For all the great things the Church of yesteryear achieved, it also did some terrible things. One of the worst demands it made was that a Catholic who marries a person who is not a Catholic do so at a side altar, oratory or in the sacristy of the Church. How humiliating this directive was. For how long were we going to punish the Protestant Reformers and young Catholic woman or man who fell in love with someone from these denominations? In these ecumenical days, it’s hard for us to understand these actions. Today, especially at weddings, I hear older Catholics talk about this experience more than anything else. It’s often given as the reason why the person or their family stopped practising their Catholic faith. Recently an older wedding guest told me that her wedding at the side altar of the Church was the last day she came near us of her own free will. She never had her children baptised and her painful experience was still palpable forty years on as she compared and contrasted her wedding day with the Catholic marriage ceremony of a couple in a similar religious circumstance to her own which we had just celebrated. All I can do in such circumstances is apologise for the hurt our shortsightedness caused and be full of admiration for those who were subjected to similar treatment but have remained constant to our Catholic community. These days inter-denominational marriages are rarely the reasons over which a family will divide. But we know that other religious issues can still break up a family. It’s always a tragedy when this happens. For example, maybe you’ve had a son, daughter or a grandchild join a religious sect or cult. It’s heart-breaking stuff for parents who wonder what their child sees in the sect and where it will all end. The Church has sometimes let families down in this regard. Appearing to prefer dogma to the complexities of people’s lives, formal liturgy to creating communities of hospitality, care and justice, the church can appear to be out of touch, especially with our young. I know that every person in authority in the Church today knows that Catholic Church needs to listen to our young people, hear about the issues that concern them and present our faith in a way they find accessible and engaging. Very often it’s not what we say about our rich faith, it’s how we say it. Many people don’t leave the mainstream churches because they are attracted by another group’s doctrine, though some do want the world to be very black and white. Many leave for smaller groups offering a tightly knit community. From today’s Gospel we know that the same family heartbreak occurred in the early church. At this time, however, Christianity was the small sect drawing believers away from Judaism, to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. It ripped families apart. The early church became the new family of many followers who were disowned. They lost their life and found a new one in Christ. There can be moments when a family’s lifestyle, beliefs, behaviour or values are such that one member feels that, in conscience, or by conviction, he or she does not belong anymore. When this happens we can listen carefully to reasons the family member gives. Maybe we have lost something essential in our life together that needs challenging and change. And maybe it’s the family member who is in the wrong. Keeping the lines of communication open, speaking the truth with calmness and love and remaining as compassionate as possible are the best Christian responses. I can’t pretend that any of this is easy, but when I have seen families do it, the prophetic, truthful and charitable reward Jesus offers in today’s Gospel are powerfully in evidence. Richard Leonard, S.J.
13th Sunday: Family Heartbreaks