Missing the Message of These Marriages

Bishop Robert Vasa's picture
September 17, 2014
by Bishop Robert F. Vasa

If evidence is needed how wrong some media commentators can get a story, look no further than the coverage of Pope Francis’ recent action of witnessing the marriages of 20 couples, some of whom had lived together or had children together prior to marriage.

For instance, one Australian paper said it was the Pope making good “on his insistence that the Catholic Church welcome all faithful — not just those who obey church teaching perfectly.” Other outlets such as the New York Times had the same sort of observation.

The positive energy surrounding what Pope Francis did is edifying. One must ask, however, what he actually did that was so far from what the Church always does. Clearly, no one obeys Church teaching “perfectly” and so the implication that other Church officials only welcome the “perfect” is simply false. We are all sinners. The Church makes the sacraments, especially confession, available to us precisely because we are sinners. Sacraments are outward signs of the inner graces they give to help become less like sinners and more like Christ.

So what Francis has done is nothing new, much less extraordinary. And that is the real story here: The Church gave 40 men and women an opportunity to take a graced step in drawing closer to God and for some of them a turning away from a previous choice which they most likely recognized as inconsistent with God’s will for them.

Thus the perception that the Holy Father somehow “set aside” Church practice in his generous gesture of presiding at these 20 marriages is therefore terribly misleading and actually defamatory of this good Pope.

I wonder what elements of Church practice he set aside. I trust those couples, like all of the couples of every diocese of the United States:

  • were required to produce baptismal certificates (standard practice);
  • were required to go through the marriage preparation required by the Diocese of Rome (standard practice);
  • were required to prove freedom to marry (standard practice);
  • were required, if necessary to go through the annulment process (standard practice);
  • were invited and given the opportunity (I hope) to make a good confession prior to this sacramental moment (standard practice);
  • were required to present a civil marriage license (standard practice);
  • were required to complete the prenuptial questionnaire (standard practice);
  • were required to recite their vows in accord with an accepted form (standard practice).

And so it seems to me that the Holy Father, most likely, observed all of the standard formalities the Church has observed for centuries.

It is not typical for an officiating priest at a wedding to publicly announce that the couple was living together before the nuptials or that one or both of them had previous marriages and annulments. Doing so in this case has publicly manifested the Church’s openness to ‘sinners’ and it is this ‘proof’ of the Church’s welcome to those seeking ongoing conversion which is cause for joy. This, however, is not new though it may be news to some.

The charism of mercy manifested by Pope Francis is both attractive and attracting.

I would not, however, venture so far as to imply (as has the secular press) that this manifestation of mercy somehow excluded a call to conversion for every one of these couples. I would tend to believe every one of them recognized they wanted more from life than cohabitation or more than a simply civil form of marriage.

Let us rejoice for all of them that they responded to God’s graced call to conversion, His call to turn away from a previous way of life to a new life in Christ. I think this moment of conversion, which has not (unfortunately) been publicized or even mentioned, is the real story, a story of God’s merciful, redeeming and challenging grace.

Pope Francis clearly has a charism of love and mercy, but what he loves is the sinner, and there is nothing to imply that he in any way loves or condones the sin.

He loves the sinner and because of this love is not shy about calling them to reject sin and come more fully into the light of God’s love and grace.