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An Open Letter to Cardinal Pell

Dear Cardinal Pell,
In the lead-up to next month’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family you and a number of your confreres are re-asserting the church’s longstanding exclusion of divorced and remarried people from communion.
Your foreword to The Gospel of the Family appears to leave us with little doubt: outsiders are not welcome.
As you have said, “The sooner the wounded, the lukewarm, and the outsiders realise that substantial doctrinal and pastoral changes are impossible, the more the hostile disappointment (which must follow the reassertion of doctrine) will be anticipated and dissipated.”
Respectfully, I have a number of questions I’d like to consider with you; conscious, of course, that neither of us in our grappling can claim to really know the mind of Christ.
So, what was it that our Lord had in mind when he instituted the Eucharist with these self-emptying words, “This is my body, this is my blood?” Whose hunger was he responding to? Who was welcome? And what are the implications for our Sunday worship and beyond?
Well, we do know this: The tax collectors and sinners were all crowding round to listen to him, and the Pharisees and scribes complained saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them …’ (Lk 15:2-3)
And this: It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn the meaning of the words: ‘Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice.’ And indeed I came to call not the upright, but sinners. (Mt 9:12-13)
And this: Let anyone who is thirsty come to me!
Let anyone who believes in me come to drink! (Jn 7:38)
And this: When he arrived at the Pharisee’s house and took his place at table, suddenly a woman came in, who had a bad name in the town … She covered his feet with kisses and anointed him … the Pharisee said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know … what sort of person [was] touching him and what a bad name she has …’ (Lk 7:36-39)
And this: They were at supper … and he got up from table, removed his outer garments … and began to wash his disciples’ feet … (Jn 13:2, 4, 5)
And this: Peter said …‘You know it is forbidden for Jews to mix with people of another race or visit them; but God has made it clear to me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean … God has no favourites … and who am I to stand in God’s way?’ (Acts 10:28, 34 & 11:17)
Could it be, given the exclusivity of our Communion, that when we proclaim these words we are potentially condemning ourselves as well?
Just think: Jesus, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of sinners (Lk 7:34), real and present in our Breaking of Bread. Wow. Extraordinary. Out of this world. We actually believe this … don’t we?
If we answer in the affirmative, there are profound consequences: are we not also compelled to look beyond the in-crowd and welcome outsiders; are we not also compelled to take risks: like the risk of being labelled and pilloried for sharing our table with those we are not supposed to; for doing something that is forbidden by law. I am not thinking here of people who do not care. I am concerned for those who are hungry for love and long to share even the crumbs from the table.
Can any of us truly look at our Lord and Master and say without a profound sense of foreboding: ‘Yes, I am a follower; but you must understand there are rules …’
His disciples were hungry and began to pick ears of corn and eat them. The Pharisees noticed it and said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing something that is forbidden on the Sabbath’. (Mt 12:1-2)
If the Eucharist is essentially an encounter with the real presence, rather than essentially an institutional-cum-cultic event, then surely the Master’s social interactions make it abundantly clear: hunger, not worthiness underpins Table Fellowship. To allow the law, cultic statutes, and theology to take precedence over mercy and love and encounter, is tantamount to perpetuating the hard line rigour of those Pharisees who complained bitterly and moralised pompously about so many things.
Their approach fostered a cold, superficial temple-based religion. But Jesus invited his followers to a change of heart, a heart oriented to the one called, Abba – Father : a relational, God-based faith.
Indeed, if Jesus himself was bound by the strictures of his religious tribe and the social mores of his day, he would never have encountered the woman at the well because ‘Jews, of course, do not associate with Samaritans’ (Jn 4:10). Thankfully, he was not. Thus, a women consigned to the margins, and thirsting for love, was afforded one-on-one time with the One who risked everything to offer her living water.
Yet, despite the extraordinary inclusiveness and openness of our foot washing Master; not to mention the accusations his behaviour attracted – blasphemy, law-breaking, ‘prince of devils’ – there are still those who insist that the meal instituted by him who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (Phil 2:7) be an exclusive, High Church event with all the accoutrements, pomp and ceremony, do’s and don’ts, and rules about who’s in and who’s out, as if the Holy One needs protection and distancing from an encounter with the great unwashed.
If this non-relational Temple-centred worship takes hold, then we too leave ourselves open to the criticism:
Now here, I tell you, is something greater than the Temple. And if you had understood the meaning of the words: ‘Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice’, you would have not condemned the blameless. For the Son of Man is master of the Sabbath. (Mt 12:5-8)
And if, in the depth of our being, we believe Jesus is real and present at the breaking of bread, then how do we justify the exclusion of so many? Can we in good conscience continue to turn away those longing to drink from the well-of-life because Catholics, of course, do not break bread with …?
There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can neither be male nor female – for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28-29)
I do not presume to know the mind of Pope Francis either, but his musings on spiritual worldliness seem especially apt:
[There] are those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelising, one analyses and classifies others, and instead of opening the door of grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. (Evangelii Gaudium #94)
In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few … The mark of Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, is not present; closed and elite groups are formed, and no effort is made to go forth and seek out those who are distant or the immense multitudes who thirst for Christ. (Evangelii Gaudium #95)
It prompts the question: has a simple, inclusive and profound ‘family’ meal been overwhelmed by an impersonal and, often times, sterile institutional sacrifice; one that tends towards mass exclusion?
Peace and regards,
Fr Peter Day, Parish Priest, Corpus Christi
Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Australia

