The Sinful Woman, by Jeff Hein
SHE wrote to apologize for being so rude.
We had been debating on a country music forum about excessive sexuality in music videos. She accused me of being rigid, frigid, and repressed. I, on the other hand, tried to defend the beauty of sexuality in sacramental marriage, of monogamy, and marital fidelity. I tried to be patient as her insults and anger mounted.
But the next day, she sent a private note thanking me for not attacking her in return. She went on, over the course of a few email exchanges, to explain that she’d had an abortion many years ago, and that it led to her feeling jaded and bitter. It turned out that she was a Catholic, and so I reassured her of Christ’s desire to forgive and heal her wounds; I urged her to seek out His mercy in the confessional where she could hear and know, without a doubt, that she was forgiven. She said she would. It was an astonishing turn of events.
A few days later, she wrote to say that she indeed went to confession. But what she said next left me stunned: “The priest said he couldn’t absolve me because he needed the bishop’s permission—sorry.” I hadn’t realized at the time that only the bishop has authority to absolve the sin of abortion Abortion incurs an automatic excommunication from the Church, which only the bishop can lift, or those priests whom he has authorized to do so.. Still, I was shocked that in an era where abortion is as common as getting a tattoo, priests weren’t given discretionary authority by the bishop, which is possible, to absolve this grave sin.
A couple of days later, out of the blue, she wrote me a nasty letter. She accused me of belonging to a cult, of this and that, and calling me the crudest names under the sun. And with that, she changed her email and was gone… I’ve never heard from her since.
THE FORGOTTEN CONTEXT
I share this story now in light of Pope Francis’ recent intention to allow priests, during the coming jubilee year of mercy, to grant absolution to those who have had an abortion. You see, abortion was rare when the laws governing its absolution were devised. So too were divorces and annulments rare when the Church established her tribunals. So too were rare those who divorced and re-married, or those who were openly gay, or those who were raised in same-sex relationships. All of a sudden, within a few generations, the Church finds herself at an hour when moral norms are no longer the norm; when the majority of those who call themselves Catholics in the Western world no longer go to Mass; and when the light of authentic Christian witness has been mostly dimmed as even “good Catholics” have compromised with the spirit of the world. Our pastoral approach, in some cases, needs a fresh review.
Enter Pope Francis.
He was once a nightclub bouncer. He preferred to spend most of his time with the poor. He refused the perks of his office, preferring instead to ride the bus, walk the streets, and mingle with the outcasts. In the process, he began to recognize and touch the wounds of modern man—of those who were far away from the fortresses of canon law, of those who were uncatechized in their Catholic schools, unprepared by the pulpit, and oblivious to eloquent papal pronouncements and teachings that even many parish priests did not bother to read. Still, their wounds were bleeding, casualties of the sexual revolution that promised love, but left nothing but a wake of brokenness, pain, and confusion.
And so, shortly before he would find himself elected as the successor to Peter, Cardinal Mario Bergoglio said to his fellow prelates:
To evangelize implies a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries not only in the geographic sense but also the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, of doing without religion, of thought and of all misery. When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referent and then she gets sick… The self-referent Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him come out… Thinking of the next Pope, he must be a man that from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to come out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother who lives from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing. —Salt and Light Magazine, p. 8, Issue 4, Special Edition, 2013
Nothing in this vision has changed some two years later. At the Mass recently commemorating Our Lady of Sorrows, Pope Francis reiterated what has become his mission: to make the Church a welcoming Mother again.
