Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Bringing Back Sinners: A Personal Reflection on Communion for the Divorced & Re-Married

My perspective here is hardly original or unique to my own experiences, but it is a perspective that no one has discussed in the forensic exercises over Cardinal Kasper's proposal to admit the divorced and re-married to Communion under some pastoral regulations that everyone knows full well will not be enforced strictly. The reason the Church does not admit, and historically has not admitted, those who left their spouse and married again to Communion is because the Church wants sinners to repent and turn back to God. The matter really is not theological, but pastoral. It is that simple. Get sinners to turn back to God.

Daily I witness two intensely close and violently torrential cases of ex-communication, restriction from receiving Communion, that perturb me. Those cases are of my father and one of my best friends.

My father married during the year the Second Vatican Council convened, fathered three children (of whom I have met two, and only seen one in the last seven years once), divorced in 1972, received a letter of ex-communication shortly thereafter, and married my mother in Methodist rites in 1974. He goes to Mass perhaps once a year if the good Lord disposes him to do so. The setting varies: the old Mass, the Pauline Mass, and once the Divine Liturgy (which he insisted was not really Catholic). Religiously my father is a product of the 1950s. He never knew what happened at Mass. He just knew all the respectable people went there for their 25 minute service and followed it up with an omelette. A few times a year he would go to Communion, of course after confessing all his major sins and fasting. No one goes to Communion in sin and without preparation. Having been ex-communicated since 1972 he still knows and believes that much. Once he attempted to go to Confession, but found the priest meddlesome and unhelpful, which turned him off from reconciling with the Church. The shell of his 1950s Catholicism is all he has left. He is my father and I love him dearly, but his life could be called one of disappointments and some bitterness to boot.

A friend of mine was raised in a lesbian household with a distant father and, after having gone through some 1980s Catholic education, drifted away from a faith which I do not believe he ever really understood. He was a rambunctious child straightened out by a decade and a half of service in the infantry of the United States Army. He worked ground zero after 9/11 and toured Afghanistan, burning out his lungs in the process. During his army stint he married in a secular ceremony a wonderful woman who has never been anything but kind to me. Since then he has strayed in the annals of academia and all the dismaying tendencies therein. Whenever I visit him in his house I am received with the greatest affection and hospitality. He always takes me to Confession on Saturday night and Mass on Sunday. And on Saturday nights he stares at the Confessional, joins the line, and then walks away at the last moment saying he will take too long. At Mass he refrains from Communion, instead remaining on his knees in meditation.

According to the laws of the Church and the Church's traditional understanding of marriage there is no way either my father or my friend are married. They are both lapsed Catholics who married without the witness or blessing of the Church and remain in such arrangements. They cannot take Communion and in no way do I wish for this situation to change.

The de facto ex-communication of these two loved ones is the only thing keeping them close to the Catholic faith, to taking it seriously. My father's mind clings to two facts about Catholicism, that one must be clean of sin to partake of Communion and that he cannot partake of Communion. My friend's matter is the same way, although my friend's conscience does tear at his heart. It is my hope that these two dear people will one day return to the Church, even if it be the hour of death, when all worldly attachments and interests that mire us in sin fade to dust and we must see God, not as we imagine Him to be in our tinted looking glass, but as He actually is. I hope that before death they both wish to ask God's forgiveness and petition the Church to receive the Body of Christ worthily.

The Church always places repentance before the celebration of the holy things of God. Both the new and old Roman Masses begin with a general confession of unworthiness. In the older rite the people, or the deacon, repeat this confession prior to the reception of Communion. At Compline, the hour prayed before going to bed, our must vulnerable state, we again pray for the forgiveness of sins by saying the Confiteor and asking for the Lord's protection. In the Byzantine rite the priest prays "Lord, forgive me the sinner and have mercy on me" before the celebration of Orthros (Mattins and Lauds) and Vespers; he will say "God have mercy on me a sinner" after the anaphora and before his own Communion. And lastly there is the long "Lord, I truly believe and confess...." before the Communion of the congregation. One must turn from sin to God prior to participating in the sacred rites of the Church. Is not the same true in eternity? Must not one repent before entering into the Kingdom of God?

What of the Orthodox approach? What of it? I think it is wrong, but I cannot see how it would be helpful in this day and age. When the Church of Constantinople decided that marriage can die and one can re-marry twice given the proper state of mind and a heavily penitential effort prior to the new union, the spirit of penance was alive and well. People fasted from all meat and dairy products during Lent, the pre-Christmas fast, and the Dormition fast. Even though I think the practice wrong, I cannot deny that it could be done in the right spirit. All of that is gone now. The Church now requires fasting two days of the year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Further more, the modern age would confirm that the Church was changing her outmoded teachings, not forcing people who failed their vocations to do penance. The adaptation of the Chalcedonian-Orthodox discipline would be a disaster in practice in this day and age. To admit the divorced and re-married to Communion will not make those in question grateful to the Church for her mercy and understanding. Rather they will hear all the talk of the "Body of Christ" and the confessions throughout the liturgy and think to themselves "So it was not really such a big deal after all."

So again I say the only thing keeping my father and my friend close to the Church is the very fact that they cannot go to Communion. They know that the Church guards something sacred which they still, on some level, believe and would like to receive yet cannot. When time purges these men of all that ties them to the world they will have the option of repenting and reconciling to God before death or the other, less attractive option. It is precisely because they cannot repent now that they still believe in God, Christ, the Church, and the Eucharist. To remove their barrier from Communion will not bring either my father or friend to Mass with any regularity. It will merely tell that the Church does not consider what she does at Mass very important. It will tell them that the Church was bluffing all the time.

If the Church does not admit these men to Communion then they may still believe something important resides in the Catholic Church and wish to return to it. I can very much envision this one fact returning my father to the Church at some point before he dies and my friend sooner than that. My friend especially wants to repent and to go to Communion. Why remove the impetus? I want nothing more than for these two men to enter heaven, but not without repentance first.

The Church's power to loosen and to bind the sins of men has brought back into the fold men like Oscar Wilde, Voltaire, and John Wayne. Why not my father and my friend, too?


  1. I will pray for your loved ones to return.

  2. I found this profound and moving. It is profound, I was moved. Oh, and it is right, I think.

  3. It probably also helps to guard the Sacraments if they are celebrated in a language that is at first difficult to access