Breda O’Brien: Advice from a trusted parish priest called Pope Francis

‘The pope’s apostolic exhortation is a practical document with immense pastoral experience behind it, and decades of knowing families’

Pope Francis returned from a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos on April 16th, taking 12 Syrian refugees with him as a 'gesture of welcome' amidst what he called 'the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War Two' Video: Reuters

 

Early on in his papacy, Pope Francis visited St Anna, a small Augustinian church where the few hundred personnel who live and work in the Vatican attend mass. Afterwards, he stood outside greeting people, shaking their hands and smiling at children.

You could see the same happening outside many parish churches every weekend, but as John L Allen Jr, the veteran Vatican reporter pointed out, it’s not exactly usual behaviour for the Pope.

The Italian newspapers immediately dubbed Francis “the world’s parish priest”. It is a useful lens through which to view the apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family).

This is a particular kind of parish priest, of course, one completely orthodox but utterly aware of and compassionate towards human frailty. The kind of priest who is a bit garrulous, prone to re-telling anecdotes, but is nobody’s fool.

This kind of priest knows his parishioners and is much loved, comfortable with everyone from grannies to small children, and just as likely to be seen having a cup of coffee with the local atheist as with a member of the Legion of Mary.

The only thing that really angers him is injustice, as when the poor are left behind or abused by an uncaring system.

Recurring words

This is a practical document with immense pastoral experience behind it, and decades of knowing families – both ones that are working well and ones that are in trouble.

You see it in sentences such as this: “In many cases, parents come home exhausted, not wanting to talk, and many families no longer even share a common meal. Distractions abound, including an addiction to television.” You can hear Francis’s insights from listening to families over decades.

To reduce this exhortation to the question of communion for the divorced and remarried is to miss about 98 per cent of its scope.

You get the sense Francis is ruefully aware that people will dig into this document in search of controversies.

“I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text,” he says. “The greatest benefit, for families themselves and for those engaged in the family apostolate, will come if each part is read patiently and carefully, or if attention is paid to the parts dealing with their specific needs.”

In a world of hashtags, headlines and soundbites, his plea is unlikely to be heard. Most people are unlikely to read it. A shame, because there is so much in it of value.

If you have ever been to a Christian wedding, you have probably heard the famous “Love is . . . ” chapter from the First Letter to the Corinthians. Francis takes a passage that has become hackneyed through overuse and explains it again in a way that is fresh, practical and very beautiful.

Some have charged Francis with undermining marriage because he does not explicitly rule out giving communion to people in what he calls ‘irregular unions’, although neither does he endorse it.

What he does is advance in a clear way standard Catholic teaching: while something may be objectively wrong, the degree of personal culpability may vary.

This is far from giving an open invitation for people in what are called “irregular unions” to return to receiving the Eucharist. Rather, it is an invitation to engage in a process of discernment with a confessor.

Wise counsel

Without that kind of relationship with a confessor, couples are likely either to assume they have every right to receive communion, or feel that not only can they not receive communion, but that they are not welcome in their parish, which has never been the case.

When Francis tells pastors that they should pray briefly with families when they visit them, some will squirm – they never visit families.

None of what the pope proposes will work either for couples who are Catholic in name only, or for parishes that are more like service stations than communities where parishioners are really known and helped.

On Love in the Family represents no huge change in the teachings of the church. Rather, it is another iteration of a key theme of this papacy: the idea of accompanying people with compassion as they struggle, and offering not harsh judgement but mercy. and the chance to turn their lives around.

Just like a wise, much-loved parish priest would do, in fact.

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