In these times where, I don’t know if it’s the prevailing sense, but there is a great sense in the world of being orphaned, it’s an orphaned world. This word has a great importance, the importance when Jesus tells us: ‘I am not leaving you as orphans, I’m giving you a mother.’ And this is also a (source of) pride for us: we have a mother, a mother who is with us, protects us, accompanies us, who helps us, even in difficult or terrible times… Our Mother Mary and our Mother Church know how to caress their children and show tenderness. To think of the Church without that motherly feeling is to think of a rigid association, an association without human warmth, an orphan. —POPE FRANCIS, Zenit, Sept. 15th, 2015
Pope Francis has revealed during his pontificate, in rather dramatic fashion, that many in the Church have forgotten the context in which she finds herself today. And it is the same context in which Jesus Christ became man and entered into the world:
…the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen… (Matt 4:16)
Today, brothers and sisters, it is indeed as Jesus said it would be: “as in the days of Noah.” We too have become a people in utter darkness as the light of faith and truth has been all but extinguished in many parts of the world. As a result, we have become a culture of death, “a land overshadowed by death.” Ask your “average” Catholic to explain purgatory, define mortal sin, or quote St. Paul, and you’ll get a blank stare.
We are a people in darkness. No, we are a wounded people in darkness.
THE SCANDAL OF MERCY
Jesus Christ was a scandal, but not to the pagans. No, the pagan
s followed Him because he would love them, touch them, heal them, feed them, and dine in their houses. Sure, they didn’t understand who He was: they thought He was a prophet, Elijah, or a political saviour. Rather, it was the teachers of the law who were offended by Christ. For Jesus did not damn the adulteress, scorn the tax collector, or chide the lost. Rather, He forgave them, welcomed them, and sought them out.
Fast forward to our day. Pope Francis has become a scandal, but not to the pagans. No, the pagans and their liberal media rather like him because he loves without discretion, touches them, and lets them interview him. Sure, they don’t understand him either, twisting his statements to their own expectations and agendas. And indeed, once again, it is the teachers of the law who are crying foul. Because the Pope washed a woman’s feet; because the Pope did not judge a repentant priest who had homosexual tendencies; because he has welcomed sinners to the Synod table; because, like Jesus who healed on the Sabbath, the Pope, too, is placing the law at the service of men, rather than men at the service of the law.
Mercy is a scandal. It always has been and always will be because it delays justice, absolves the unforgivable, and calls to itself the most unlikely prodigal sons and daughters. Thus, the “eldest brothers” who have remained faithful, who seem less rewarded for their loyalty than the prodigals who have returned home from their binges, are often flustered. It seems like a dangerous compromise. It seems… unjust? Indeed, after having denied Christ three times, the first thing Jesus did for Peter was fill his fishing nets to overflowing. cf. A Miracle of Mercy
Mercy is scandalous.
THE HOUR OF MERCY
There are some who study prophecy, but nonetheless fail to recognize the “signs of the times”. We are living the Book of Revelation, which is nothing less than preparation for the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. And Jesus tells us what the last hour of invitation to this Feast will look like:
Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests… Many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matt 22:8-14)
How scandalous! And now, Pope Francis is literally throwing open the doors of the kingdom of heaven on earth, which is present in mystery through the Church (see Opening Wide the Doors of Mercy). He has invited scoundrels and sinners, feminists and atheists, dissenters and heretics, population reductionists and evolutionists, homosexuals and adulterers, “the bad and good alike” to enter the halls of the Church. Why? Because Jesus himself, the King of this Wedding Feast, announced that we are living in a “time of mercy” in which chastisement has been temporarily suspended:
I saw the Lord Jesus, like a king in great majesty, looking down upon our earth with great severity; but because of His Mother’s intercession He prolonged the time of His mercy…the Lord answered me, “I am prolonging the time of mercy for the sake of [sinners]. But woe to them if they do not recognize this time of My visitation.” —revelation to St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary, n. 126I, 1160
Through the pleading, tears, and prayers of Our Mother who sees that we are seemingly orphaned and lost in darkness, she has secured for the world one last opportunity to turn to her Son and be saved before a great number of humanity are called before the throne of judgment. Indeed, Jesus said:
…before I come as a just Judge, I first open wide the door of My mercy. He who refuses to pass through the door of My mercy must pass through the door of My justice… —Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary of St. Faustina, n. 1146
…hear the voice of the Spirit speaking to the whole Church of our time, which is the time of mercy. I am sure of this. —POPE FRANCIS, Vatican City, March 6th, 2014, www.vatican.va
But this does not mean that those who are invited can keep wearing their garments, stained by sin. Or they will hear their Master say:
My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment? (Matt 22:12)
Authentic mercy leads others to repentance. The Gospel is given precisely to reconcile sinners to the Father. And this is why Pope Francis continues to reinforce Church teaching without—in his own words—“obsessing” over it. For the first task is to make known to all that no one, on account of their sin, is excluded from the forgiveness and mercy Christ offers.
