Towards the end of the second week of the family synod the media divulged the unconfirmed story one bishop had reportedly shared with the assembly, a story from his diocese: a little boy whose father was re-married had, on the day of his first Holy Communion, broken a bit off the Host and given his dad the fragment.
The father would normally be barred from Communion on account of his irregular circumstances, yet on that day he communicated nonetheless, at the hands of his son. The bishop told this story to further a particular cause, to speak out in support of admitting re-married men and women to Communion. He was profoundly moved when he described the impression made on him by the boy’s spontaneous gesture.
This incidents calls for reflection. Is it acceptable for a bishop to invoke a child’s innocent action in a kind of emotional canvassing that smacks a little of manipulation? To probe more deeply: is the work of the bishops assembled in Rome driven by sentiment?
The media reported how touched the synod fathers were by this particular testimony. It is an account that sits well with the media’s normal approach. The media know that our world is largely governed by emotion. They readily play on emotions. The world we live in discerns reality by comparing it to a Hollywood movie full of sentimental kicks. We wish these kicks to be part of our own lives. We feel we’ve failed, somehow, if the kicks aren’t there.
Today’s world considers a marriage successful if one is passionately in love with one’s spouse, if the relationship is charged with desire and attraction, if the spouses enjoy each other and have fun. We tend, these days, to find out how we feel, then make evaluations and choices based on feeling. A thing is a good thing if it feels good. We are ready to break up a family if the good feeling is not there, or if we feel better with someone else. Yet the way we feel is no reliable criterion for serious choices. We are easily misled by our emotions.
A marital relationship is only to a limited extent a matter of feeling. Marriage is an unsentimental business. It depends on the exercise of rightly-ordered will, like most things in life. Of course it is great if a marriage feels good, but good feeling is not the goal of marriage. Marriage is a matter of constructing a family with another, of assuming responsibility for this family and providing for it, of caring for children, of showing loving consideration for one’s spouse. Thus the spouses endeavour, together, to entrust all aspects of their family life into God’s hands. For it to work, it is crucial not to think too much about how things feel – with the paradoxical result that things end up ‘feeling’ not just good, but very good.
Instead of focusing on stories like the one about the boy’s First Communion, instead of governing the Church from feeling, the bishops will perhaps serve their dioceses’ families best if they do not so much ask how they ‘feel’ but support and encourage the great task entrusted to spouses and families in society. This task is best served by unsentimental attitudes.
When, as in the case in point, a remarried father brings his little boy to Mass, we might ask: Why? It is surely because he loves the Church and knows that in the Church there is salvation. In his love for the Church, he explains to his son that, as a consequence of choices made, he cannot receive Communion; that going to Communion is no right anyone can claim. He explains to his son that the Church does not absolve men and women from the exercise and consequences of free choice, and that this is a beautiful thing, a thing rarely seen in the world of today. He explains that faith is no comfortable option, but a function of bearing one’s cross. ‘One who does not take up his cross and follow after me cannot be my disciple’, says the Lord: that is, he or she cannot enrol in my school, stands no chance of grasping the lessons I teach (cf Luke 14:27). A cross is sometimes heavy, the father explains, else it would not be a cross. Still, by taking it up we find freedom.
There is a lot of talk about ‘compassion’ at the Synod. The word is often used to refer to an emotional capacity for entering into the sorrow and pain of others. Yet genuine compassion concerns action, not emotion. Christian compassion goes beyond empathy. It compels me to do something, to pick up and carry another’s suffering as mine. Compassion is not reducible to feeling sorry, to saying: ‘Poor you!’
The task of a priest is like that of a doctor. By the hippocratic oath, doctors assume a fourfold obligation: to comfort, to alleviate pain, to heal, to do no harm. To work on these terms one must be vigilant. Sentimentality can get the upper hand, working subtle deformations. Comfort yields to sympathetic feeling; alleviating pain, to compensation. The prospect of healing is perhaps too easily abandoned. Instead, life is declared an indefinite sick leave. That cannot but be harmful. It is harmful because in this way the autonomy, the responsibility, the freedom of women and men are compromised.
A priest should be convinced that he administers the only medicine believers really need, whatever the state in which they come to see him. He comforts with the kingdom of heaven. He alleviates pain by bearing the cross with the believer. He heals, not by pathologising sin, but by showing the faithful the meaning of repentance, conversion and pardon. In this way he shows himself a good and effective physician. And does no harm.
This article was first published by Vatican Radio. It is reproduced with the author’s permission.