If evidence is needed how wrong some media commentators can get a story, look no further than the coverage of Pope Francis’ recent action of witnessing the marriages of 20 couples, some of whom had lived together or had children together prior to Christian marriage. For instance, one Australian paper said it was the Pope making good “on his insistence that the Catholic Church welcome all faithful — not just those who obey Church teaching perfectly.” Others, such as the New York Times had the same sort of observation.
The positive energy surrounding what Pope Francis did is edifying. So, one must ask, however, what he actually did that was so far from what the Church always does. Clearly, no one obeys Church teaching “perfectly” and so the implication that other Church officials only welcome the “perfect” is simply false. We are all sinners. The Church makes the sacraments, especially Penance (Confession and Reconciliation), available to us precisely because we’re sinners. Sacraments are outward signs of the inner graces they give to help become less like sinners and more like Christ. So what Pope Francis has done is nothing new, much less extraordinary; and that is the real story here.
The Church gave 40 men and women an opportunity to take a step in drawing closer to God, and for some of them a turning away from a previous choice, which they most likely recognized as inconsistent with God’s will for them.
So, the perception that the Holy Father somehow “set aside” Church practice in his generous gesture of presiding at these 20 marriages is therefore terribly misleading and actually defamatory of our Holy Father. It seems most likely to me that the Pope, observed all of the standard formalities the Church has observed for centuries.
I trust those couples, like all couples of every diocese of the United States were:
- required to produce baptismal certificates (standard practice);
- required to go through the marriage preparation required by the Diocese of Rome (standard practice);
- required to prove freedom to marry (standard practice);
- required, if necessary to go through the annulment process (standard practice);
- invited and given the opportunity (I hope) to make a good confession prior to this sacramental moment (standard practice);
- required to present a civil marriage license (standard practice);
- required to complete the prenuptial questionnaire (standard practice);
- required to recite their vows in accord with an accepted form (standard practice).
Since it’s not typical for an officiating priest at a wedding to publicly announce that the couple was living together before the nuptials or that one or both of them had previous marriages and annulments, doing so in this case has publicly manifested the Church’s openness to ‘sinners’ and it is this ‘proof’ of the Church’s welcome to those seeking ongoing conversion which is cause for joy. This, however, isn’t new, though it may be news to some.
The mercy manifested by Pope Francis is both attractive and attracting. However, I wouldn’t venture so far as to imply (as the secular press has) that this manifestation of mercy somehow excluded a call to conversion for every one of these couples. I’d tend to believe that every one of them recognized they wanted more from life than cohabitation or more than a simply civil form of marriage. So, let’s rejoice for all of them, that they responded to God’s graced call to conversion – His call to turn away from a previous way of life to a new life in Christ. I think this moment of conversion, which has not (unfortunately) been publicized or even mentioned, is the real story, a story of God’s merciful, redeeming and challenging grace.
Pope Francis clearly has a charism of love and mercy, and what he loves is the sinner. But, there is nothing to imply that he in any way loves or condones the sin. He loves the sinner and because of this love is not shy about calling them to reject sin and come more fully into the light of God’s love and grace.