Mercy and Welcome

With this article, my series on The Joy of Love comes to an end. Here, I will offer a few thoughts on how this document guides pastoral ministers faced with challenging situations which, at first glance, seem to be without ideal or quick solutions.  Pope Francis does not offer us ready-made answers to be applied to any situation. He does, however, offer us a process which seeks to take into account – in a spiritually mature way – the sacredness of the sacraments, the needs of the people who approach us, and the Gospel call to act with mercy and justice.

Let us begin with a common pastoral situation. A couple who is very active in their parish approaches the priest on behalf of their daughter, who will soon have a baby. They would like the baby baptized during a Sunday Mass. Their daughter and her boyfriend are living together and have no plans to marry just yet. The priest will want to speak to the baby’s parents directly and not only to the mother’s parents, of course. Still, how does one approach such a situation?

Experienced pastoral ministers know well that this is a common occurrence. A similar situation can happen with first Communion, confirmation, and marriage itself. It can happen with adults married outside the Church when at least one seeks to become Catholic. How do we respond to such situations in a way which will honor the integrity of the sacraments while, at the same time, offer mercy to those who seek it?  How do we avoid acting out of desperation on the one hand (we’re so desperate for young adults that we’ll say yes to anything that gets them in the door) or out of excessive rigidness on the other (we will do nothing for them until they prove themselves utterly worthy).

The wise pastoral minister will want to have a sense of where these young people are coming from. In Chapter 2 of The Joy of Love, Pope Francis offers a reflection on the secular culture in which our young people are raised and how that impacts their views of marriage, family, and Church. Pastoral ministers can see what factors in that chapter are most relevant for their own communities. Moreover, they will understand that this may be the first time that these young adults have spoken to someone who represents the institutional Church. Do we understand how difficult it may have been for them to approach us in the first place?

Once the contact is made, the Holy Father points to what St. John Paul II called “the law of gradualness.” This can be found in Chapter 8 of our document. The Church’s teachings are not “gradual.” There is, however, “a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.” Even those of us who have been sincere believers all our lives continue to grow, gradually, in our understanding of what our Catholic faith means for our lives and in our ability to respond wholeheartedly to it. How much of a “yes” can these young people give at the moment they first approach us? How much of a “yes” do we look for? A young person may be approaching the parish because of pressure from family, but are there other, deeper, motivations as well?

Pope Francis offers us these criteria, again in Chapter 8: “For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion, and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it.” Many young adults do not have a solid formation in Catholic faith and so they may not be able to express these things as well as we would like. But do we perceive in them, in the midst of any other motivations, that “sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it?” Can we, by our welcome, encourage them to continue the dialogue and gradually lead them into a better sense of what it means to be a disciple of Christ? If such a basic desire to do God’s will is present, we may conclude that there is, indeed, a well-founded hope that a child raised even in an imperfect union will in fact be raised as a Catholic. In such a case, there is also a well-founded hope that such a couple will, in time, seek marriage in the Church and will continue to grow in fidelity to each other, the Church, and to the Lord.

It is a hope. It is not a certainty. The sower scatters seed everywhere. Only some of the seed reaches fertile soil. Pastoral ministers can never be certain of what soil will prove fruitful in the end. We sow, and welcome, and show mercy. We challenge people to take their next steps in becoming more faithful to the Lord as they grow in understanding of what that fidelity means. In the meantime, Pope Francis tells us, we offer them the radical grace of the Gospel by word and example. We may sow the seed. Another may reap the harvest. That is to be expected. We as ministers are called to be faithful to the task in front of us and to leave the rest to the Lord.