Pope Fancis made a righteous appeal on Saint Patrick’s Day that no one in the Church should close the door to someone who is responding to the call of the Holy Spirit to come back to the Church. Those who would pose obstacles to these reverts are sinning and are akin to the Pharisees who scolded Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. I agree completely, if this actually happened anywhere in the world. The problem is that this doesn’t happen in normal parishes. I have never heard a priest or layman say that sinners coming back after a long time away, maybe even with decades of sin clinging to them, should not be allowed to come worship at the Mass or take part in any other parish activity. In fact, had we heard of such a thing, there would be such an outrage that it wouldn’t be permitted.
Unfortunately, the Pontiff is setting up a straw man to knock down, in his transparent slap at those who insist that the dogmas of the Faith should not be denied by permitting those in unrepentant and unabsolved mortal sin to receive the Eucharist. He equates the adherence to and full practice of the Faith to the Pharisees that scold Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, which is an inapt comparison.
The pope, almost even completely coherently and passionately shows his ire for those who would close the door to such repentant people. “Who are you, who shut your door to the heart of a man, a woman who wants to improve, to get back into the people of God, because the Holy Spirit has stirred his heart.”
Using the imagery of water from both readings, the pope spoke of men and women who may have made mistakes in their lives but now feel “that the waters are moving” and they want to come back to the Christian community.
“And how many times today in Christian communities [they] find closed doors: ‘But you cannot, no, you cannot,'” said the pope, imitating someone who prevents such people from reentering the community.
None of us sees anyone blocking the doors to the Church when a repentant sinner comes home. No one sees or hears anyone scold such a person when they seek to come home. None ever hears a priest say that such people are unwelcome. Yet, this fiction is trotted out as a real problem in the Church today by the pope. Is this the right way to start off the much ballyhooed Jubilee Year of Mercy for next year? Is this the premise on which this celebration will be based? Is it proper to base this on a contrived nonexistent “problem”?
I was once a man such as he described. When I had my moment that instantaneously gave me the gift of Faith, where I knew God is real after decades away, I came back to the Church. That first Sunday, I walked into the Church without anyone barring the door, or refusing me a seat. I was called back and I wanted to be back with God. Foolishly, I thought then that I needed to receive the Eucharist as part of my rebirth. I did. I did again the next week. The third Sunday at Communion time, I stayed in the pew, as if fixed there with a clear understanding that I was not to receive the Eucharist without first making my confession. I spent the next week scolding myself for being so stupid about receiving the Eucharist while in mortal sin, for being so stupid for forgetting this, and then examining my conscience as I prepared to make my first confession in nearly thirty years.
What I needed then was someone to remind me of what I had forgotten, to remind me of the danger to myself to receive the Eucharist unworthily. The Holy Spirit led me back and then the Holy Spirit prevented me from committing sacrilege continuously. I went to confession the next Saturday, with much trepidation, and much disgust for all the sins I had committed, and with great shame. It was one of the best days in my life as it turned out. The sheer sense of overwhelming lightness and joy stayed with me for weeks, and it was most beautiful when I approached and received Holy Communion again in a state of grace for the first time since my early teen years.
At the same time, I also needed to decide whether I was going to be a Catholic or not, and I knew that I did not have the option to pick and choose which dogmas I would accept and abide by and those I wouldn’t. Either I was all in or I had to go somewhere else. I reflected on this for some time and then it came to me: who am I to say that I know better than the Church, that I am so much smarter than the saints, known and unknown, who had come before me, who had prayed and studied and received the sacraments? It was then I knew that I had to change my life and that the Church does not change to suit me. I became determined to learn the Faith again, and what I did not “feel” was acceptable I decided that I had to make a better effort to understand why the Church teaches as She does. I challenged myself by forcing myself to accept the proposition that if I disagree with a dogma of the Faith, I must figure out, not where the Church has gone wrong in the teaching, but where I had gone wrong in my understanding. Since then, I have always found where I was wrong, and I have found the Church to be right every time.
The dogmas and the practice of the Faith are not unmerciful. They are liberating. This is what those reverts that Pope Francis refers to really need to know and understand, and this is the message they need to hear and to also accept fully. To permit these people who are in the state I was to receive the Eucharist without repentance and absolution after a good confession is a great injustice, to them, the Church, and to Jesus. In his homily, the pope should have spoken of these necessary truthful corollaries to what he said.
When I came back, I did not believe the Church and the Faith were hurtful or mean to me. What I needed and what I got were an open door to worship, but also the greatest opportunity to repent, confess my sins, and be absolved, and then to become once again in full communion in a state of grace. To make that confession was painful and stressful, until I sat in the confessional. But that pain and stress was necessary for me, and it is necessary for anyone and even more so for those who have been away for a long time and who are brought back by the Holy Spirit. In the examination period before, in the confessional, and then thereafter as prayers and tears of thanksgiving are offered, that is where each one of us comes to understand mercy. Far from being “mean”, “unmerciful” or “unwelcoming”, it is the most profound and cathartic experience that leads to true healing. That’s what people need to know and experience, and not the counterfeit faith offered by Cardinals Marx and Kasper and Tagle and even the pope.