On Synod’s Eve

It’s been busy. Little time has been left for blogging. Maybe just as well.

But a few of people have asked in recent days why I have not posted about the Synod, and what do I think about the Synod.

The short answer is that I wish it were not happening. But reality bites.

It’s cheating, but not totally. Last Sunday I preached at the conventual Mass here at Douai, and I had the Synod firmly in mind. Homilies rarely keep their full effect when reduced to the text without the voice. And of course, there is only so much you can say in under ten minutes. Nevertheless, for once I am going to add a homily here, last Sunday’s, as a sort of ferverino for us all on Synod’s Eve.

The Gospel, you might remember was from St Mark, chapter 9:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us.

“For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

So with these words of our Lord in mind, you will see what I am on about. Some of you may find it helpful. If you do not,  move on in peace. But do pray for the Synod Fathers.

For better and for worse the Enlightenment of the 18th century happened, and changed almost everything about human life in this world. At its best, it gave free rein to human reason to extend the boundaries of our knowledge of the universe, the earth, and human existence. At its worst, human reason became a god, a golden calf to be worshipped for itself. Indeed after the French revolution Robespierre and his cabal established the Cult of Reason, declaring, “Reason is God”. It is no coincidence that what historians call the Reign of Terror exactly coincided with Robespierre’s Cult of Reason.

Even as human reason expanded our knowledge of the natural world, it reduced our vision and focus more and more to this natural world, shrinking our horizons to what merely could be observed and measured. As our reasoned knowledge grew our vision diminished proportionally. That this should affect the world as it has is no real surprise. But that this diminished vision should condition so much of what happens in our Church is more troubling, and more dangerous.

If you have not heard, next month round two of the Synod of Bishops on Marriage and Family Life will begin in Rome. The lead up to it has been tumultuous and troubling to many. The trouble comes from a loud faction which seeks to change the Church’s consistent teachings on marriage, divorce and sexuality. The arguments are highly emotive and command much attention. These people point out that, say, the divorced who have remarried are often more sinned against than sinning, and that the Church’s refusal to admit them to Holy Communion is to punish them, and to victimize them further.

Of course if our vision, our conceptual and spiritual horizon, is largely limited to this world and this life, then such assertions are compelling. Yet in today’s excerpt from the Gospel of St Mark we find our Lord quite clearly and forcefully directing our vision to beyond this world and this life, reminding us that our horizon extends beyond the kingdom of the world to the Kingdom of God. It is the promise of a life and a world beyond this one that gives meaning to all that we endure and suffer in this life and this world, and gives value to all our good actions and sacrifices here and now.

The Church’s power to teach is not unlimited; it can only, and must only, teach and bind us to the truth that has been revealed by God. The teaching authority of the Church is not a magic wand that can be waved at will to take all our discomfort away. There is no Cross-less Christianity. The psychological, emotional or physical discomfort of this life is as nothing, says our Lord, to the discomfort that might be endured eternally in the next life if we fail to heed the truth as it has actually been revealed. Not to teach the truth is to foster a lie; and, to encourage people in a fantasy which calms the spirit but endangers the soul is hardly charity. Thus our Lord puts it in stark, uncompromising and unmistakable terms: if your eye should cause you to sin, pluck it out for it is better to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to enter hell with both. So what we do here and now has consequences beyond this world and this life, and the Church has a duty to remind us of this and encourage us to keep to the way, the truth and the life.

Human lives are messy, a cloudy and obscure grey. The truth of Christ to which the Church has consistently witnessed possesses the crispness of black and white. The challenge of Christian living, and the Church’s pastoral practice, is to bring our lives more and more into harmony with Christ’s truth as it has been revealed. We do this not by introducing the murky grey of messy humanity into Christ’s truth, but by introducing more of the crisp clarity of Christ’s truth into the murk of human life. Christ always told the sinners he forgave, “Go and sin no more”. Christ’s example must be the Church’s pastoral practice. To refuse to call sin what it is fools only ourselves and merits the millstone.

So our patient endurance now, our sacrifices now, our efforts to live as Christ calls us to live here and now, all have a value that derives from God’s eternity, and have a meaning that derives from the God’s Kingdom. In another place Christ encourages us: Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all that you need will be given to you. He requires only that we honestly seek it, not that we succeed in attaining it, for that will be God’s gift to the sincere heart.

