The unexpected pastoral implications of Fiducia supplicans

The most common irregular situations

It is unfortunate that they hype surrounding Fiducia supplicans make us all think that it is only about same-sex couples and blessing them. It is not, and this we have heard clearly in the previous presentations.

In my experience the most common “irregular situations” of couples are co-habitation, the existence of a prior bond and same–sex couples. In some areas polygamous marriages might be commonplace, but where I am a parish priest it is not the case. More than half of couples with whom I have conducted the pre-nuptial interview, have been living together for some years before requesting sacramental marriage. Some have arrived at the point of requesting sacramental marriage precisely because they have stayed close to the church and received pastoral counselling.

The second most common situation is that of being divorced and re-married. One lady expressed herself in this way:  “We attend Mass, we pray, we give to the poor, we try to live good lives, father. Does this one aspect of our lives negate and cancel out all the rest? Because we are deemed to be living in sin and therefor going to hell?”

Less common, but with increasing frequency, there are same-sex couples who express a desire to be united to the church while living together. They know and accept the teaching of the church on marriage and people with a homosexual orientation but do not see themselves able to live a life of celibacy. They live with this tension and share it with the priest.  I have only knowledge of one case where those concerned told me that they are not a couple but rather companions. They try to live chaste lives but they need the permanence of each other’s companionship and support. For the outside world they are a couple by all signs but the priest who has this information from the internal forum, will have to trust their word.

The pastor

The declaration places a lot of responsibility on the pastor who supposedly is already familiar with employing the “pastoral solution”.

The pastor must be willing to accompany his flock through the ministry of presence, spiritual direction and pastoral conversations. He is to familiarise himself with the pastoral meaning of blessings – knowing the difference between a formal, ritualised blessing as opposed to a simple blessing asking for God’s assistance.  It is his duty to discern in a prudent and fatherly way how to administer a blessing to couples who find themselves in irregular situations. He will know to seek ways to include everyone even when they are not able to fully participate in the life and ministry of the church or to respond to the commands of the gospel. To be vigilant never to give the impression of legitimising an irregular situation through wording or associating the blessing with the external of a marriage ceremony. Such a blessing should in any case be given privately rather than publicly.

The couple

The couple themselves have work to do, and the pastor is the one reminding them thereof. They should be invited and welcomed to continually participate more fully in the life and ministry of the church. There is to be patient catechesis in a non- judgmental way about the teaching of the church on marriage, chastity, sexual orientation, and the options open to them. They are invited to respond to the Lord’s call to repentance and conversion just like everyone else and to inform and to follow their own conscience. There could also be catechesis about the nature and purpose of a private blessing before giving it, so as to avoid any confusion.

The community

The couple live in a community of believers who is also in need of catechesis, because they share the life of the parish, all of them, together. Therefore, the community, the parish is also in need of catechesis on God’s love and the sanctity of life, marriage and sex. This already exists in various ways, but should be expanded to include those who will ordinarily be looked upon or ignored or pushed to the margins.

Young people especially are amenable and malleable to such catechesis, but in their case it is naturally possible to include regular workshops on sexuality and dating.

In this way, the parish who is trained to be a church that truly welcomes all those created in the image and likeness of God becoming a listening Church.

Fiducia means that there is to be periodic catechesis about the pastoral meaning of blessings, with the focus on formation for parents, catechists and teachers. These leaders in the faith are often key in forming opinions and therefore they are fertile ground for formation of all who come into contact with them. Imagine adults, with all their experience taking the lead in finding novel ways to understand and pass on the faith, a faith that comes from a God who keeps the Church ever young through the Spirit.

Because it ultimately goes to the faith of the people and their prayer life, spiritual formation should not be left behind. Therefore the parish can schedule retreat or days of recollection and Bible study. These are natural ecumenical opportunities where all are welcome. After all, this is not a Catholic phenomenon that we are growing to understand and integrate into our religious life.  Both classical and recent documents of the magisterium on the family especially Familiaris Consortio and Amoris Laetitia.

The media

While the different news media are necessary channels of information and education, besides entertainment, and as they are an important and indispensable sign of democracy and civil health, can something not be done to rectify some of the misleading headlines which are so confusing to Catholics and others? Yes, all of us should take extra care in choosing which media we use and follow, but still it appears at times a scary place to be. The reality is that our opinions are very often formed by what we see in mainstream media. We will watch this and sometimes read that meme or headline, but how many of us will actually read church documents like Fiducia. The Catholic media in our region should play a leading role to engage these issues in a confident way.

Polarised reactions are not helpful

The ‘official’ reactions, again, as we learn from the media, are certainly not helpful for the priest and the layperson. On the one hand, the Angolan bishops have said, referring to blessing same-sex couples, that “it will create enormous scandal and confusion among the faithful.” On the other hand, said Bishop Oscar Ojea of Argentina, “If someone asks for a blessing in the street or at a sanctuary, I never ask them if they are married or not.”

Very little is said about the bulk of the declaration, on the pastoral meaning of blessings and its broadening and enrichment. All reactions seem to zoom in on the tiny reference in the document to the possibility of prudently and fatherly giving a blessing to individuals who are in a same-sex relationship under certain conditions.

What is needed is a golden midway, more dialogue, and patient catechesis.