The following article by a priest of the Newark Archdiocese appeared in Northern New Jersey Papers Sunday morning and attracted a considerable amount of local attention—mostly quite favorable. Thanks to reader Liam MacBride who brought the article to my attention and sent me a copy.
Mitis JudexDominus Jesus
Opinion: Pope Francis adds more seats around the table
BY ALEXANDER M. SANTORA
Pope Francis adds more seats around the table
On gay inclusion, abortion, pontiff is opening new doors
I WAS LEAVING a Baptism party at Willie McBride's Irish Pub in Hoboken and as I walked past the bar to the exit, three women were sitting near the door. One turned and asked me for a blessing. Feeling like a shaman, I still complied.
I turned to leave and another woman said, "Can you bless me and my fiancé? We are getting married soon. Our names are Christina and Beth." So, I placed my hands over their heads and said, "May the Lord give you health and strength and many happy years together." I made the sign of the cross and as I turned to leave, the first woman added, "You made our day."
Later, I recalled what Pope Francis said in the now-famous America magazine interview: "I manage to look at individual persons, one at a time, to enter into personal contact with whomever I have in front of me." Because of his vast pastoral experience, the pope accepts people as they are. This becomes the starting point for ministry.
On Tuesday, Francis announced that women who have had abortions can seek forgiveness in confession without going to the diocesan bishop. "May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome ... to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence," the pope wrote.
In the past, Francis said, "This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people." Clearly, his image of church has a large eucharistic table to signal that with the right disposition, all are welcome.
After 10 years as a pastor in city teeming with young adults, I find that they don't want judgmental homilies pointing fingers and labeling people. Instead, they hunger for help in navigating life through the prism of faith. Hoboken has a higher percentage of gay people, though there is no gay neighborhood and no gay bars or establishments, and gay people blend in with everyone else. Even at Mass. Gay men and lesbians do not want to be labeled as "other." And it seems to work.
Most parishioners accept people as they are, and society is more tolerant. And more young adults see discrimination as an injustice, which puts a real burden on churches and institutions in the 21st century.
For one, there needs to be a moratorium on labels. The days of separate Masses for gay people sponsored by Dignity for Catholics and Integrity for Episcopalians, for example, are over. Gay people search for hospitable clergy and houses of worship to get involved. There is no need for special homilies or support groups.
A turning point in Pope Francis' papacy was that simple rhetorical line on the airplane, "Who am I to judge?" No pope in recent memory could match Francis' ministerial experience meeting the poor and living like them. Francis is the supreme pastor. And that is why the entrenched hierarchy and Vatican Curia do not know how to handle him.
Francis is not guided by tradition, as much as the needs of the people of God without jettisoning church teaching. The synod at the Vatican last year made headlines because it included current pastoral dilemmas that keep people away from church.
The New York archdiocese, for example, closed and merged a number of churches because it estimated that 18 percent of Catholics attended Mass on a regular basis. And Francis has the pulse of why this occurs all over the world.
Many priests, even many younger ones, think they are living in a pre-Vatican Council church that dictates the way people are expected to live. Some give boring, didactic homilies and burden the churchgoers with the problems of those who do not even go to church. And they offer little help for contemporary Catholics to find faith in daily life.
Francis wants people to have a renewed experience of faith. And that means meeting them where they are and understanding the struggles people face every day. What he will find in typical parishes is that people who might be considered "sinners" in the eyes of the church come despite frequent invective and institutional hostility. That they have persevered is a sign of great faith, which Francis' papacy makes much more hospitable.
The question for the parish is how participation will change the local churches. As society tolerates and legalizes many practices that only 25 years ago would have been taboo, how can churches muster opposition and use rhetoric that denigrates? As parents and grandparents support their children and grandchildren, how will the church turn their backs on them and still expect to be seen as just?
None of these questions have easy answers. But the October synod and Francis's decisions after it will be the real test of whether the church expects to be relevant in the 21st century or still cling to a prejudiced past and diminish expectations. And, by the way, close more parishes because people simply go elsewhere or nowhere at all.
Gay people, divorced and remarried Catholics, and women who had abortions are already at the eucharistic table. Now it's time for the church to listen to their stories of faith and hope, which is the talk at any table when a family comes together.
We learn from one another who we are and what we can become. Francis is a hopeful pope. The local churches can take his lead to heal and help. And maybe, just maybe, those three women I met at Willie McBride's will find their way to Our Lady of Grace or some other church and find that there is a place for them at this huge eucharistic table.
The Rev. Alexander M. Santora is the pastor of the Church of Our Lady of Grace & St. Joseph in Hoboken.