It’s been one of those “be careful what you pray for” weeks for me.
Last March, just before the opening of the most recent papal conclave, I shared a few thoughts about what a “Lutheran-Elector” might look for in a new pope. The great task of the new pope, I wrote, will be community building, and the key pastoral and theological gift I see as most necessary for the new pope to possess is “the ability to carry on a conversation”:
Good conversations are acts of community building, as each participant views the others as gifts from God. Good conversations require that we both listen with openness to the thoughts of others and also plumb the depths of ourselves to offer our thoughts, our prayers, and our insights in return. Great conversations change all who take part in them, healing our brokenness and giving us renewed hope for whatever lies ahead. On the other hand, poor conversations not only leave us in our brokenness, but can add to the pains.
What the Roman Catholic church needs — what the whole Christian church needs — is a pope who loves being part of great conversations.
I think I got what I asked for.
On October 18th, Francis had a document sent to the bishops, asking them to help him listen to the church. Said Monsignor Ronny Jenkins, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, in his letter communicating this to Cardinal Dolan,
The synodal reality is manifested with the most effective participation of the world episcopate under the governance of the Holy Father, who wishes to strengthen it for a better exercise of collegiality.
After the recent meeting of the Ordinary Council of the Synod, the Holy Father, who presided over it, decided to convene an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops next year, from 5 to 19 October, on the theme: Pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.
During this meeting, the Members of the Council drafted the Preparatory Document, which you will find enclosed.
I would be most grateful if Your Eminence would distribute the Document to the Dioceses, and ask them to share it immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received regarding the themes and responses to the questionnaire, as well as any helpful statistics, for the preparation of the Instrumentum laboris.”
Despite what some have said, this is not a poll. It is a questionnaire that asks for data, but does not seek to measure how many people agree or disagree with various documents or positions of the church. It does not put these matters to a vote, and may the highest number of responses prevail. Instead, the document asks for descriptions of life in the parishes and dioceses around the world. It asks the church to reflect on how it goes about proclaiming good news.
As part of the PrayTell community, I was struck in reading through it how much the document connects with the liturgical and sacramental life of the church, as in the questions below:
2: Marriage according to the Natural Law
d. In cases where non-practicing Catholics or declared non-believers request the celebration of marriage, describe how this pastoral challenge is dealt with.
4: Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations
a. Is cohabitation ad experimentum a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage?
b. Do unions which are not recognized either religiously or civilly exist? Are reliable statistics available?
c. Are separated couples and those divorced and remarried a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage? How do you deal with this situation in appropriate pastoral programmes?
e. What questions do divorced and remarried people pose to the Church concerning the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation? Among those persons who find themselves in these situations, how many ask for these sacraments?
g. . . . How is God’s mercy proclaimed to separated couples and those divorced and remarried and how does the Church put into practice her support for them in their journey of faith?
5: On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex
c. What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of unions?
d. In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?
6: The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages
b. How do parents in these situation approach the Church? What do they ask? Do they request the sacraments only, or do they also want catechesis and general teaching of religion?
d. What is the sacramental practice in these cases: preparation, administration of the sacrament and the accompaniment?
7. The Openness of the Married Couple to Life
d. What is your experience on this subject [the teachings of Humanae Vitae on responsible parenthood] in the practice of the Sacrament of Penance and participation at the Eucharist?
The manner in which these questions are posed is critical. They are inviting conversation, not trying to check on the faithfulness of the bishop, pastors, or laypeople to see which dioceses measure up to some standard and which do not.
And these are questions of liturgy: How does the Church proclaim grace? How does the Church administer the Sacraments? When it comes to Baptism, the Eucharist, weddings, and funerals, how does the Church deal with the multiplicity of family configurations in its midst? How do these families deal with the Church? How does the community gather — in all its diversity, with all its warts and blemishes — around the promises of God? How does the Church, and in particular its leaders, deal with the presence of disagreement within the community?
I am not a Roman Catholic, let alone a Catholic bishop, but these are my questions as well, and I am glad to see them raised by Pope Francis in so pastoral a fashion. As a Lutheran, I have had conversations like these with Roman Catholics, but most often it is with Catholic lay people who come to me for spiritual care, when their local priest cannot or will not engage them on the questions that they wrestle with. For far too many of them, what they tell me they get is “Here’s the rule — take it or leave it.” That’s an edict, not engagement. It’s the end of a conversation, not the beginning.
At the very end of that post from last March, I wrote “For the sake of us all, I pray for a pope who loves great and holy conversations.” At the time, I prayed those words for the College of Cardinals, that they would elect a pope like that. Today, I pray those same words for Francis, that he would have the strength and wisdom to carry these great and holy conversations forward.
For the sake of us all, I invite your conversation here.