Catholics who have divorced and are remarried “are not in fact excommunicated: they are not excommunicated! And they should not absolutely be treated as such: they are always part of the church,” Pope Francis stated at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square on August 5.
Last May and June, the Argentine pope had devoted his weekly public audience to the subject of “the family,” and today—after a month’s break, he returned again to a topic which will be discussed at next October’s synod of bishops.
In his last general audience, at the end of June, he had spoken about the breakdown of relations between couples; today he zoned in on one of the most debated questions that this synod will have to address: “How to care for those that, following the irreversible breakdown of their marriage bond, have entered a new union?”
“The church knows well that such a situation contradicts the Christian sacrament,” the pope stated. “Nevertheless as a teacher her look always comes from the heart of a mother; a heart, animated by the Holy Spirit, which always seeks the good and the salvation of persons.” He said this is the reason why “it feels the duty, ‘for love of the truth,’ to ‘discern situations well.'" He recalled that John Paul II explained this in the Apostolic Exhortation, “Familiaris consortio” (No. 84) where, for example, he drew attention to the difference between the one who suffered (was subjected to) a separation and the one who provoked it. “One has to make this discernment,” Francis insisted.
Furthermore, he said, “if we look at these new bonds with the eyes of small children...we see even more the urgency of developing in our communities a real welcome for such persons who are living in these situations.” For this reason “it is important that the style of the community, its language, its attitudes, are always attentive to people, starting with the little ones. They are the ones who suffer most in these situations.”
On the other hand, the pastor pope said, “How can we recommend to these parents to do everything to educate the children in the Christian life, giving them the example of a convinced and practicing faith, if we keep them at a distance from the life of the community, as if they were excommunicated?"
Speaking from his pastoral experience, including 21 years as a diocesan bishop, Francis insisted, “One has to act in a way that does not add other burdens to those that the children, in these situations, find that they already have to bear.” Drawing attention to the fact that “the number of these children and young people is truly large,” he emphasized that “it is important that they feel the Church as a mother that is attentive to all, every ready to listen and to encounter.”
Last December, in an interview with Elisabetta Piqué for the Argentine daily, La Nacion, Francis observed that as things stand today in church practice Catholics who have divorced and remarried are in fact treated as excommunicated. He recalled that at the October 2014 synod “in the case of divorced people who have remarried, we posed the question, what do we do with them? What door can we open for them?”
He described this as “a pastoral concern” expressed in the question “will we allow them to go to Communion?” He emphasized, however, that “Communion alone is no solution. The solution is integration. They have not been excommunicated, true. But they cannot be godparents at baptism, they cannot read the readings at Mass, they cannot give Communion, they cannot be catechists. There are about seven things they cannot do. I have the list over there. Come on! If I tell all this, it seems that they are excommunicated de facto! So let us open the doors a bit more...."
In his catechesis today on the family—at what was the 100th general audience since his election on March 13, 2013—Francis continued along the same line. He recalled that in these past decades “the church has not been either insensitive or lazy.” On the contrary, thanks to the “profound work” done by pastors, “guided and confirmed by my predecessors,” the awareness “has grown a lot” that “it is necessary to give a fraternal and attentive welcome, in love and in truth, to the baptized that have established a new union (life together) after the failure of their sacramental marriage.” Declaring that “these persons are not in fact excommunicated,” he insisted again, “they are not excommunicated! And they should absolutely not be treated as if they were. They are always part of the church.”
He recalled that Pope Benedict, speaking at the VII World Meeting of Families in Milan, Italy, on June 2, 2012, had addressed this question too and called for “an attentive discernment and a wise pastoral accompaniment, knowing that ‘simple recipes’ do not exist.”
As a result of all this, Francis said pastors have been “repeatedly invited to show openly and coherently the readiness of the community to welcome and encourage them, so that they may live and develop ever more their belonging to Christ and to the church through prayer, by listening to the Word of God, by frequenting the liturgy, by the Christian education of children, by charity and the service of the poor, and by a commitment to justice and peace.”
Francis, who had long pastoral experience with families before his election as pope, returned in his catechesis to insist on the idea of a church that includes, not excludes. He reminded his audience that the biblical icon of the Good Shepherd “summarizes the mission that Jesus received from the Father: to give his life for the sheep.” This attitude—he said—“is a model for the church that welcomes her children as a mother that gives her life for them.”
The pastor pope insisted yet again that “the church is called to be always the open house of the Father. No closed doors! No closed doors!" And he added, “Everyone can participate in some way in the Church’s life, all can be part of the community. The church...is the father’s house where there is a place for each one with his/her hard (laborious) life.”
In the same way, he said, “all Christians are called to imitate the Good Shepherd,” and “especially Christian families can collaborate with Him in taking care of wounded families, accompanying them in the life of faith of the community. Each one plays his/her part in assuming the attitude of the Good Shepherd, who knows each one of his sheep and excludes no one from his infinite love.”
Francis will continue with his catechesis on the family over the coming weeks in the lead up to the synod, and Catholics—including bishops—worldwide are following closely what he says on these occasions.