Monday, October 20, 2014

The Church Welcomed Everyone Before and After the Synod

Pope St. Gregory the Great
On Monday of last week, the headlines exclaimed, "Bishops Welcome the Divorced and Gays!"  A few days later, the headlines read, "Bishops Take Back Welcome to the Divorced and Gays."  While it is unlikely that the secular press is ever going to present well the theological and ecclesiastical subtleties of anything that happens in the life of the Church, these headlines are not entirely (nor even, mainly) the fault of the press.  Responsibility for these headlines--and the confusion that they cause--rests primarily at the door of the Synod itself.

Today is Sunday.  Like priests all over the world, I was standing outside this morning welcoming people to Mass.  I welcomed them not because they were straight or gay, married or divorced, native born or immigrant, in the state of grace or in a state of mortal sin, or even because they were Catholic.  I welcomed them because they were human beings.  They are the human beings whom Christ came to save.  Each one of them is entitled to hear the Gospel of Christ.  Each one of them is embraced by the Church.  Each one of them is called to holiness.

Every Sunday morning for 17 years, I've stood outside of church and greeted people.  I presume in those seventeen years, I have welcomed just about every category of person you could imagine.  "Welcoming" people is not some recent invention.  Jesus welcomed people.  He welcomed sinners and ate with them.  But, this welcoming was not an end in itself.  The welcome that is extended to every person--in the Name of Christ--is also an invitation to turn away from sin and to be faithful to the Gospel.  We are welcoming people to hear the Gospel.  For each one of us, hearing that Gospel is going to be like branches being pruned.  It's going to hurt a bit.

The main storyline presented in the press about the synod was that the Church was debating whether to "welcome gay people and divorced and remarried people."  Frankly, that would be a waste of a synod because the Church does that already.  What alternative does the Church have?  Christ commanded the Church to proclaim the Gospel to every creature.  I think the question that we should be asking is what do we mean when we say, "welcome?"  To what are we welcoming people?

Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote a book entitled, "The Pastoral Rule."  In that document, Gregory describes persons of various temperaments and how properly to give sound pastoral guidance to each of them.  His presumption is that each person needs conversion and growth in holiness.  Like a good physician, the good pastor is able to examine each patient, diagnose his weakness, and provide the proper pastoral medicine.  Sometimes--and I think it would be intellectually dishonest to suggest otherwise--the "All Are Welcome" mantra is a thinly veiled code for, "We Will Never Bring Up Sin." The whole "welcome" language has become divorced from any true pastoral care.  True pastoral care is not simply about welcoming.  True pastoral care is helping people to grow in holiness.

In the Gospel, when Jesus welcomed people, he did so for the sake of bringing them to conversion.   When people complained about Jesus welcoming people, it was always about how he welcomed sinners.  And in response to these complaints, Jesus told parables about the conversion of sinners.  His welcoming was intimately linked to the further step of conversion.  "Welcoming" is not an end in itself.  Getting people to sit in the pews is not an end in itself.  Getting people to follow Christ, turn away from sin, and get to heaven is the reason for welcoming them.  An example of this is seen in the liturgy.  The first time someone is liturgically "welcomed" into the Church is on the path to baptism.  They are welcomed so that they can turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.

Everyone ought to be welcome because everyone is need of conversion.  There are people who go to Mass every week who are attracted to people of the same sex.  Yes, we ought to welcome them, but not because they are people who are attracted to people of the same sex.  We ought to welcome them because they are human persons in need of conversion.  The priest who is welcoming them is a human person in need of conversion.  The married woman who reads at Mass is a human person in need of conversion.  The divorced and remarried woman bringing her children to Mass is a human person in need of conversion.  The single guy who took up the collection is a human person in need of conversion. 