Indeed Christ has a small word of encouragement in today’s gospel that we might easily miss. “If anyone gives you a cup of water for my sake he will not lose his reward”. All our acts of selflessness, of self-sacrifice, of generosity, of endurance will be crowned with a reward in the Kingdom of God. No good act is wasted, no sacrifice for God’s sake is done in vain. But to see that we must look beyond the narrow confines of this little world and this short life, to that eternal Kingdom that Christ ceaselessly calls us to. Let us not cling to the tinsel and lose hold of the gold. The wonder is, if we strive to be the person Christ calls us to be, we will have a little gold even now, as a pledge of the treasure to come.

Pax.

i-am-the-way blog

6 thoughts on “On Synod’s Eve

  1. Thank you, Dom Hugh, for this. I have to preach, myself, tonight and tomorrow. I offer you my text, for what it’s worth:

    “There are two Sundays in the Church’s year that most priests and deacons try to avoid preaching. The first is Trinity Sunday, when we are frightened of the task of explaining the unexplainable, of confusing the faithful, misleading them or falling in to some kind of error. The second is this Sunday when our fear arises from the sheer uncompromising nature of Our Lord’s message – so different from the pastoral approach we often try to adopt, from the soothing words we want to be able to use when faced with the difficult, sad and messy situations people’s lives sometimes get into. In St Matthew’s account of the story we heard from St Mark today, there’s a little more wriggle-room – not much to be honest, but Jesus’s language about divorce and remarriage in St Mark’s account leaves no room for doubt, no opportunity for misunderstanding. Like His teaching on the Eucharist we heard from St John’s Gospel over the summer, many of those who hear him will be tempted to say “this is a hard teaching” and walk with Him no more. And yet, His teaching, His truth it is and therein lies our problem, therein lies one of the problems facing the Holy Father and the Bishops gathering in Rome this weekend for the Synod on the Family – Jesus’s explicit teaching on divorce and remarriage leaves them little or no room for manoeuvre, particularly if they try to approach the problem before them on a human level, trying to be nice, trying to make people feel better, rather than from the viewpoint of Jesus.

    There’s another temptation on these occasions and that is for the preacher to indulge himself in his personal opinions – to tell you what I think should be done, how I think the Pope and his fellow-bishops should respond to the challenges of matching Jesus’s straightforward, uncompromising teaching with the desire to help people in very difficult situations, sometimes through little or no fault of their own. But that would be an abuse of my position. The preacher at Mass is not there – I am not here – to give you my personal opinion. Why on earth would you I think I had the right to do that, why on earth would you want to sit there and listen to that? What the preacher is charged with doing, as part of this act of worship of God, this Divine Liturgy, this Holy Mass, is to express the faith of the Church, the Church always faithful in her teaching to her Divine Master, to Jesus.

    Many of you will remember that very sad television interview of Princess Diana with the journalist Martin Bashir, after the breakdown of her marriage with the Prince of Wales. In it she laid the blame firmly and squarely at the foot of the Prince and his alleged infidelity. “There were always three people in this marriage” she said. We all knew what she meant; we all felt for her. But in a very real sense, not in the way she meant it but in a sacramental sense, there are three people in every Christian marriage: there is a man, a woman and God in Jesus Christ.

    Marriage is not a private contractual arrangement between two individuals arising out of mutual affection, attraction, even love: a private contractual arrangement with legal consequences. That it should be so is a very modern idea and not one that Our Lord would even begin to recognise, at least not during His time on earth.

    Marriage, in the Christian sense, in the sacramental sense, is a public covenant between God and two individuals: a covenant, an enduring, permanent, mutual-life long pledge of the whole of their lives. And the difference between a covenant and a contract is that a covenant continues, even when one party to it or another seeks to withdraw from it: it continues. Christian Marriage doesn’t even exist primarily as a manifestation of the romantic attachment of one another, of the woman and the man. It is first and foremost a sacrament of God’s love.

    But a Sacrament is also a sign – an earthly pointer to a sacred reality. And the Sacrament of Marriage exists to show to the world the love of God in Jesus Christ, manifested, shown forth in the love of the couple for one another, in their openness to the gift of new life and in their willingness to share every aspect of their lives. And in exchange for this pledge to one another, God Himself in Jesus Christ pledges His love to sustain and build up, heal and bind up, celebrate with and console the couple: to accept their generosity and often, but by no means always, to bless it with new life and to use the marriage as a sacred sign to the world of His faithful, abiding love for humanity through His bride, the Church.

