This past week the Church calendar celebrated the life of Pope St. Pius X, and I couldn’t help thinking about the upcoming Synod on the Family which is to be held this fall in Rome. In particular, I have read several articles on the hot bed issue of giving Holy Communion to those Catholics who are divorced and remarried outside the church. The majority of articles have inferred that Pope Francis is in support of changing the present practice of precluding them from reception, while a few articles have speculated that he will continue to prohibit this practice. I really do not know what decision he will make, but I do find the conversation and resultant debate healthy for the Church and the faithful.
When any examination to be had regarding an ecclesiastical law, much like civil law heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, we look back to precedent in terms of past teachings, and scripture in terms of doctrinal implications.
The last time we saw any drastic change with respect to reception of the Eucharist, would have been a centuryago, to the time of Giuseppe Melchiore, that is, Pope Pius X. In 1905 this Pope issued a decree entitled, Sacra Tridentina Synodus. In this decree he refuted Jansenism, indicating that Holy Communion is not a reward for good behavior, but was a gift from God to be given to us to nourish us on our pilgrim journey to Heaven. The Council of Trent speak to it as an “antidote whereby we maybe freed from daily faults and preserved from mortal sin’. This decree was also significant, as the faithful rarely received communion but for a half a dozen times in the year, and now was encouraged to frequent reception, not only on Sundays, but weekdays as well! In addition to this reform he lowered the age for reception from age 14 to age 7 (canonically the age of reason, when a child can understand the difference between bread and the consecrated Eucharist.)
Pope Pius X, who was elected at an older age would hold the Seat of Peter for eleven years until his death, and is now known as a Great Reformer of the Church. In the short decade of his Pontificate he reformed many things, including, sacred music, biblical studies, catechesis, the curia, the breviary, canon law, seminary life and papal elections. A careful read of his priestly life, from parish priest to Pope, shows a holy man who was blessed with great pastoral skills and who sought to “reestablish all things in Christ,” and specifically the faithful with whom he ministered.
I wonder if we see many parallels in the actions of Pope Francis? It seems to me Pope Francis has shown a great love for the poor and marginalized, that is, ‘the sinner.’ A deeper look at this love shows that it is not limited to socio economic level or status, he loves the rich and poor, and understands the pain that all of us experience from the effects of original sin. He too has seen the need to bring the clergy and laity back to a state of humbleness, and to restore to them an awe in serving the needs of others, of returning to the Gospel values spoken so clearly in the Sermon on the Mount.
Over the course of my 18 years as a priest, and the last 9 years as pastor of a suburban working class parish, my heart has broken so many times to see older parishioners quietly slip out of Mass as we recite the Lord’s Prayer, with the shame of knowing their circumstance preclude them from receiving communion because of a divorce. I do not know how the Synod and Pope will conclude this matter, but I hold hope that as a Church we will develop approaches and programs that will aid those who find themselves divorced or divorced and remarried. I also take this moment to point a finger back at myself, as no such program exists in my parish, but if we are to be Church for the Poor and Marginalized, we can’t do it without this group.
Note: Special thanks to Professor Joseph F.X. Sladky, from whom I drew the biographical information on Pius X.