Last week I was blessed to be in Rome for the ordination for two of our men (Scott Emerson and Gabriel López-Betanzos) to the Order of Deacon in St. Peter's Basilica. It was a wonderful event, and I was so pleased to experience it, with so many faithful from our parishes and some brother priests.
I know you'll all join me in prayer for our two new deacons and the three we saw ordained this spring (Deacons Chahm Gahng, Christopher Gernetzke, and Tafadzwa Kushamba), as they make their way to priestly ordination this coming June 26!
Of course the attention in Rome is very much fixed upon the Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which is meeting right now and discussing the subject of "the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization."
The pastoral challenges facing our evangelization of, and within, families are numerous and growing by the day. Indeed, in this day, more and more people are unable to define even what "the family" is.
Due to a desire to acknowledge the very real love that exists in families in which one or both parents are no longer in the picture, even stating that a definition of family ideally begins with a marriage has become politically incorrect.
And yet in this, as in all things, it is the duty of the Church to state the truth in a loving and merciful way.
So, while acknowledging the reality of exceptions to "the rule," it is indeed the case that in accord with the Natural Law of God, written on every human heart, the family typically flows from the procreative reality of a man and woman who have entered into a loving and stable relationship (one man, one woman, one lifetime, with openness to children).
Challenges faced today
It seems to me that the very first pastoral challenge that we face today is in having the courage to speak this first reality in a way that does not judge, but invites -- the family flows from life-giving marriages.
Now, can we state this without making to feel alienated the child who was born to an unwed mother, or the father whose marriage failed despite his every attempt, or even the woman who conceived a child through artificial means while living out a same-sex attraction and who now wishes to return to the Church with her child?
Yes, we can still speak that initial truth AND exhibit the love and mercy of Jesus . . . but situations like these provide a pastoral challenge, no doubt.
So these types of challenges are very much at the heart and mind of the Church today and the topic of a great deal of discussion. And yet, at the root of things it all remains quite simple: we are all broken, and fallen, and yes, sinful, and Christ and His Church must respond with healing, with mercy, and with forgiveness.
The importance of mercy
This is why mercy has very much become a keyword in the discussion. How can there be mercy for a Church and for a God who believes that there is also justice; that there is right and wrong; that there is sin and redemption? Wouldn’t the merciful thing be simply to "live and let live?"
All of this was on my mind as I encountered Jesus’ parable from the Gospel this past Sunday (Mt 22:1-14).
In the passage, Jesus speaks to His disciples, as well as the crowds, the chief priests, and the Pharisees and tells them that "The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come (Mt 22:2-3)."
Now even this first segment is shocking -- the king has summoned people, and they are refusing. Not only are they refusing, but they are refusing to come to a feast for the king's son. This is not just an act of disobedience, but a very personal insult.
The only response we hear from the king is one of mercy; he invites them again. He says, "send out some other servants, and tell the people 'everything is prepared; I've done all the work; you only have to show up'."
In mercy, the invitation is extended again, without question. The people have only to make the appropriate response and they can celebrate the feast. However, they do not.
We are told that some of them ignore the king's servants and go about their business. Others, however, take the king's servants, mistreat them, and murder them. And this misdeed receives a direct response from the king: "The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city (Mt 22:7)."
And still the king makes another invitation, and this invitation is much more broad -- he sends the servants to invite everyone they encounter, "the bad and the good alike (Mt 22:10)," and finally the hall is filled.
This is a remarkable showing of mercy on the part of the king, and it mirrors salvation history itself, from the time of Adam and Eve forward.
In the thrice-repeated invitation of the king, we see God’s own unfailing mercy. Even when rejected by us, God continues to return, and He returns with the word that "all has been prepared," and all that is required is our appropriate response.
And this we cannot fail to note, for although the king has invited all to the wedding feast, he still requires that they know to what they are responding and that they change accordingly:
"But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.
"He said to him, 'My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?' But he was reduced to silence.
"Then the king said to his attendants, 'Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth' (Mt 22:11-13).”
In this regard, Jesus concludes, "Many are invited, but few are chosen (Mt 22:14)."
Here we encounter a reality that seems a paradox -- is God merciful, or is He not? The reality provides a challenge for many who struggle with the teaching of the Church and with the desire to have only a feel-good Jesus. God is unfailing in extending His mercy, but He does so by invitation -- the invitation of Jesus to "come take up your cross, and follow me (Mt 16:24)." In His mercy, God does not stop making the invitation, but the invitation requires a response not only to show up, but to change for the event '' as St. Paul says, "to put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rm 13:14)."
Accepting God's invitation fully
Yes, God continues to make the invitation to all who hear his servants. Yes, God invites the "good and the bad." Yes, "all are invited." But simply stopping there fails to tell the story. There is a requirement that we not only accept the invitation, but that we respond to him with a change that is noticeable.
The invitation of God is tough stuff for those who want to see mercy as license to sin, and it's also tough for those who want to limit God’s ability to make the invitation.
This latter challenge, I believe is the one the Holy Father really wants to challenge the Church with, and the former is the temptation to be more "merciful" than God, who is Mercy Himself.
We must not hinder the mercy of God by failing to be His servants sent to the whole world to invite all to the wedding feast, nor can we fail those invited, by not calling them to conversion and to realize fully what it is that they’re called to.
Do we serve the purpose of mercy by failing to prepare people to accept the call they are given? If we tell them there is no need to change, does that do them any good when the king arrives, has their hands and feet bound, and throws them into the darkness? Or does it do us any good when we tell ourselves that we have no further need to change?
A further look at mercy
There is a great deal to ponder here, as it comes to God's mercy and the kingdom of heaven, but it is good too to offer the prayer that opened Sunday's Mass, "May your grace, O Lord, we pray, at all times go before us and follow after . . ."
Indeed, here is a further expression of God's Mercy for, in Christ and in His Church, we have grace before us and after us, if we but ask.
All is prepared for us, and we need only make the response -- which we’re equipped to make through the grace that goes before us.
For, as our Second Reading assured us, "My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:19)."
This is good news for us who are trying our best to be servants of the King, and it is good news for all to whom the King is issuing his invitation.
It is good news too for families and for married couples who find themselves struggling with the many issues of today and even those who find themselves in “irregular situations,” but desiring to take up the invitation of the King: "I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Phil 4:13)."
Let us not forget and let us not limit God’s mercy. But let us not fail to make the proper response or to call others to make the same.
Thank you for taking the time to read this! May God bless each one of you! Praised Be Jesus Christ!