Sometimes you hear priests struggling with the idea of celebrating sacraments with families who do not practice the faith as much as they should; C & E Catholics… those who only come at Christmas and Easter… if that. Do we withhold baptism if the parents do not come to church often? Do we do the same with marriage? Some priests require couples to attend mass for at least three months before proceeding with marriage preparation. It seems that this mechanical approach… counting masses… backfires. Couples do the minimum that is required and then leave. My experience is that it is better to invite couples, parents, families to experience the richness of our community’s life, the power of the liturgy, the inspiration of the preaching. If you build it they will come! Here are some thoughts from Sandro Magister, a journalist from Rome on the efforts of the Church in Argentina as expressed by Cardinal Bergoglio and also the ideas expressed by Pope Benedict XVI.
by Sandro Magister
Cardinal Bergoglio has explained the meaning of all this in an interview with the international magazine “30 Days”:
“The child has no responsibility for the condition of his parents’ marriage. The baptism of children can, on the contrary, become a new beginning for the parents. A while ago, I baptized the seven children of one woman, a poor widow who works as a maid and had her children by two different men. I met her on the feast of Saint Cajetan. She said to me, ‘Father, I am in mortal sin, I have seven children and have never had them baptized, I don’t have the money for the godparents and for the party… I saw her again and after a little catechesis I baptized them in the chapel of the archepiscopal residence. The woman said to me, ‘Father, I can’t believe it, you make me feel important’. I said to her, ‘But madam, what do I have to do with it? It’s Jesus who makes you important.”
“The conference in Aparecida urged us to proclaim the Gospel by going to meet the people, not by waiting for the people to come to us. Missionary fervor does not require extraordinary events. It is in ordinary life that mission work is done. And baptism, in this, is paradigmatic. The sacraments are for the life of men and women as they are. They may not make big speeches, but their ‘sensus fidei’ grasps the reality of the sacraments with more clarity than many specialists do.”
What reemerges here is the ancient and still unresolved dispute between a Church of the elite, a pure, minority Church, and a Church of the masses, populated also by that immense sea of humanity for whom Christianity is made up of a few simple things.
In Italy, for example, the dispute came up again during the last major national conference of the Church, held in Verona in October of 2006. On that occasion, one position held by the “rigorists” was precisely that of withholding baptism and the other sacraments from those believed to be unfit because they are not practicing.
It is a dilemma that Joseph Ratzinger himself experienced personally as a young man, and finally resolved in the same direction indicated by Cardinal Bergoglio. This is what, as pope, Ratzinger himself said in replying to the question from a priest of Bressanone, in a public question-and-answer session with the clergy of the diocese on August 6, 2008.
The priest, named Paolo Rizzi, a pastor and professor of theology, asked Benedict XVI a question about baptism, confirmation, and first communion:
“Holy Father, 35 years ago I thought that we were beginning to be a little flock, a minority community, more or less everywhere in Europe; that we should therefore administer the sacraments only to those who are truly committed to Christian life. Then, partly because of the style of John Paul II’s Pontificate, I thought things through again. If it is possible to make predictions for the future, what do you think? What pastoral approaches can you suggest to us?”.
Pope Ratzinger responded:
“I must say that I took a similar route to yours. When I was younger I was rather severe. I said: the sacraments are sacraments of faith, and where faith does not exist, where the practice of faith does not exist, the Sacrament cannot be conferred either. And then I always used to talk to my parish priest when I was Archbishop of Munich: here too there were two factions, one severe and one broad-minded. Then I too, with time, came to realize that we must follow, rather, the example of the Lord, who was very open even with people on the margins of Israel of that time. He was a Lord of mercy, too open – according to many official authorities – with sinners, welcoming them or letting them invite him to their dinners, drawing them to him in his communion.
“Therefore I would say substantially that the sacraments are naturally sacraments of faith: when there is no element of faith, when First Communion is no more than a great lunch with beautiful clothes and beautiful gifts, it can no longer be a sacrament of faith. Yet, on the other hand, if we can still see a little flame of desire for communion in the faith, a desire even in these children who want to enter into communion with Jesus, it seems to me that it is right to be rather broad-minded.
“I would say that this is definitely an inadequate answer, but the pedagogy of faith is always a journey and we must accept today’s situations. Yet, we must also open them more to each person, so that the result is not only an external memory of things that endures but that their hearts that have truly been touched. The moment when we are convinced the heart is touched – it has felt a little of Jesus’ love, it has felt a little the desire to move along these lines and in this direction, that is the moment when, it seems to me, we can say that we have made a true catechesis. The proper meaning of catechesis, in fact, must be this: to bring the flame of Jesus’ love, even if it is a small one, to the hearts of children, and through the children to their parents, thus reopening the places of faith of our time.”