Blessings, pastoral conversion, and the risk of wanting to codify everything
By Andrea Tornielli
In three months, Pope Francis will enter the twelfth year of his pontificate—a pontificate marked from the beginning by the call for a “pastoral conversion”, as we read in Evangelii gaudium, the apostolic exhortation that charts the course of the magisterium of the current Bishop of Rome.
Pope Francis lucidly points out that we are not living in “an epoch of changes, but a change of epoch”. As Rocco Buttiglione has already emphasized in these pages, commenting on the recent declaration on blessings that opens up the possibility of spontaneous and non-liturgical blessings to irregular couples including those of the same sex, fifty years ago homosexuals were decidedly against marriage. Today, at least in a great many cases, this is no longer the case. Although—understandably—media attention has focused on homosexual couples, the declaration promulgated recently by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith speaks of couples who do not live according to the Church’s moral norms. Without going into statistics, it can be said that the majority of these are couples consisting of a man and a woman living together without being married. One does not need to be a sociologist to realize what an epochal change has taken place in recent decades: the decline in religious and civil marriages, the exponential growth of cohabitation (even among those who have been brought up in the faith).
The pastoral conversion of which the Pope speaks is not a cosmetic operation, a simple adjustment of schedules, a few minor adjustments to structures. It is something deeper, which engages the responsibility of everyone, and first and foremost that of ordained ministers. The etymological meaning of the word “conversion” is “to move from one place to another”, “to turn towards someone or something”, “to change direction”. The pastoral conversion Francis speaks of is the invitation to a radical change of outlook and mentality, not in the sense of somehow conforming to worldly thinking by watering down the Christian proclamation, but exactly the opposite. It is an invitation to revitalize the proclamation of the Gospel, concentrating on the essential, on the kerygma, knowing that we are increasingly dealing with interlocutors who no longer know it. Knowing that we must go out, take risks, meet others without prejudice, listen before judging, and not wait for people to come looking for us. The image of the Church as a “field hospital”, so dear to the Successor of Peter, is a powerful example. The root of pastoral conversion is profoundly evangelical: Jesus invited us not to judge lest we be judged, not to focus on the mote in the eye of those before us while ignoring the beam stuck in our own. Jesus overturned the religious logic and norms of His time by going first to untouchables and public sinners.
The purpose of pastoral conversion is one only, and it is the one that gives meaning to the Church’s existence: mission. That is, the witness of the infinite love of a merciful God Who embraces before judging and Who comes to meet us to lift us up if only we allow Him to do so, even if we only desire it.
There is another decisive word, linked to the change of epoch, to pastoral conversion, and to the missionary option: “discernment”. It is also a keyword in the declaration of the doctrinal Dicastery concerning blessings. In the document, which reaffirms that the doctrine on marriage does not change and that the Church considers licit only sexual relations between a man and a woman united in matrimony, it is clearly stated not only that any ritualization, any creation of liturgies or para-liturgies for the blessings of “irregular” couples is to be avoided, but also that no further “instructions” on the subject are to be expected—precisely because it is left to the discernment of ordained ministers.
It is a cross and a responsibility that weighs on the shoulders of priests, who are called to take charge of people’s dramas, called to listen to their stories, called to accompany them step by step toward a full understanding of God’s plan for their lives. This is an eminently missionary activity. To imagine “passing off” the burden of discernment onto a handbook or a predetermined blessing is to fall into casuistry.
Of course, having a handbook where everything is clear, defined, structured and analyzed in detail would be easier. But there can be no handbook that can contemplate the variety of dramas, personal stories, situations.
In his Christmas greetings to the Curia, Pope Francis has said, “Discernment is important for us all. As an art of the spiritual life, it can strip us of the illusion of omniscience, from the danger of thinking that it is enough simply to apply rules, from the temptation to carry on … by simply repeating what we have always done. And in this way, failing to realize that the Mystery of God is always beyond us and that the lives of people and the world around us are, and will always remain, superior to ideas and theories.” For “it takes courage to love”.
The Christian faith, Francis went on to say, “is not meant to confirm our sense of security, to let us settle into comfortable religious certitudes, and to offer us quick answers to life’s complex problems.” The God of Jesus Christ “sends us on a journey, draws us out of our comfort zones, our complacency about what we have already done, and in this way He sets us free; He changes us.”
Certainly, the declaration about blessings questions, shakes up, forces one out of “comfort zones”. The aim is to meet people where they live and how they live, not how we would like them to live, so as not to “quench the smoking flax” in the face of a request for blessing, that is, a request for help from God.