    And here’s the thing: even though we break our pledges, even though we ignore, frustrate, even work against our promises in that three-way covenant, God is always faithful to His promises. God is always faithful to the Covenant He has made. God never withdraws His consent. God never seeks to break it off, whatever the provocation – and God alone knows, few of us who are or have been married have enjoyed lives entirely free of provocation, where, at times, we have mightily provoked our spouse, even been mightily provoked by them. God alone knows the extent of my guilt in this regard,

    God is always faithful. How could it be otherwise? What hope would there be for us if God were to keep His promises only if we kept ours? It can’t depend on us: weak, inconsistent, easily discouraged or put off that we are. God’s faithfulness, his persistent, steadfast love is all and everything we have to rely upon: all that keeps us from being forever lost. God’s love is the pledge of the fullness of life here and in the hereafter.

    So what to do? What to do in our own lives, in the lives of those around us and, especially, as the Bishops gather in Rome over the next three weeks to consider these matters?

    We could start by recognising God at work in our family lives: in our children and grandchildren, in our husband or wife – in their love for us and our love for them. We could thank God for all those blessings. We could begin to recognise that it is in the Sacrament of Marriage that most of us are called to be made holy, through its joys and sadnesses, through its excruciating pain and through its obvious blessings but particularly through its difficulties, the trials by which we are tested and strengthened by the God who loves us. We could thank God for all of these things, recognising everyone of them as blessings, as signs of His love for us and for the whole world – even when the blessing appears to be a curse, a trial, our own Calvary. We might look at our marriage vows and remember the joy in which, together with God, we made those pledges. We might in recalling them, even celebrate them again. And we might examine our consciences for those occasions when our behaviour has been the cause of sadness in our marriages, seek the forgiveness of our spouse, ask for God’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession and, perhaps, even renew our sorrow for events long past, already forgiven as an encouragement to ourselves and help in avoiding those occasions again.

    Everyone of us, even those who are not married or are no longer married, could do everything we can to support and affirm the marriages of our families and friends, recognising in them what is sacred, remembering that they exist not just for the mutual happiness of the spouses but as God’s pledge of love. We might encourage, support and pray for those about to get married – and perhaps for those in long-term relationships who are reluctant to marry – that they might see in this wonderful sacrament, the way God opens up to them the possibility of eternal life.

    We should pray, work and offer our unstinting support to those who, for whatever reason, are experiencing great difficulties in their marriages and especially to those whose marriages have become so intolerable or harmful to their physical, mental, psychological or spiritual health that they have had to live separately from their husband or wife.

    And we should pray for the Bishops, that, taking their model from the Good Shepherd – ever faithful, ever concerned for the true welfare of His sheep – they may have the gift of the Holy Spirit to preserve them from error, to give them true wisdom and to find ways of strengthening marriage and caring for the broken in the messy reality of our lives.”

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    1. Thankyou Father Hugh & Stephen Morgan for your wise words about marriage. At the moment everyone just wants the ‘right’ to get married and no-one talks about how to ‘be’ married.
      You both acknowledge that marriage is joyous and a gift from God; although at times very hard.
      My husband & I really struggled for the past couple of years and lots of friends told us to separate !
      I won’t deny it was tempting; it certainly would have been faster than praying for God’s help and forgiveness, to make the effort to repair our relationship.
      But really there was no choice – we made a commitment to each other and God; we simply had to trust that God was going to help us get through the struggle, if we put in some work. And of course now our marriage is better than ever ! It is a familiar story …
      Only it is not such a common story these days; hardly anyone thought we should try to work things out – many provided practical tips for a smooth divorce !
      Luckily we had the support of our parish; the beautiful teachings our our Church for encouragement; and powerful prayers and devotions.
      I am really really glad that the Bible and Catechism are so crystal about marriage. People need clarity, certainty and boundaries; not only for guidance but also for encouragement.
      Cheers from Brigid

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      1. Dear Brigid,

        It strikes me even more forcefully that you are the sort of layperson the Synod needs to be hearing from. Well done to you and your hubby for your perseverance in trials, and thanks be to God for blessing that perseverance.

        Pax!

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