When the secular press says, "Church opens its doors to gays and the divorced," what it means is  "Church says homosexual activity and divorce and remarriage are okay."  No matter what the Synod Fathers intended, that was the message that was received.  What most people took away from the headlines is that the Church was showing signs of signaling that while divorce and remarriage and sexual activity outside of marriage are "not ideal," it's really not too big of a deal.  The other thing that people took away is that "Truth" is not something that is stable and knowable.  Instead, it is subjective and dependent upon how many conservative bishops and how many liberal bishops happen to be on a particular committee.  One prominent Catholic wrote in today's newspaper in Boston, "Fundamental church doctrine does not change routinely," and he described the bishops as having "failed to adopt a more merciful approach to ministering to gays and divorced and remarried Catholics."  If even an educated and faithful Catholic is using this type of language, imagine how we must appear to those who are not faithful or who are not even Catholic.

The language spoken of in that quote suggests that the Church is some sort of club and that we should expand our membership criteria in order to let more people in.  This type of mentality actually contradicts Pope Francis' own image of a field hospital.  In order to get into the hospital, you have to be sick or wounded.  "Welcome" for the Church must always mean, "All Are Sinners in Need of Grace and Mercy."  The Church is most successful in drawing others to herself and to Christ when she proclaims the kerygmatic truth that Christ came to save sinners.

There would be no point in going to the hospital if you thought you were completely healthy.  Equally pointless would be to go to a hospital that had no capacity to offer you healing.  Sometimes, the impression is given that the way to welcome those who are attracted to people of the same sex is to give the impression that there's nothing sinful about same sex actions.  Similarly, sometimes the impression is given that the best way to welcome those who are divorced and remarried is to give the impression that there's no problem with that either.  This is neither evangelization nor is it mercy.  Evangelization is to say that we have a need and Christ is the answer to that need.

Maybe the way to welcome gay people and divorced and remarried people to the Church is to say something like this:  "All of us are sinners.  God loves all of us and wants all of us to be saved.  All of us are called by Christ to turn away from sin and to be faithful to the Gospel.  Sometimes, we find ourselves in very complicated and difficult situations.  Your pastors and your brothers and sisters in the faith are here to accompany you along the path to holiness.  We would like you to accompany us on our path to holiness.  Conversion means dying to yourself.  Dying to yourself is hard.  All of us are in the same boat.  All of us need help."  

I would say those words to them not because they are attracted to people of the same sex or because they are divorced and remarried.  I would say those words because those are the words that every human being needs to hear.  Those words are spoken to all of us.  Those are the words that I need to hear.  They are an invitation to follow Christ, to take up our Cross and to be his disciple.  The call to people with same sex attraction, the call to people who are divorced and remarried, the call to married people, lay people, priests and religious, the call to young and old, rich and poor, sick and healthy . . . the call is the same.  This invitation is filled with love and with mercy.  It is the call that Christ extends to all: "Come and follow me."  

This invitation is filled with love and with mercy.  It contains within it an assurance of Christ's Presence.  It is not a moralistic command.  It is an invitation to a new life in Christ.  This is an invitation that every human heart needs to hear.  The invitation of Christ is filled with promise.  We should not hesitate to extend that invitation--in all of its dimensions, demands and promises--to every human person.  

The headlines were all wrong.  The hospital is open to all who are sick and in need of healing.  Not every patient has the same diagnosis.  Each patient must be treated differently, according to his or her condition.  But everyone who places himself into the hands of this Divine Physician will find healing and life.

The Church would appear more welcoming to others if those of us on the inside of the hospital were more convinced that we are patients and not club members.  The Gospel was spread throughout the world by men and women who were convinced that alone and unaided they were doomed.  We would do well to remember that the healthy do not need a physician.  The sick do.  


  1. Very well put! This kind of statement from the Bishops at the Synod would have gone a long way to establish just what was meant. Also, this Synod was held to develop "ideas" and discuss the things that were "encountered" each day in the Church; those things that need to be prayed and meditated on until the Next Synod.

  2. I agree well put! I especially like the last paragraph