Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I want to tell you a few stories of accompaniment and discernment about real people. The first is about a man who once made a great sacrifice for the sake of living the Christian faith. When he was 17 years old he had a son with a woman whom he could not or would not marry. They spent 15 years together raising this son. He had been interested in the Catholic Church from his childhood, but it took him many years to come to believe in all of the Church’s truths. His mother who was Catholic prayed and sacrificed for him everyday, and devoted her life to helping him know and accept the truths revealed by God to the Church. During these long years he learned the teachings of the Church, was drawn to the beauty of truth, grew a real love for God in his heart. He learned much from a bishop, whom this young man described as one of those “who speak the truth, and speak it well, judiciously, pointedly, and with beauty and power of expression” (Christian Doctrine IV.21). It was the truth that compelled this young man to desire to be Catholic.
But he also understood that as long as he lived with and was unmarried to his partner, he could never enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. He knew he had to rid himself from a life of serious sin in order to become one with the Body of Christ, but making the choice to separate himself from the woman he was with was too difficult for him. It was finally his partner who had the willpower to separate from him. She left his 15-year-old son with him and went back to her hometown. She then became Catholic herself, and spent the rest of her life in a convent doing penance for her past life. Even still it took awhile for this man and his son to finally become baptized into the Catholic faith by the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. This man sought to radically change from his past life, and eventually became a priest, then a bishop, and finally a saint in Heaven. St. Augustine of Hippo’s story shows us how God is willing to pursue a soul over many years, how he uses priests and laity to accompany people into the Church, and how in order to live in full communion with the Catholic Church we often have to sacrifice the things that are most dear to us.
Another story of a real person is the story of the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John. Christ himself accompanied her. The Law of Moses condemned her to be stoned. The Pharisees jeered at her as they brought her before Jesus. She stood waiting her condemnation by this holy man. He looked at her, and then wrote on the ground. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw the stone.” (John 8:7) No one was without sin, and they all left her there with Jesus. He looked at her with eyes of mercy. He knew her heart; he knew all of her sinfulness. He knew to the depth why she had been in that act of adultery, which had lead to this public condemnation, but her accusers had all walked away. “Neither do I condemn you,” he spoke to her, “Go, and do not sin again.” (John 8:11) This woman clearly knew that she was offending God by her actions, or else we would read about Jesus telling her more. He saw contrition in her heart, so he forgave her and commanded her to not sin again.
We have all been this woman caught in a sinful act. We have all offended God; we are all sinful. And God calls us all to bring our sins to him to seek his forgiveness. But he also wants us all to not sin again. This idea of never sinning again is a task, which seems insurmountable for us all.
We also have all been the Pharisees standing in judgment of others. Their sin is so clear to us, and we demand justice. But the merciful Christ reminds us that we cannot be the ones to condemn each other. We are just as guilty as the next person. If there had been only one sinner on earth, and that sinner was you or me, Christ would have still had to die for us to be saved.
We hear in the Gospels the story of the rich young man who wants to accompany Jesus and wants Jesus to accompany him. He says to Jesus that he has kept the Ten Commandments faithfully, and asks what else he can do. Jesus, knowing the attachments of this man’s heart, says:
“Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad, for he was very rich.” (Luke 18:23-24)
Thus, he went away sad, for he did not yet see that the pearl of great price was worth more than all of his riches.
All of us have something that we are attached to in the same way as the rich young man was to his money. All of us have been asked to by God to get rid of the thing that we treasure more than him. For some of us it is an attachment to a particular sin or a love of a material thing. Some of us put our human relationships before our love of God. Are these things worth more to us than the eternal happiness of Heaven for us and for those we love?
Then there is the story of the apostles who accompany Jesus. After seeing the rich man described above leave, St. Peter said:
“‘Behold, we have left our homes and followed you.’ And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.’” (Luke 18:28-30)
Who of us have not left people we love in order to live out what Christ is calling us to? Who of us have not left material things we are attached or let go of bad habits to follow Christ? Whatever we have left so far, we are called to detach ourselves even further. For most of us conversion and coming to know and love the truth takes a lifetime. None of us know the fullness of the truth and none of us love God as we should.
These are things that we all need to keep in mind when we consider the pastoral accompaniment of those who wish to be in full communion with the Catholic Church. St. Augustine’s “irregular” situation is not an uncommon one.
