VATICAN CITY — What have recent popes said about the problem of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics?
It’s an issue that will get much attention at next year’s extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said today.
In just a few excerpts below, it’s easy to see the continuity in their approaches to this pastoral challenge.
Concerning the church’s position that those who have been divorced and civilly remarried cannot receive Communion, the future-Pope Francis said Catholics in this situation can still get involved with the parish community:
“There are things in the parish they can do. They should try to be part of the spiritual community, which is what the pontifical documents and the church’s magisterium advise. The pope (Benedict XVI) indicated that the church would stand by them. Being unable to receive Communion is obviously painful for some. In those cases, it’s important to explain the issues carefully. There are some cases where this turns out to be difficult. It’s a theological explanation that some priests explain well and people understand.”
— from the book “Pope Francis. His Life in His Own Words: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio”
This is the same message Pope Benedict gave during the 2012 World Meeting of Families in Milan last year when he encouraged priests to find ways to help these couples
“feel loved and accepted, to feel that they are not ‘excluded’ even though they cannot receive absolution or the Eucharist; they should see that, in this state too, they are fully a part of the Church. Perhaps, even if it is not possible to receive absolution in Confession, they can nevertheless have ongoing contact with a priest, with a spiritual guide. This is very important, so that they see that they are accompanied and guided.”
While these individuals are denied the Eucharist, he said there is another kind of communion:
“Then it is also very important that they truly realize they are participating in the Eucharist if they enter into a real communion with the Body of Christ. Even without ‘corporal’ reception of the sacrament, they can be spiritually united to Christ in his Body. Bringing them to understand this is important: so that they find a way to live the life of faith based upon the Word of God and the communion of the Church, and that they come to see their suffering as a gift to the Church, because it helps others by defending the stability of love and marriage.
They need to realize that this suffering is not just a physical or psychological pain, but something that is experienced within the Church community for the sake of the great values of our faith. I am convinced that their suffering, if truly accepted from within, is a gift to the Church. They need to know this, to realize that this is their way of serving the Church, that they are in the heart of the Church.”
Blessed John Paul II underlined the balance that must be sought — that there be sympathy with guidance, and mercy with truth. As he said in his 1997 speech to those taking part in the family council’s assembly dedicated to “The Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried:”
“The church, mother and teacher, seeks the welfare and happiness of the home and when it is broken for whatever reason, she suffers and seeks to provide a remedy, offering these persons pastoral guidance in complete fidelity to Christ’s teachings.”
In that talk, the late pope pointed to the guidelines spelled out in the document coming out of the 1980 synod on the family as well as the 1994 letter by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (headed by the future Pope Benedict), “Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful:”
Pastors “are called to help them experience the charity of Christ and the maternal closeness of the Church, receiving them with love, exhorting them to trust in God’s mercy and suggesting, with prudence and respect, concrete ways of conversion and participation in the life of the community of the Church.”
It’s interesting to see how the future-Pope Francis rooted his response in what Pope Benedict had to say, and Pope John Paul also quoted a document largely written by the future-Pope Benedict.