SAFER THAN YOU THINK… MORE COMFORTABLE THAN WE SHOULD BE
We have enjoyed, thanks be to God, the powerful, clear, orthodox teachings of a century of holy popes, and most especially in our times, that of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We hold in our hands a Catechism that contains the decisive and indisputable Apostolic Faith. There is no bishop, no Synod, no pope even who can change these teachings.
But now, we have been sent a shepherd who calls us to leave the comfort of our fishing boats, the security of our cloistered rectories, the complacency of our parishes, and illusions that we are living the faith when in reality we’re not, and to go out to the peripheries of society to find the lost (for we too are called to invite “the good and the bad alike”). In fact, while still a Cardinal, Pope Francis even suggested that the Church leave its walls and set itself up in the public square!
Instead of just being a Church that welcomes and receives, we try to be a Church that comes out of itself and goes to the men and women who do not participate in parish life, do not know much about it and are indifferent towards it. We organise missions in public squares where many people usually gather: we pray, we celebrate Mass, we offer baptism which we administer after a brief preparation. —Cardinal Mario Bergoglio (POPE FRANCIS), Vatican Insider, February 24th, 2012; vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en
No, this doesn’t sound like twelve months of RCIA. It sounds more like the Acts of the Apostles.
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed to them… Those who accepted his m
essage were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day. (Acts 2:14, 41)
WHAT ABOUT THE LAW?
“Ah, but what about liturgical laws? What about the candles, incense, rubrics, and rites? Mass in the city square?!” What about the candles, incense, rubrics and rites in Auschwitz, where prisoners celebrated the Liturgy by memory with bread crumbs and fermented juice? Did the Lord meet them where they were at? Did He meet us where we were at 2000 years ago? Will He meet us now where we are? Because I tell you, most people will never step foot in a Catholic parish if we don’t make them welcome. The hour has come where the Lord must once again go walking the dusty roads of humanity to find the lost sheep… but this time, He will walk through you and I, His hands and feet.
Now don’t get me wrong—I have given my life to defending the truth of our faith, or at least, I have tried (God is my judge). I cannot and will not defend anyone who perverts the Gospel, expressed today in its fullness through our Sacred Tradition. And that includes those attempting to introduce pastoral practices that are schizoprenic—that while not changing the law, nonetheless break it. Yes, there are those in the recent Synod who wish to do just that.
But, Pope Francis has done none of the above. Has he been a source of confusion and division in his spontaneous remarks, surprising gestures, and unlikely “dinner guests”? Without question. Has he brought the Church dangerously close to the thin line between mercy and heresy? Perhaps. But Jesus did all this and more, to the point that He not only lost followers, but was betrayed and abandoned by His own, and eventually crucified by all.
Still, like the echo of distant thunder, the words of Pope Francis spoken after the first session of the Synod last year continue to resonate in my soul. How, I wonder, can Catholics who followed those sessions forget the powerful speech Francis gave at its conclusion? He gently chastised and exhorted both “conservative” and “liberal” prelates for either watering down the Word of God, or suppressing it, cf. The Five Corrections and then concluded by assuring the Church that he had no intention of altering the unalterable:
The Pope, in this context, is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant – the “servant of the servants of God”; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being – by the will of Christ Himself – the “supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful” and despite enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church”. —POPE FRANCIS, closing remarks on the Synod; Catholic News Agency, October 18th, 2014 (my emphasis)
Those who follow my writings know that I have devoted months to defending the papacy—not because I believe in Pope Francis, per se, but because my faith is in Jesus Christ who deigned to give the keys of the kingdom to Peter, declaring him rock, and choosing to build His Church upon it. Pope Francis declared precisely why the pontiff remains a perpetual sign of the unity of the body of Christ as well as the bulwark of truth, which the Church is.
