The Pope’s sermon given at the canonisation yesterday of his predecessors, Saint John Paul II and Saint John XXIII, gives immense food for thought.
There was much that Pope Francis might have said. The material before him was immense. He might, for example, have spoken about how the two saints were both determined ecumenists; or how the two saints were committed to dialogue with the Jews; or he could have dwelled on the way they both were involved with the Second Vatican Council. The Pope did touch on this last, but his main focus was on something rather different: the upcoming Synod on the Family. In fact, if I read him correctly, the entire sermon was a preparation for the Synod on the Family.
The first thing to note is this sentence: “These were two men of courage, filled with the parrhesia of the Holy Spirit, and they bore witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy.”
What on earth does parrhesia mean? Pope Francis knows, as does every preacher, that you should speak in terms that your audience will understand. Amongst the million or so listeners, I imagine there were a mere handful who would have recognised this term. So, why use it? To draw attention to it, of course. Parrhesia means “bold speaking” and is a term used by St Paul, and also occurs in the Acts of the Apostles. (It occurs 31 times in the New Testament.) But what does it mean in this context? Is its use a way of getting us ready to hear some bold speaking from Pope Francis in the forthcoming Synod?
The Pope’s sermon ends thus: “John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries. Let us not forget that it is the saints who give direction and growth to the Church. In convening the Council, John XXIII showed an exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit. He let himself be led and he was for the Church a pastor, a servant-leader, led by the Spirit. This was his great service to the Church; he was the pope of openness to the Spirit.
“In his own service to the People of God, John Paul II was the pope of the family. He himself once said that he wanted to be remembered as the pope of the family. I am particularly happy to point this out as we are in the process of journeying with families towards the Synod on the family. It is surely a journey which, from his place in heaven, he guides and sustains.
“May these two new saints and shepherds of God’s people intercede for the Church, so that during this two-year journey toward the Synod she may be open to the Holy Spirit in pastoral service to the family. May both of them teach us not to be scandalized by the wounds of Christ and to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of divine mercy, which always hopes and always forgives, because it always loves.”
Here we have the astonishing and new idea that the Pope is not a leader, but rather one who allows himself to be led by the Holy Spirit. And where are we to be led? There is a reference to “pastoral service to the family” and not being scandalised by the wounds of Christ, as well as nods to the concepts of mercy and love. Is one of the “wounds of Christ” the unhappy situation of those who are divorced and remarried and thus barred from Holy Communion? Does the Pope see those in irregular situations as constituting a wound of Christ, given that the people of God are the Church which is the Body of Christ?
But just what might the Holy Father have in mind, if indeed the Synod is being primed to come up with some sort of bold solution to the problem? For the question of irregular unions is something of a tangled web. In the Western world we have many who have entered into successive unions within the lifetime of the first spouse; and in Africa we have the question of traditional polygamy. Moreover, the whole thing is much further complicated, indeed radically transformed, by the fact that in the West, very soon if not already, most people will not be married at all in the eyes of the Church, or even in the eyes of the state. Divorce is not the problem; the problem is the death of marriage. The statistics in a country like Britain seem to indicate that marriage has become a meaningless term for most people.
Again, in countries where polygamy is entrenched, divorce is not a problem; the problem is the non-existence of marriage in the traditional sense.
My hope is that the Synod will return to basics and in particular to the teaching of Our Lord on marriage as an indissoluble lifelong union between man and woman for the procreation of children. That indeed would require some bold speaking: but given that we seem to be moving towards a society where marriage no longer exists except in a hollowed out sense, such bold speaking is what we need.
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