Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness

The Joy of Love - Chapter Eight

A couple approaches a priest, seeking to be married in the Church. They are living together and have been for some time. This is not the first serious relationship for either person. They may have children – from this relationship and/or previous ones. Pastoral ministers run into similar situations at baptisms, first Communions and confirmations, as well as funerals. What to do?

Our approach to such situations tends to lean toward one extreme or another. I will offer the two extremes as caricatures, knowing full well that none of us fits neatly into either one. However, you and I may well find ourselves uncomfortably close to one or the other at times.

The first extreme can be called “grace without repentance.” We feel so pleased – desperate?  – that someone, anyone, has walked through our door that we welcome them as graciously as we can, telling them the good news that they are indeed loved by God, but overlooking any shortcomings on their part. God loves them as they are, right? We are their advocates, helping them deal with all those silly rules so that they can celebrate the sacrament(s) they have requested.

The second extreme is “repentance without grace.” As soon as we are aware that they fall short of the ideal in some way, we read them the riot act – the appropriate paragraphs in the catechism – and promptly dismiss them, telling them not to return until their lives are in harmony with what we just quoted them. We are the defenders of the faith and are asking of them no more than what we believe is necessary. Those who come to us must somehow prove their worthiness first. Then, we’ll see about a sacrament.

As in any case, there is truth on both sides, but also caricature.

In this chapter of The Joy of Love, Pope Francis proposes to us all – pastoral ministers and those who request a sacrament alike – a more complex, challenging, and spiritually mature way than either of these two extremes. It is a way that can be applied to many circumstances. How do we deal with complex life situations which are not in harmony with Church teachings? The Holy Father calls on pastoral ministers to integrate both grace and repentance and to hold them in a kind of creative tension as they deal with people in various life situations which fall short of the Gospel.

We begin by announcing the Gospel to those we encounter. God, in His great mercy, has come to us, offering us forgiveness and healing. This offer is wholly undeserved. We cannot ever merit it. I have been a priest for over 30 years, and a priest-hermit for eight years. Both callings are undeserved. Nothing I have supposedly done, nothing I have supposedly suffered, can make the ledger come out in my favor. My calling as a Christian, a priest, and a hermit remains a gift. Unearned.  In the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “If the Lord didn’t love His enemies, He wouldn’t have any friends!” Accordingly, by word and attitude, we announce the Gospel of God’s mercy to those who come to us. We discern how God’s grace has already been active in their lives and strive to encourage them to continue in this.

Mercy may be a gift, but it is not a given. God’s love, by its very nature, seeks a response. In the Scriptures, everyone who encounters this gracious God is immediately aware of their sinfulness. Accordingly, we are challenged to help those we serve to see not only where God’s grace has been active in their lives but also where they have fallen short of God’s call. As the Holy Father repeats over and over, the ultimate goal is to lead our people to a point where their lives will conform more fully to the Gospel ideal. Some kind of conversion is called for. However, this conversion only makes sense when presented in terms of the mercy of God. The heart that encounters the love of God will want to respond, out of sheer gratitude, by hearing the word of God and living it out.

Pope Francis cautions us to realize that many individuals, couples, and families may not be able to bring their lives in full conformity with the Gospel in spite of their best intentions. They may lack sufficient knowledge of Church teachings. They may lack adequate discernment and may experience tremendous social pressures to conform to the prevailing acceptable social norms. They may lack support from other Christians. It may be that to change their lives to conform more perfectly to Church teaching in one area may cause them to violate it in another area. In such cases, pastoral ministers are called on to help them live out their faith as well as possible in such imperfect situations, as this may be the best they can offer.

Parish staffs, vicariates, Emmaus groups, and other groupings of pastoral ministers would do well to study and reflect on this chapter together. How well are we accompanying our people who come to us with their imperfect, broken lives? Does our ministry reflect both the graciousness of the Lord’s call and its subsequent challenge to all (ourselves included) to repent and believe in the Gospel? How well do we live this ourselves? After all, we are also imperfect and broken. We have been called in spite of our unworthiness. We, too, must daily repent and believe in the Gospel. Only from such a perspective will this chapter make sense and subsequently yield its wisdom.

Father Mark P. Nolette, a priest/hermit of the Diocese of Portland, resides in Pittsfield and also does part-time ministry at Our Lady of the Snows and Saint Agnes parishes. Father Nolette also writes a regular blog which can be found at