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  1. Adrian Grenham says:

    Surely, out of respect and dignity for the Eucharist the least we can do when considering partaking of the body and blood of Christ – ie it’s a bit more than a ‘family meal’ – is to keep his commandments (or seek repentance when we don’t) – one of which is (if I remember correctly) not to commit Adultery.

  2. Association of Catholic Priests says:

    Nuala O’Driscoll
    Submitted on 2014/09/30 at 11:26 am
    ‘To allow the law, cultic statutes and theology to take precedence over mercy and love’, ‘sterile institutional sacrifice’, ‘mass exclusion’, ‘narcissistic and authoritarian elitism’, ‘the property of a select few’. I wonder how many of the CDF and other right wing conservative Churchmen who are going on the defensive against Pope Francis are members of or are influenced by, cultic, rich, powerful and secret organisations such as The Legionaries of Christ, Opus Dei, The Knights of Columbanus?

  3. An excellent letter; a solid response to the pervasive cognitive dissonance so evidenced in the pronouncements of those who should know better were it not for their myopia and pastoral and strategic inertia and paralysis.

  4. Its a pity Fr Day didnt read the full story of the woman at the well. Correct me if Im wrong but I think Jesus told her a few home truths.

  5. Mícheál says:

    Good old Jesus also told a few home truths to the woman taken in adultery, or … Hang on, wasn’t it the holy ones who went away one-by-one. The woman experienced the reality of God that mercy outweights vengence any day. Thankfully one day Pell too will know this when he stands before the living God…

  6. I am moved by your words and wisdom..There is hope in the Catholic Church..Thank you Father Peter..

  7. ”Respectfully, I have a number of questions I’d like to consider with you; conscious, of course, that neither of us in our grappling can claim to really know the mind of Christ.”

    The writer places himself, a priest, on the same level as a bishop, teaching successor to the Apostles. Christ said ”He who hears you, hears Me” referring to the teaching of the Apostles and their successors, so yes we can know the mind of Christ on this issue: from His own words and the constant teaching of the Church.

  8. It has been said often enough but maybe needs saying again. The gift of the Eucharist is not a gift for being good but food to sustain us when we fail on a very difficult journey. The more we exclude the harder we make the route back to an inclusive church. Being on the outside looking in as compared with being on the inside sustained by others sharing the Lord at the Eucharistic table; is the choice really a matter of doubt?

  9. Mícheál says:

    Shaun @8 above:
    Of course no lowly priest should dare to raise his eyes to criticize a bishop, those who provide us with the teaching of the Apostles and their successors, the constant teaching of the Church … except for example in the case of Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, Ciudad del Este(removed by Pope Francis), or Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, Limburg (removed by Pope Francis), or Bishop Kieran Conry, Arundel & Brighton (resigned after a scandal) or Bishop Josef Wesolowski, former paper nuncio to the Dominican Republic, (now incarcerated and awaiting trial in the Vatican on child abuse charges), or
    Bishop Raymond Lahey, Antigonish (now dismissed from the clerical state having served 15 months in jail for child pornography-related charges) or Cardinal Keith O’Brien, St. Andrews and Edinburgh (resigned after a scandal).
    Reliance on the office of bishop is absurd. Of course one must question, respectfully, and that sometimes means speaking the truth to power. If that had been done to more bishops by more priests and more laypeople, more often in the past, perhaps the Church would be in something less of a mess now. It’s not a question of placing oneself on a level equal with somebody in ecclesiastical authority, but rather of witnessing to the truth, come what may.

