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The Divorced --- Remarried.  What Can the Church Do About It?

Philip Trower


According to what we have been reading in the press for over a year, we can be certain that one of the subjects discussed at the recent Synod on the family in Rome has been whether or not divorced-remarried Catholics can be allowed to receive Holy Communion.  I have enough faith to believe that our Holy Father Pope Francis will never permit it.  But the pressure on him to alter or relax the Church’s teaching and discipline in the matter is and has been as strong as, if not stronger than, the pressure on John Paul II during the 1980 Synod on the Family to reverse Pope Paul’s teaching about contraception.


This time the proponents of change will no doubt have been invoking the practice of the Orthodox in allowing the divorced-remarried to receive Holy Communion to up to the second remarriage. But how can you allow such a change in “pastoral practice” without its affecting doctrine?


Were such a change to be allowed, the distinction between annulment and divorce would become largely invisible, divorce itself become a flood tide, and the death of St John the Baptist in defence of the marriage bond be implicitly proclaimed needless.


This is not to say that the now large numbers of divorced-remarried Catholics should not be objects of the Church’s pastoral care and compassion, or that she should  not be concerned somehow or other to keep them in touch with her.  Those of us who are over sixty need to remember how much greater the temptations to infidelity are for the young today.  There have always been and always will be temptations to infidelity. But our young today grow up in societies which have largely abandoned the idea of marriage as a life-long commitment.


The question, then, is how to assist them.  Is there a way of doing it which doesn’t involve trying to square a circle?   


One of the factors, I believe, helping to confuse the issue is the tendency of people to day, under the influence of the hard sciences, to see everything as a “problem”, the essence of the word problem for them being that there is of necessity  a solution.  But there are many difficulties in life which, of their nature, can’t be ‘solved’.  A person with a serious illness for which there is as yet no remedy, is not confronted with a problem, but a misfortune. However while there may be no solution to a “misfortune”, it can be ameliorated or made less painful.  And that, I believe, is how we should approach the situation of the remarried-divorced.


In so far as they wish to stay in touch with the Church and participate as much as possible in her life, the first thing it seems to me is to see that they get better and accurate instruction about the nature of the Mass, so that they see Mass as worth going to even if you don’t or can’t receive Holy Communion. 


Are there any of us who have not heard it said or implied some time somewhere that the people’s Communion is the high point of the Mass?  One also often has the impression that many of the faithful see the canon of the Mass and consecration as simply a way in which Our Lord becomes present solely for the purpose of our being able to receive Him.  This being the situation, is it surprising that the divorced re-married, or others not in a position to receive Communion,  come to church less and less.   Why go to a meal, in this case a sacred meal, where you are not allowed to eat anything?


The priest’s Communion, it is true, is an essential component of the Mass, and frequent Communion for the laity has been encouraged by the magisterium since the reign of St Pius X.  But it is the completion of an action whose focal point is the consecration.


At the consecration and the prayers leading up to and following it something infinitely wonderful and awe-inspiring takes place.  Our Lord’s redemptive self-offering made once in time with suffering on Calvary and eternally in heaven in glory, is, so to speak, brought back briefly again into time so that we, his priestly people, can unite ourselves with it, helping to draw down the blessings on the world that the world so desperately needs.


It was this vision or understanding of the Mass as first and foremost the sacrifice of Calvary made present on the altar in the here and now that made it the most prized and valued component in the lives of the majority of  the Catholic faithful, laity and religious, for the best part of two thousand years during which most of them only received Communion once or a few times a year.   They knew, as members of the plebs catholica,  that their first duty was not seeking personal consolation but worshipping the Almighty from whom whatever good they had came and offering Him in return the only sacrifice which ultimately could be worthy of Him.


When I came into the Church over 62 years ago a little anecdote circulated among English Catholics which perfectly makes this point.  At some period in the late 19th or early 20th century, an English ambassador to a Catholic country had written in his report to the Foreign Office: “It is the Mass that matters.” As late as this there was still a Catholic country of which it could be said that for the majority of its inhabitants Mass was the focal point of their lives.  And this was before frequent Communion had become common.


I therefore suggest that only in so far as the divorced-remarried are helped to see the Mass in this light will they come to value being present at it, and thereby be more likely to remain in contact with the Church.


I also think the more frequent use of the longer Eucharistic prayers would contribute to the same result.  I am not denigrating the 2nd Eucharistic prayer. It is modelled  on one  dating from the 3rd century.   But because it is so short Compared with the others, its overuse can convey the impression that Communion rather than the consecration is the high point of the Mass with the consequences I have been talking about. 


A greater appreciation of Our Lord’s presence in the tabernacle together with the value of eucharistic adoration should help too.  At any time of the day where a church is open anyone, whether divorced and remarried or not, can contribute to the Church’s mission by interceding for its needs and those of the world as a whole.  As I am sure our Holy Father Pope Francis would say, there is nothing in the situation of the divorced-remarried to hinder them from doing this or prevent God from listening to their prayers.

Copyright © Philip Trower 2015

Version: 20th November 2015

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