What to call it? “Contradictions”? “Paradoxes”? How about “creative tensions”? The latter might be the more descriptive, if a bit stale, term.
Here’s what I’m talking about : During quite a few of the sessions of the Synod on the Family here in Rome, I almost feel as if I’m on a retreat, or a day of recollection. That’s because so many perceptive and enlightening comments arise that get me thinking…
What often intrigues me is that many of the observations seem, at first glance, to be at odds with one another, so I ask myself; “Are we contradicting each other?” or, “Are these just two sides to the same coin?” Let me give you some examples:
1. Mercy vs. Truth
This is the “creative tension” evident in the words of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you… but, go and sin no more!”
It’s a delicate balance: Jesus always gives us His mercy … but He also always calls us to change, to conversion, to stop sinning, to the truth of a new life in Him! As one bishop observed, “The same God who is mercy incarnate gave us the Ten Commandments!” This bishop also mentioned that, while its soothing to meditate only on the parables of Jesus about mercy, we cannot overlook the parables which describe the “narrow way,” and the guests excluded from the banquet because they were not properly dressed.
2. “The excluded” vs. the “new minority”
Yes, it’s clear that some groups in the Church honestly tell us that they feel “excluded” from the life of the Church: those divorced and re-married civilly, without the sacrament; gays; single-parents; the elders; just to name a few. How good that we listen to them with respect, admit that we may have added to such a sense of exclusion, and consider appropriate pastoral outreach.
But, then there are also those who report a “chill” from culture, society, and even, at times, from the Church, because they are trying their best to live virtuously, and at times feel alone: married couples who are struggling to stay together through trials; gay people who are committed to the virtues revealed in the Bible; married couples barely making it economically because the mother has chosen to give up a job and stay at home to care for the children; married couples who have children with special needs, or who have generously taken in at-risk foster children; those who defend the traditional definition of marriage; young people who have chosen to remain chaste before marriage. These, too, tell us they can feel “excluded,” and look to the Church for affirmation.
One of the most successful gatherings we have in the archdiocese happens on Saturday evenings in a midtown parish, and attracts a thousand or more young adults who come for prayer before the Eucharist, confession, song, and, especially, good company with those who share deep Catholic values in a culture and city that can indeed be at times antagonistic. The name of their gathering is revealing: Catholic Underground!
3. God’s mercy vs. admitting we need it! Many pastors report that the big problem is not that their people feel they do not deserve God’s mercy, but that people feel they don’t need it! It’s not that we think we’re such big sinners that God won’t forgive us, but that we figure we’re such radiant saints that we don’t even need His pardon!
4. Wanting mercy vs. wanting approval. The Biblical tradition is that God’s forgiveness does not mean His approval. What some people want, as one bishop commented, is not mercy for their sins –that’s theirs for the asking — but approval of their decision to live in opposition to what God has taught. God’s mercy we can assure them; His approval? Sorry…
5. The “suffering Church” vs. the “comfortable Church” … my brother bishops from countries where they face persecution are daily challenged by survival! When they speak of the challenges facing the family — the topic of the Synod – they usually mean staying alive! What inspires me is that their families are united, strong, loving; they stay close, they huddle together, they pray, just to survive!
We in the more “secure” Church might speak about people falling away from the faith; these imperiled bishops tell us of people losing their lives because they are loyal to their faith. We worry about some of our people feeling “excluded” from the Church; they describe their struggling people “excluded” from jobs, society, culture, homes, and professions — and at times even from life itself — just because of their allegiance to the Church.
I sometimes sense they look at us bishops from “the Church comfortable” and think; “I’d give anything to have the time, energy, and luxury to worry about the issues you bring up. My worry is for the very existence of my people.”
One exasperated bishop from the Mid-East whispered to me on the way out one evening, “If all we’re going to talk about are people with same-sex attraction, and Holy Communion for those invalidly married, this should have been a regional synod only for Europe.”
6. “Meeting people where they’re at” vs. “Calling them to where God wants them to be.”
As one wise spiritual director told me years ago, “God loves you where you’re at, but, He loves you so much that He doesn’t want you to stay there!”
Cardinal Thomas Collins eloquently described this “creative tension” in his moving commentary on the famous episode of the “Disciples on the Road to Emmaus.” Yes, Jesus accompanied those two discouraged disciples on their journey, but, He literally “turned them around” pointing them back to Jerusalem! They were on the wrong track! Jesus accompanied them, but pointed them in the right direction.
Sometimes this creative tension is expressed by the phrase “All are Welcome” vs. “But, to what?” Yes, we obey the clear mandate of Jesus to invite everyone. All are welcome! But, we also realize we are inviting them into a spiritual family with clear convictions, and an invitation to conversion of heart which is as warm as the one to “come on in.”
7. “Convinced” of God’s mercy vs. “Convicted” as sinners.
In the words of the great evangelist Billy Graham, “We cannot be convinced that God has mercy for us, until we convict ourselves as a sinner.”
God’s mercy is the most potent force in the universe; the only force more cogent is our refusal to admit we need it!
8. “Being saved” vs. “Admitting we need a savior.”
Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to suggest that the reason Christmas had become so materialistic is that we no longer felt the birthday of the Savior was such good news! We feel we don’t need a savior! We can save ourselves! We’re already saved!
One bishop here at the Synod commented that the big pastoral problem now is that most of us in the Church today are like the alcoholic who will not admit he has a problem. As AA teaches, you can’t attain sobriety until you admit you’re a drunk.
9. The Pope of Mercy “I am a sinner!”
The synod rejoices at the tidal wave of mercy unleashed by the preaching and example of Pope Francis! All the world seems now to proclaim, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good! For his mercy endures forever!”
Alleluia! He is indeed the “Pope of Mercy.”
But –here’s the “paradox” — he is also the pontiff who, when asked by reporters how he would characterize himself, simply responded, “I am a sinner!”
He is a Pope unafraid to point out sin when he sees it! At an audience not long ago, he spoke about a lonely grandmother whose nearby family had not visited her for eight months. “That’s a mortal sin!” exclaimed the Pope! He is hardly shy about often speaking of sin; admitting he is a sinner; warning us about the influence of the devil; and, like an Old Testament prophet, calling us to repent of our sins.
10. Therapeutic care vs. Spiritual care
Some of the synod fathers have mentioned that we tend today to think that all problems can be solved by medicine, psychology, money, economic or political reform. Yes, they admit, all of these are very valuable and can indeed be a big help.
However, they go on to say, we seem to forget that so many of our difficulties start in the soul. People come to Church for spiritual healing!
Interestingly enough, the first married couple who addressed us at the Synod told us honestly that the earliest years of their marriage were very troubled, and that they were tempted to break up. What got them through? A psychologist? A sociologist? A new job? A law?
What saved their marriage, this couple reported, was their pilgrimage to Guadalupe! There, they poured out their hearts to the Blessed Mother. There, they told us, their souls were healed, and they renewed their love. That was over thirty years ago.
I could go on with other examples of these “creative tensions” that have been so touchingly spoken of during this inspired synod.
As the old maxim has it, “The Church is rarely about ‘either-or’; but usually about ‘both-and!’”
As a wise bishop summed up, after an afternoon of good conversation about all these “contradictions” spoken of during the Synod, “Maybe we just have to learn to live with a lot of seeming ambiguity, knowing that only God has all perfection, only the Lord has the answer to these questions that perplex us, and that all we can do is try our best to live as He has revealed, to rely on His grace and mercy, and leave it up to Him to bring order out of this mess!”
I’ll be home Monday!