Some things never change. The Gospel passage we just heard recounted one of the many instances in which the Lord Jesus worked a miraculous healing. This particular one is one that while public is such that it is meant to take the man off to the side to foster a personal encounter with the Lord and bring about the healing of his hearing and speech. This miracle performed, the Lord goes back and tries to have it not spread around everywhere, but the people immediately misunderstand the intention of the Lord and like a wildfire, news spreads all over the countryside about the miracle worker who has come to town.
I say ‘some things never change’ because a similar story happened this week. Pope Francis wrote a letter regarding the upcoming Year of Faith and sought in that letter to address certain issues that sometimes make it burdensome or impossible for certain persons to receive the grace that is held out. He addressed the SSPX, a religious community that broke away from the Church some 25+ years back and has not come into full communion yet, but who minister to a number of Catholics who tend to find greater nourishment in their community; he permitted their priests to validly absolve from sins during the Jubilee Year, a wonderful gift to them and to the faithful who might not otherwise celebrate the sacrament in union with the Church. He addressed those who cannot make it to the Holy Doors of the Vatican or even of the local Cathedral on account of infirmity or imprisonment. He spoke of their ability to unite themselves to the Lord in prayer and seek the grace, and specifically for inmates to contemplate the mercy of God as they cross the threshold of their cell, recalling the Holy Doors they long to enter. To this he added one more instance that caught the media’s attention: the granting of faculties to all Catholic priests to absolve from the sin of abortion and lift the penalty of excommunication. In response I saw headlines to the effect of “Catholic Church radically changes teaching on abortion” and “Catholic Church offers forgiveness for abortion” and the like. Much like the Gospel, Pope Francis sought to make possible a personal encounter with Jesus Christ that would bring about healing and peace, and a wildfire of misunderstanding and confusion spread through the countryside.
So what was actually said and what does it mean?
Pope Francis gave all Catholic priests the faculty to forgive the sin of abortion and lift the penalty of excommunication. The problem is that it can seem as if both of those are new ideas, when in fact they are not. Every priest who has faculties, that is the ability granted by his bishop, to hear confessions is able to absolve an individual of the sin of abortion. That was never even a question. There has not been a time recently when a person was unable to receive absolution and forgiveness. The Church’s teaching hasn’t changed on that; God’s mercy is infinite and open. The thing that was a bit new was that during the Jubilee Year of Mercy all priests will also be able to lift the penalty of excommunication.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 2272: “The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life [abortion]…. The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.”
The statement from the Catechism shows us that excommunication is something that still exists in the life of the Church and that it may be applied to a person participating in the sin of abortion. As it says, this is not a limiting of mercy in any way but rather a ‘penalty’ that highlights the serious nature of the act. In normal scenarios the lifting of the penalty of excommunication is reserved to the bishop. In layman’s terms that means it would require an individual to go to the bishop of the diocese to be release from the penalty. That can sounds like being sent to the principal’s office to get ‘a good talking to’ but is it really? Let’s take a closer look.
There are other events in the life of the Church that are reserved to the Bishop of a diocese. The consecration of churches, receiving the vows of religious brothers and sisters, and the blessing of certain religious objects for use in churches comes to mind. But another might be more applicable in this instance: the Sacrament of Confirmation. Technically every priest has the ability to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation – I’ve done it myself on three occasions in connection to RCIA and Easter Vigils – but the norm is that it would be reserved to the Bishop. This is so that the bishop has the joy of meeting face to face with those on whom the Holy Spirit is given in His fullness and to ensure that every member of the flock will have the opportunity at least once in their life to meet the Bishop, the successor of the Apostles. It is essentially to make possible the individual encounter that is spoken of in the Gospel with the Bishop at least once for every Catholic. Rather than a slap on the wrist, the mandate for a person to visit the bishop to be released from the penalty of excommunication is simply to hear from the representative of Christ Himself that they are not only forgiven but that they are in full communion with the Church, not someone on the outside but someone who is important and vital in the Church’s life.
Excommunication literally means ‘out of communion’ and highlights that something so serious has taken place that union between the individual and the larger community has been ruptured. Point this out is not meant to be a sign of public shaming so much as a call for healing. It’s not a punishment to browbeat people but a medicine to bring forth repentance and reunion. What Pope Francis did is that he recognized in many places throughout the world, individuals have a very hard time getting to their bishop. They may get Mass only once every month or so, let alone have the privilege of the being in the Bishop’s presence. Recognizing this reality, Pope Francis said that for the Year of Mercy, every parish priest will be able to lift the penalty of excommunication, since getting to the bishop may be impossible. In effect, he made it possible for countless people to more easily obtain not just the forgiveness they desire but the assurance that they are in the life of the Church and able to participate in the sacraments fully and without fear of being shamed. He enabled that personal encounter with Christ that brings about healing in the life of the Church. Admittedly, this doesn’t really change much in practice in the U.S., since most dioceses, including our own, have already had the policy that all priests could forgive and lift the penalty. But for the larger Church, this is quite a gift to bestow.
What’s the takeaway from all of this? If we haven’t had any connection to abortion, there is still something profoundly important for us to realize in this moment and it is the fact that Jesus Christ wants to have a personal encounter with each and every one of us. In every one of our hearts He can look as see a sin we struggle with, a relationship that’s wounded, a hurt that won’t go away, a regret or fear that needs to be addressed. Not one person in this Church today is perfect, so the invitation is extended not just to a certain group of people but to all people: come aside with the Lord for a moment and let Him lay hands upon us and bring about some healing. He wants to heal us, but we have to be willing to go off to the side and let Him do the work. I encourage you. I urge you. I beg you. If it works, I command you! Go to Confession! There’s no such thing as receiving ‘too much grace’ from God. There’s no such thing as being ‘too healed’ from past wounds. Don’t think that it has to be major things. Just like little kids that often get a little bump or ‘boo-boo’ on their hands and arms and cry up a storm; parents know you don’t have to administer drugs or get stitches or take x-rays. More often than not a parents’ gentle kiss makes it all better. Jesus wants our big stuff, but he also wants our ‘boo-boos’ to make everything better. Go to Confession. Ephphatha! Be opened. Be healed.