Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
May the peace and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ sustain you! We continue throughout this Easter season to celebrate the joy of our Lord’s Resurrection. Whatever may be happening in the world and in our lives, we know in the experience of faith that Christ’s rising from the dead has changed everything. Darkness and fear, although they may press on us from outside, cannot conquer what Christ already possesses. If indeed we are his flock, his people, then we too are made new, freed from the burdens of sin and death and live in his true light. We rejoice at this great gift, the promise of eternal life with him, our Savior, if only we live with him in this life.
Of course, the devil, the “father of lies,” knows all this, too. He knows that he cannot have us in hell if we belong to Christ. Therefore, he tries always to drive us away from Christ. By afflicting us with daily temptations to sin, and by insinuating doubt and despair into our experiences of suffering, he lays snares for us. If we fall, we must cry out to the Lord for his forgiveness.
Never be afraid to ask God for mercy, especially in confession! He wants only to immerse us in his mercy, to sustain us in our weakness, so that we can be ready for heaven. That little voice that says that God can’t forgive, or that God has abandoned us, is the lying voice of Christ’s enemy and ours. Don’t listen to that voice! Repeat, “Jesus, I trust in you!” many times and draw courage from him.
It seems that the devil has been particularly active in the past few weeks, in the wake of the post-synodal exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”). Now, it is true that Pope Francis’s writing and teaching as Successor of Peter sometimes lacks some of the precision and clarity of other popes, and that he’s much more interested in good pastoral care than understanding of doctrine.
It’s also true that we live in a media culture in which “spin” and “narrative” are prized far more than mere truth. The exhortation has been subjected to enormous spin from many sides, and it’s impossible to know the truth of the matter only from media sources. And so the devil is energetically exploiting such ambiguity and confusion to drive wedges into the church.
Remember, the devil wants souls to be lost to Christ and lies constantly to make it happen. Strong believers are therefore being tempted to doubt the integrity or intentions of Pope Francis, even of the church herself. Weak believers are being tempted to think the church is caving in to worldly pressure on key issues relating to marriage.
Those who stand outside the church and carp at her for not being worldly enough are doing so with renewed venom. Those who, for whatever reason, are not able to participate fully in the church’s sacramental life are being tempted to think, either that the church does not care for them or that their situations are suddenly easily resolved.
None of these things are true, of course. As Pope Francis asked, I have been reading the exhortation with some care. And, whatever else the document may contain, it is more than clear on its two main points: first, that the teachings of the church about marriage are not changing; second, that the church can offer better pastoral care to those who need it more.
I urge you to fix these two thoughts firmly in mind, so that the spin and narrative do not overwhelm truth for you, regarding this document and what Pope Francis is trying to accomplish.
Pope Francis is not changing anything in the teaching of the church about marriage. Indeed, he cannot; these teachings come directly from the word of God in Scripture and tradition and have been confirmed by the highest authority of the magisterium.
Everything about marriage taught, for example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the beautiful encyclicals “Casti Connubii” (“Of Chaste Marriage,” Pope Pius XI, 1930) and “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life,” Pope Paul VI, 1968), or in the earlier exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” (“The Family in the Modern World,” Pope St. John Paul II, 1981), all remains just as true and relevant as ever. I encourage you to spend some time in the coming months reading these sources especially, as a refresher in these important teachings.
Pope Francis is, however, aspiring to move the church to a better and more effective practice of pastoral care. He is, as always, greatly attentive to “the poor” – in this case, those who do not, or cannot, understand the essential teachings about marriage, or those who, for whatever reason, find themselves largely unable to live up to them.
He is especially concerned that no one among the members of the church, who might find themselves in such a situation, feel abandoned by the church. However good or bad the church’s pastoral care for such persons might be in reality, is this not a worthy goal for all of us as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ?
It is true that the modern world suffers from a grave crisis of marriage and family life. Almost every part of God’s plan and purpose for marriage and family is very widely rejected today. We make idols of the individual will and appetite, justifying every form of corruption of this most beautiful human good, and from the slimy morass of what passes for moral thinking today, there is no firm footing on which to build any better understanding.
Pope Francis is quite correct to point out, just as his recent predecessors have pointed out, that this creates a strong temptation for the church to retreat, to avoid a more serious engagement with all these sins by, in effect, waiting for the sinner in need of conversion to make the first move. Instead, good pastoral care requires that we disciples make the first move, that we, like our Lord, go in search of the lost sheep. Of course, we have done this to some extent; but Pope Francis is insistently asking, are we doing it enough?
Please pray in a special way for those preparing for marriage this summer and for those enduring any kind of difficulty in their family life. May our risen Lord and savior be most merciful with them, and with us, poor weak sinners that we likewise are! He lives for our salvation; may our hearts be open to his perfect will in all things.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City