A CRISIS OF FAITH
It is grievous to hear of Catholics, seemingly well-intentioned, who speak of Pope Francis as a “false prophet” or colluder with Antichrist. Do people forget that Jesus Himself chose Judas as one of the Twelve? Don’t be surprised if the Holy Father has allowed Judases to sit at table with him. Again, I’m telling you, there are those who study prophecy, but few who seem to understand it: that the Church must follow her Lord through her own passion, death, and resurrection. cf. Francis, and the Coming Passion of the Church In the end, Jesus was crucified precisely because He was misunderstood.
Such Catholics reveal their lack of faith in the petrine promises of Christ (or their arrogance in setting them aside). If the man occupying the Seat of Peter has been validly elected, then he is anointed with the charism of infallibility when it comes to matters of faith and morals in official promulgations. What if the Pope attempts to change a pastoral practice that in fact becomes scandalous? Then, like Paul, “Peter” will have to be corrected. cf. Gal 2:11-14 The question is, will you lose faith in Jesus’ ability to build His Church if the “rock” also becomes a “stumbling stone”? If we suddenly discover that the Pope has fathered ten children, or God forbid, committed a grave offense against a child, will you lose your faith in Jesus and His ability to guide the Barque of Peter, as He has in the past, when popes have scandalized others by their infidelities? That is the question here, to be sure: a crisis of faith in Jesus Christ.
STAYING IN THE ARK, WHICH IS MOTHER
Brothers and sisters, if you are afraid of being orphaned in the Storm that has now come upon the world, then the answer is to follow the example of St. John: stop questioning, calculating, and fretting, and simply lay your head upon the breast of the Master and listen to His divine heartbeats. In other words, pray. There, you will hear what I believe Pope Francis hears: the pulsations of Divine Mercy that infuse the soul with wisdom. Indeed, by listening to this Heart, John became the first Apostle to be washed in the Blood and Water which gushed forth from the Heart of Christ.
And the first Apostle to receive the Mother as his own.
If Our Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Heart is our refuge, then St. John is a symbol of how to enter that refuge.
LOVE IN TRUTH
How I long to find that lost sheep, the woman I spoke with who sought to find this Mother who would forgive her for her abortion and soothe her with the tender caresses of God’s love and mercy. It was a lesson for me that day that keeping rigidly to the letter of the law also risks losing souls, perhaps as much as those who wish to water it down. Authentic mercy, which is caritas in veritate “love in truth”, is the key, and the heart of both Christ and His Mother.
The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath. (Mark 2:27)
We should not simply remain in our own secure world, that of the ninety-nine sheep who never strayed from the fold, but we should go out with Christ in search of the one lost sheep, however far it may have wandered. —POPE FRANCIS, General Audience, March 27th, 2013; news.va
RELATED READING ON POPE FRANCIS
A Tale of Five Popes and a Great Ship
Opening Wide the Doors of Mercy
That Pope Francis!… A Short Story
Francis, and the Coming Passion of the Church
Francis, and the Coming Passion of the Church
The Thin Line Between Mercy and Heresy: Part I, Part II, & Part III
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|↑1||Abortion incurs an automatic excommunication from the Church, which only the bishop can lift, or those priests whom he has authorized to do so.|
|↑2||cf. A Miracle of Mercy|
|↑3||cf. The Five Corrections|
|↑4||cf. Francis, and the Coming Passion of the Church|
|↑5||cf. Gal 2:11-14|