Pope John Paul II expressed the need we all have for inner conversion in his apostolic exhortation on the family:
“What is needed is a continuous, permanent conversion which, while requiring an interior detachment from every evil and an adherence to good in its fullness, is brought about concretely in steps which lead us ever forward. Thus, a dynamic process develops, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of His definitive and absolute love in the entire personal and social life of man. Therefore an educational growth process is necessary, in order that individual believers, families and peoples, even civilization itself, by beginning from what they have already received of the mystery of Christ, may patiently be led forward, arriving at a richer understanding and a fuller integration of this mystery in their lives.” (Familiaris Consortio, 9)
All of these things apply to the discussion that our cardinals, bishops, and theologians have been having about how to pastorally apply Pope Francis’s post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In the eighth chapter of the exhortation he discusses how pastors are to accompany and discern with people in irregular family and marriage situations. He wants all of them to be lead to a deeper conversion, and expresses the same ideas that Pope St. John Paul II expressed in the above passage from Familiaris Consortio.
When we read Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia talking about leading people to a gradual conversion who are not able “to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law,” (AL, 295) we must remember that all of us are unable to do this to the extent that we are sinful. When he says that that “the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace,” (AL, 295) we must remember that all of us only do good because of the help of grace. None of us can consider people seeking union with the Church who are in irregular family circumstances, and not relate to the fact that we are all sinners being offered grace. Further, we can only truly accompany people when we realize this. They have to know that we in the Church are all sinners seeking redemption together.
When we are accompanying people from this standpoint of mercy and love, then we are in a position to tell them the truth, as St. Ambrose did to St. Augustine. And we cannot stop short of the truth with anyone. To do so would be ignoring the call of evangelization given by Christ in the Gospels. St. Paul implores:
“But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14-15)
How can they know the fullness of it if no one is willing to tell them? St. Augustine was led to conversion by St. Ambrose because he spoke the truth, and spoke it well!
People deserve to hear the truth that we can only receive the graces of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist when we are in a state of grace, meaning that we do not have any serious sins that we have not confessed on our souls. We commit mortal sins when the sin is about a serious matter, we have full knowledge that it is serious, and we deliberately consent to it. When we do this we turn away from Christ, and deliberately cut ourselves off from his sanctifying grace. We can only have this grace again if we receive absolution in the Sacrament of Confession. If we are living in circumstances that keep us from being free from grave sin, as St. Augustine was, our human dignity demands that we be told the truth about our circumstances. We also deserve to be told that the Holy Eucharist is so sacred that we should only approach to receive if we are truly able to say that we are in a state of grace thanks to the great mercy of God!
I know another story of accompaniment about a man and woman who were re-married before both had received annulments from their previous marriages. The wife was seeking to come back into full communion with the Church while the husband was seeking to come into the Church for the first time. While waiting for their marriage to become regularized in the Church, the wife began to have a strong desire to receive the Eucharist and asked a priest in the confessional how this would be possible since they were still waiting for the results of annulments. He said that if they chose to live as brother and sister while they waited, then she would be able to receive the Eucharist in good conscience. So they chose to live as brother and sister for a time for the sake of being able to receive the Eucharist. She spoke of the great joy they had in being able to receive Jesus every time she went to Communion because she chose to listen to his call to love and serve him over her desire to live as husband and wife with the man whom she loved. When they were able to eventually live fully as husband and wife in a Sacramental marriage, they received even further graces. They were just normal human beings responding to Christ’s call and accepting his grace in difficult situations.
It may seem and be impossible for a mere, fallen human to live with this kind of heroic virtue, but Christ tells us that, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27) And I have to believe; I am compelled by the truth to believe that this is possible for all women and men who seek to have a true conversion of heart.
All Catholics have access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation to help them overcome their attachments to sin, and I have found through experience that this sacrament does all that it claims to do. It is worth it for the sake of our eternal souls to seek to overcome our attachments to sin and to things that keep us from being in union with the Church. The graces of all the other sacraments, such as Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Marriage, cannot help us become holy and be made fit for eternal life, unless we are repenting of our sins and seeking to amend our lives always.
The final story I want to tell is one of a group of martyrs during the reign of Emperor Severus in Carthage. Sts. Felicity and Perpetua were among this group of catechumens who were martyred by wild beasts and soldiers in an amphitheater. Both women made great sacrifices for the sake of their love of God. St. Felicity was eight months pregnant when went she was brought into prison. While imprisoned, she gave birth to a little girl, and then willingly gave up her child to the care of another so as to not have to deny her belief in the truths of Christianity. In her sacrifice she was surrounded by others choosing God above their lives.
St. Perpetua wrote out the account of herself in prison, awaiting martyrdom with her nursing infant son in her arms. St. Perpetua’s father came to her and pleaded with her to give up her faith for the sake of him and for her child. She was moved with grief, but giving up her son to her father’s care replied, “I will do whatsoever God shall ordain. Thou knowest that we belong to God, and not to ourselves.” And that is my final point, the whole reason for our existence is to follow God’s will. Sometimes that requires the greatest sacrifices, but these sacrifices are worth the cost because our reward is eternal life. This is what we are aiming for; let us accompany each other so that none of us fall short.