  10. Michael Gravener says:

    Don’t you just love people making assumptions about Jesus judging the other. Look how Jesus shared his last supper. Jesus shared his bread and wine with the seemingly greatest of sinners, JUDAS. The man who was to be seen to betray Christ the saviour. What greater sin than sending GOD to his death by crucifixtion. Jesus undoubtedly was telling us all that no one is to be judged and all are worthy and welcome to share in his EUCHARIST. Any other understanding of who is worthy has succumbed to theological malice and obscene grandiosity of religious distortion.

  11. I admire Father Peter’s efforts to enlighten Cardinal Pell. I think the Cardinal has created his own God and universe. Dialogue is impossible with someone who believes they have the answers.
    However we can pray the Cardinal is hit by a bolt of lightning and transforms into a humble listener!

  12. I have just read Fr. Peter Day’s letter to Cardinal Pell—magnificent!

  13. Cornelius Martin says:

    Fr Day ignores the mind set of Mary Magdalene.
    “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “What is it, Teacher?” the master of the house asked him. We all know Jesus’ answer with a parable which we can sum up in the following words which the Lord addressed basically to Simon: “You see? This woman knows she is a sinner; yet prompted by love, she is asking for understanding and forgiveness. You, on the other hand, presume yourself to be righteous and are perhaps convinced that you have nothing serious for which to be forgiven.”
    Mary Magdalene portrays what participation in the Eucharist actually means. Firstly being capable of proclaiming the mystery of faith, i.e, expressing belief in the real presence of Jesus as God.
    This together with acknowledging one’s sinfulness and repenting (going to confession if necessary). Those who can’t or wont do these two things exclude themselves from real participation.
    Such was the action of Judas. Christ gave him a choice. His decision made, Judas could not participate any further. To do so would indeed have been a “sterile sacrifice.” Subsequent repentance was of course an option for him.
    Everyone has to be careful about trusting in themselves and in their own merits and convictions, of being blinded by their ego and self righteousness. These can be the basis of unwittingly becoming relatively hardened in sin. Those, on the other hand, who recognize that they are weak and sinful entrust themselves to God and obtain from him grace and forgiveness in confession. At Mass they have to thank the Lord for counting them worthy to stand in His presence and minister to Him. In this sense mercy and truth combine to create real love.
    The labelling that pervades this thread is no different to the meanderings that characterised the mind of Simon.

  14. Soline Humbert says:

    Whoever the woman was, (she is not named in the Gospels) she was NOT Mary of Magdala.

  15. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Cornelius Martin@13, can you offer a shred of evidence that the woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house was Mary of Magdala? There’s certainly no evidence either that she was Mary of Bethany.
    You seem to be confusing at least three accounts, probably of three distinct incidents and anointings, possibly in three different venues, maybe in three different parts of the country, and seemingly none of them involving Mary of Magdala. And, for good measure, you may be mixing up Simon the Pharisee with Simon the Leper.
    So whatever we may make of the labelling in this thread that Fr Day’s dissection of Cardinal Pell gave rise to, it does not hold a candle to your labelling and libelling of Mary of Magdala. No evidence whatever that the lady ever entered Simon the Pharisee’s house, much less that she had a bad name in Simon’s town or any other. So, Cornelius, back to Luke 7, John 12 and Matthew 26, just for starters. Then buy yourself the most expensive jar of spikenard you can afford, head for Magdala and get down on your knees and apologise profusely to every Mary you can find.

  16. Well, Simon, your contribution evokes a few challenging questions, and some of the questions, have been debated in the Catholic Church long ago. I am speaking of the question…Is the Eucharist always the body of Christ for each person that receives. Only God knows what is really in someone’s heart, no matter if they profess faith or not. Someone might profess belief in Christ with their lips, but, their heart might tell another story. Yet, if they receive the host, is it really Eucharist? Is it efficacious? On the other hand, someone who doesn’t profess the faith with their lips, might well have a heart does have a mustard seed of faith, or is open to the love of God. If that person receives, is it Eucharist? Is it efficacious? Perhaps, Father Joe O’Leary would be willing to address this issue.

  17. Clare Hannigan says:

    The message at the heart of the story of the woman caught in adultery is that only God has the authority to judge because only God is all loving and is without sin. The woman had sinned but she was not condemned because Jesus saw beyond her sinfulness. We are invited to receive the Blessed Eucharist not because we are without sin but because of our desire to enter more fully into a loving relationship with God and to be healed. Ought we not be very concerned that the Blessed Eucharist is sometimes understood as a means of condemnation and public humiliation.

  18. Rick Iannucci says:

    From here in the southwestern USA, thank you Peter for a very timely letter.God bless us all as we always attempt to listen to the heartbeat of God.

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