God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. — Catechism #1257
We know that Jesus himself ate and drank with sinners (cf. Mk 2:16; Mt 11:19), conversed with a Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4:7-26), received Nicodemus by night (cf. Jn 3:1-21), allowed his feet to be anointed by a prostitute (cf. Lk 7:36-50) and did not hesitate to lay his hands on those who were sick (cf. Mk 1:40-45; 7:33). The same was true of his apostles, who did not look down on others, or cluster together in small and elite groups, cut off from the life of their people. — Amoris Laetitia #289
Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties”. The practical pastoral care of ministers and of communities must not fail to embrace this reality. — Amoris Laetitia #305
I was speaking to someone early last week about Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, which is something I really enjoy doing. This person is Catholic, but the vast majority of her co-workers and friends and relatives practice no faith at all. She herself was raised in a very hard home situation. She’s very bright, teaches literature at a college, loves to write and returned to her Catholic faith a number of years ago. She considers herself a “permanent seeker” because she was raised in an ocean of unbelief which was, as she says it, “kneaded into my marrow and so is hard to totally shake.” She’s quite remarkable, super-honest, incisive and on point, and we have had some of the most refreshingly candid conversations over the years.
I asked her if I could share this one point she made, and she agreed. She shared especially her frustration over what she perceives as the lack of realism among some Catholic pundit-elites who have been railing against the Pope (or the “idiots” who try to make the Pope push their own anti-church agendas). I think the point she makes in my excerpt below is more of an intuition than an argument. While it certainly does not answer the more important technical questions in Amoris about, for example, Communion for the divorced and remarried, I believe it’s a very powerful insight and captures what I consider to be the pastoral genius of Pope Francis. She said (as I recall),
Pope Francis has brought a message of hope to people who find themselves stuck in nearly hopeless dysfunction and complications — their fault or not. People who can’t imagine a seemingly pristine religion of good and saintly people having any place in their yucky life. To me, his message to people like this is: the real Jesus meets you right where you are, right now, and loves you exactly there. He wants to pick you up and take the next best step with you, no matter how incredibly small it is. You don’t have to wait for your life to get fixed first, or match up with all the moral standards, to start feeling you can be holy and worthy. It can start now, in the worst wreckage. Isn’t that where Jesus made the world right?
I think the Pope’s saying: just set aside just for a moment questions about who gets Communion, which canon laws apply or not here and there, and let’s meet the human being where they are, as they are. Let’s show them Jesus wants to eat a meal with them right now. Alright, not Communion yet, maybe, but still a real meal. Right? Not the Real Presence but He’s still really present. And He’s hanging out right in the middle of the sinner’s dinner, long before we get to the Last Supper, and salvation is already there. No matter how furious the Pharisees grow, He’s free to spread His riches as He wishes.
My niece is on her third marriage with as many children, and she seems to have finally found a decent guy who treats her well and holds a job and loves her kids. Her life is really messed up. So is his. But Francis tells me I can invite her back to church today and let her know that God is ready to take her back today and fill her with all His love, even though her life’s still so far off the mark. It’s not that we say everything’s okay, or don’t worry about the annulment. It’s that we say, “God loves you when everything’s not okay and loves you in every step you take forward; in every time you fall back and get up again. He never quits loving.” And even if you die still muddling around, there can be holiness.
Imagine telling people far from the mark there can still be holiness for them here and now. That’s awesome, more hopeful than many critics of the Pope would ever realize. I am convinced that unless you share life with people in desperate situations all the time, you really cannot read Amoris this way; or get its core point. The Pope’s lived with people like that for a long time. The Jubilee of Mercy is designed for people who seem stuck in merciless hells.
I already let my niece know that the Pope says to her — even if she’s not ready for Communion or Confession with all her and his unresolved marriages — God’s mercy is everywhere and God loves her just as infinitely today as He will the on the day she, God willing, can take Communion again. I’ve got her praying now and reading the Bible, and the next step is back to Mass. So far so good. She’s loving finding herself loved. Repentance only comes, it seems, when that is known first…
Fr. Tom Hopko echoed this point:
A woman once wrote me: “Some people seem to come out of the womb with a spiritual silver spoon in their mouths. Yeah, maybe they have huge trials, but they also are holy from their childhood. They have all the advantages that leave them inclined to make good use of all the graces they’ve been showered with. Others get to be used and abused and never even have a choice. And never get to be saints, because they’re just too damaged. If, as the Church teaches, God calls us all to be saints, why is it that he lets some people to get so damaged by life that the best they can do is stumble around the rocks at the foot of the spiritual mountain, never able to trust God enough to make it up the mountain?”
But I would dare to say, maybe that’s the vocation! And if a person still stumbles around the foot of the mountain, and they’re still at the foot of the mountain, and they still have enough sense to know that they’re never going to make it up, my guess is that that person is a saint. That person will be saved. Man, according to the Holy Fathers, if you know that you’re a sinner and you can’t do anything, you’re already saved. You’re saved. If you’re stumbling around the foot of the mountain, you’re saved. You’re a saint. Who knows, maybe you’ll get on an icon one day. Probably not, but that doesn’t matter. It really does not matter. It shouldn’t matter in any case, and if it does matter, then 99.9% of us are in huge trouble if that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter.
I love Fr. Tom.
I will end with that stunning selection from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment that I have quoted three times in this blog before. The book is a must-read! In this scene, Marmaladov, a drunkard and despicable lout who allows his own daughter to take up prostitution to feed the family, and spends her money on alcohol, gives voice to Dostoevsky’s vision of divine mercy that comes to full flower in the midst of the Last Judgment:
…And He will forgive my Sonya, He will forgive, I know it. I felt it in my heart when I was with her just now! And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek. And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. “You too come forth,” He will say, “Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!” And we shall come forth without shame and shall stand before Him, and He will say unto us, “Ye are swine made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!” And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, “O Lord, why dost thou receive these men?” And He will say, “This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.” And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him and we shall weep and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!… and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even… she will understand…Lord, Thy kingdom come!
St. Augustine said, “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are meaningless.”