In the very early years in the life of the church a very serious problem arose. Peter and Paul and the other apostles preached in the synagogues the teachings of Jesus and told about his death and resurrection to their Jewish co-religious. Then something unexpected happened. Non-Jews, the Gentiles were attracted to this new faith and wanted to join this new community. An important question came up; how to integrate these new Christians coming from pagan religions into this new religion made up of Jewish men and women who believed Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth was the long awaited Messiah?
For centuries Jewish people were guided by the Law and the Prophets. For centuries they were taught, unless you were circumcised according to the Law of Moses you cannot be saved. Many were convinced that these new comers must be told they are to keep the Law of Moses, especially the law of circumcision.
We read in the Acts of the Apostles that at a special meeting in Jerusalem there was no small discussion and debate about all this and some questioned why those who wanted to put the yoke of Jewish laws on the Gentiles when the Jews themselves found them unable to bear.
Down through the ages people have been convinced that certain practises can never be changed because they are expressions of the will of God. A big section of the early Jewish Christian community felt this way about circumcision. They forgot that circumcision was the ritual by which a Jewish boy child was initiated into the Jewish people, it had nothing to do with that child’s relationship with God, with that boy’s salvation.
The Apostles taught that our relationship with God, our salvation came about through our belief in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. For the Apostles this was of first importance. Circumcision was not an issue.
As one church historian observed, ‘One of the most seductive temptations of the believer is to identify the will of God with the will of the believer, and not the other way around. God’s will has been squeezed into patriotism, leftism, capitalism, feminism, the hierarchy, ecclesiastical tradition. Things have been given an importance they did not deserve. How often have we heard that certain practises must never change because they are the will of God? When I was in the seminary a professor spent a whole class pontificating that the Mass will never be celebrated in the language of the people because it could lead to nationalism. Seven years later he was celebrating the Mass in English.
Our first reading tells us about what has been called the First Council of Jerusalem. It remind us that our Christian Catholic faith entails the remarkable belief that the Spirit of God continues to work through the very human processes of decision-making in our Church best happens when we take seriously both our religious experience and our tradition, trusting that the Spirit of God works even through endless debate, exhausting meetings, and hesitant leadership helping us to bring about clarifications and resolve conflicts.
We had a recent example of this in our own time. Pope Francis called for a Synod of Bishops to discuss the pastoral needs of the modern day family. He called together 279 bishops from around the world. Seventeen married couples were also invited. The Synod was held over a two year period and Pope Francis was at most of the meetings. He began the Synod by encouraging all present to speak their minds and not hold back for fear of repercussions.
The main concerns of the bishops as they gathered for the Synod were. ‘How can we heal the wounds of a broken culture? How do we best support families, given the challenges of modern life? What is truly merciful? If the family is central to both society and the Church, how do we best express the truth of its importance? What to do about co-habitation. The divorced and civilly remarried and other matters. The bishops discussed how the early Church addressed issues of marriage and separation, and reviewed the history of Church practice and discipline on marriage. They also explore how contemporary moral attitudes have shaped modern perceptions of marriage and divorce, and how the Church can offer pastoral guidance in this area. Some bishops were determined to hold the line on the disciplines of the past while others called for new pastoral ways of looking at the stresses that challenge the modern family.
The synod issues that garnered the most headlines revolved around the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, as well as Catholic attitudes toward homosexuality.
In his own pastoral reflections on all the reports from the Synod Pope Francis took a very pastoral stance as opposed to a canon law stance.
He was adamant when he wrote, “In no way must the church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur,”
He disappointed many when he stated with the synod’s insistence that the church cannot consider same-sex unions to be a marriage as it has been understood for centuries but Francis also insisted, “Every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity.”
Pope Francis wrote that he understood those “who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But he said ‘I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”
The Holy Father also said ‘The worst way of watering down the Gospel is when we put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance.
As always Pope Francis does not judge but he meets people where they are and wants to walk with them, encouraging them to be where God would want them to be in their journey toward God.
As we continue to celebrate our Mass may be pray for all the families in our parish family. We pray that solid families be stronger, that troubled families be healed, that single mothers or fathers be strengthened to not give up, that those divorced and civilly married know they are welcome here and may we all remember the advice of Pope Francis that Holy Communion is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.