[Editor’s Note: Since release of Pope Francis’ document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, many have wondered what his cautious opening on Communion for the divorced and remarried will mean in practice. Here, Italian Monsignor Fausto Gilardi reflects on the experience in the Cathedral of Milan, among the largest and most influential dioceses in Europe.]
In the Cathedral of Milan, certainly just as in other churches, the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis had an immediate echo in requests by the faithful. Alongside the perplexity of some, there’s been a sincere desire to understand on the part of others, above all when attention turns to chapter 8, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.”
In some cases, linked to partial information in the press, there’s been a “demand” for absolution, and thus confession is seen as a sort of passport towards the Eucharist. The phenomenon has a certain urgency, since the time of First Communion and Confirmation is drawing near, and parents want to participate fully in the sacraments of Christian initiation for their children.
Among priests themselves, the question immediately came up: “What do we say? How do we act?” It’s a moving sign of pastoral charity that priests ask these questions, because it reveals a sincere love for truth, a lively attention to the magisterium, and a generous passion for the faithful.
The questions clearly show the need for a common discernment within the presbyterate. Some priests, perhaps in a slightly rushed and efficiency-oriented way, have opened a “teller’s window” for consultation, giving the idea that “any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions’.” (Amoris Laetitia, 300)
This is certainly not the model proposed by the apostolic exhortation. On the contrary, the pope’s text says that with “a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him, there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard.” (300)
The expression we find repeatedly in the exhortation is “path of discernment.” The phrase immediately gets across the idea that there’s a journey to undertake, and the timing and modes of that journey will vary from situation to situation.
The exhortation also recalls the importance of graduality. On this path, first of all it’s necessary to reflect on the reality of the Sacrament of Matrimony.
Fortunately, during the news conference to present the document, the point was made that readings of the text shouldn’t just start with chapter eight, even if the mass media turned its attention immediately to situations of fragility.
Pope Francis, with the concreteness and wise language we know by now, speaks of the beauty of God’s design [for marriage], where indissolubility isn’t a weight to carry, but the desire written into love itself that it be “forever.”
“In order to avoid all misunderstanding,” Pope Francis writes, “I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur.” (307)
In number 300, we read: “Priests have the duty to accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop.”
Certainly a wise priest will seek to understand the teaching of the Church and will wait for the “guidelines of the bishop,” who’s the first among the pastors of the local church.
If [waiting] seems a little difficult at first, it’s important not to forget that this interval can be a time of grace: The community is contemplating the plan of God, and laity and pastors together are seeking to understand “the joy of love that lives in families” and how “the joy of marriage can thrive also in the middle of pain.”
There’s another point in the post-synodal text that shouldn’t be overlooked. Discernment isn’t simply a task for pastors, but should be carried out in the Christian community, together with the faithful involved: “What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God.” (300)
In the last instance, as we know, one has to express a correctly formed conscience. (303) It’s useful to underline, as the pope says, that “this discernment is dynamic, and it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.” (303)
From the limited experience of these days, one has the impression that the requirement for a journey [before people can receive Communion] actually hasn’t disappointed those who initially “demanded” absolution.
The faithful have seen in the fact that a path is available to them, not a form of bureaucracy that complicates their life, but the maternal love of the Church that helps them to understand, a maternal love that wants to cure their wounds and to open them up to a new awareness.
The faithful have experienced the eagerness of pastors who aren’t called to impose a norm, but to lift up the value expressed through that norm, carrying in a real sense the “smell of the sheep.”
Monsignor Fausto Gilardi Gilardi is Major Penitentiary for the Cathedral of Milan. This piece was published on “ChiesadiMilano” and appears here with permission in a Crux translation.