality of our church teaching. What I am questioning is the pastoral propriety to exclude Catholics from the sacramental presence of the church at some of the most vulnerable and difficult moments in life’s journey - at death.
Pope Francis has set an inspiring model for all priests and bishops, when he spoke of the analogy of the Church as a ‘field hospital.’ For, we are about reaching out and building bridges of mercy and compassion for all God’s people, but with particular love and care for those on the margins of Catholic belief and practice - those who are wounded and broken. That’s what a good shepherd does. He reaches out to embrace the lost sheep – not with words of condemnation or exclusion, words of self-righteous judgement – but rather with words of affirming encouragement that is befitting the inherent dignity of any child of God.
The moral credibility of the Catholic Church was understandingly devastated by the recent sexual abuse crisis. Its lingering effects continue to hang as a dark cloud over the leadership of the church. Pope Francis has done a great deal to begin rebuilding an image of the Church by humbly acknowledging our own brokenness, while endeavoring to show a Church willing to ‘accompany’ all those who are reaching out for the mercy of God – even those who are on the margins of Catholic belief and practice. We are all in need of the Lord’s mercy, and “Who are we to judge” the inner heart of our sister or brother?
When a bishop issues a statement such as the one recently promulgated in Springfield, he does an immense disservice to his brother bishops, many of whom, like Cardinal Tobin of Newark, are attempting to right centuries of harm to and exclusion of the LGBT community, not, of course, by changing church teaching but, more importantly, by changing and transforming a ‘tone’ – from exclusion to inclusion, from ‘you need not apply’ to ‘all are welcome at this Table, from you are ‘defective’ to you are a beloved daughter and son of God.
All the law degrees in the world, both canon and civil, are no substitute for a shepherd’s discerning heart that is always more concerned about binding up wounds for healing rather than banishment from the fold.
In this day and age when the term ‘cafeteria’ Catholic is vogue, referring to the penchant of picking and choosing what beliefs we want to follow, perhaps Fr. James Martin, SJ, said it best in his Facebook comments regarding this recent decree:
If bishops ban members of same-sex marriages from receiving a Catholic funeral, they also have to be consistent. They must also ban divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received annulments; women who have, or men who father, a child out of wedlock; members of straight couples who are living together before marriage; and anyone using birth control. For those are all against church teaching as well. Moreover, they must ban anyone who does not care for the poor, or care for the environment, and anyone who supports torture, for those are church teachings too. More basically, they must ban people who are not loving, not forgiving and not merciful, for these represent the teachings of Jesus Christ, the most fundamental of all church teachings. To focus only on LGBT people, without a similar focus on the moral and sexual behavior of straight people is, in the words of the Catechism, a "sign of unjust discrimination" (2358).