Welcoming the Sinner

Here is perhaps a hard question for some of us: If our parish is focused on hospitality, how do we welcome people who don’t follow Jesus’ commands?  How do we welcome people in gay relationships, who have had abortions, who are trying to change their sex, etc.?  Some people won’t enter a Catholic church unless they feel welcomed.

There are two extremes to the answer:  On the one hand, some churches don’t welcome people who publicly don’t follow Jesus’ teaching.  They may not say this, but it’s obvious from the way parishioners treat certain people: They quietly avoid them.  On the other hand, some never talk about difficult moral issues or abandon the Bible’s teaching on life and sexuality and so, for example, have so-called ‘Gay Pride Masses.’

Jesus was in a similarly difficult position according to today’s Gospel.  It says, “Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’” (Mk 10:2). They were testing Jesus, Who just returned to the region where Herod was the ruler, and Herod and his current wife were both divorced and remarried.  Consequently, if Jesus says divorce and remarriage are forbidden, then Herod will likely have Him killed as he did St. John the Baptist, who opposed his divorce and remarriage (Cf. Mk 6:17-29; Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 83).  However, if Jesus says that divorce and remarriage are allowed, then He goes against biblical texts.

How does He answer?  He doesn’t sidestep the issue, but He also doesn’t just give a simplistic, take-it-or-leave-it answer.  What He does is He explains His position based on God’s original plan for humanity.  He says, “Because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote this commandment for you” (Mk 10:5).  Hardness of heart means “a stubborn refusal to yield to God and his ways.  It is the willful blindness to truth for which Jesus… chided… even his disciples”  (Mary Healy, The Gospel of Markin Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 197).  Isn’t it true that we all have a hardness of heart?

Then He offers us something for which we long:  To live according to God’s original plan for us.  He says, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mk 10:6-9). While there’s a part of us that doesn’t want to hear God’s plan on sexuality and difficult moral issues, there’s a deeper part that wants to hear the truth.

U.S. Supreme Court

Show of hands, please: How many have heard of Roe Vs. Wade?  It’s the United States Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in 1973.  The real name of Jane Roe was Norma McCorvey, who was an abortion advocate for decades.  But something very interesting happened to her in 1995.  While working at an abortion clinic, a pro-life group opened up next door and the tensions between the two groups were vicious.  At a book signing of hers some time before, the leader of the pro-life group, Rev. Flip Benham, called her a baby killer, while “she left him drunken taunts on his answering machine.”

In addition, one day, in a parking lot that the two groups shared, he asked her, “Are you still killing babies, Miss Norma?”  She said, “Lighten up.  What you need is to go to a good Beach Boys concert.”  “Miss Norma, I haven’t been to a Beach Boys concert since 1976.”  She wrote later that, after their quick mention of the Beach Boys, “Flip became more human to me.”

After those insults, one Saturday she was smoking outside and he sat down beside her and “apologized for calling her names: ‘I saw my words drop into your heart, and I know they hurt you deeply.’  She was taken aback.  She excused herself, went inside and cried.”

Then their relationship slowly improved.  When his pro-life group had to give up all their furnishings to pay a lawsuit, she actually lent them a fax machine.  She and Flip began to talk, with his sharing the Bible and with her sharing her philosophy.

Norma McCorvey, “Jane Roe”

One morning, he said to her, “You know, Miss Norma, I used to be pro-choice.  When my wife found out she was pregnant with our twins, I told her to have an abortion.” She later wrote: “If Flip was supposed to be my archenemy, why was he giving me information that could prove damaging to his reputation?”

In 1995, she finally accepted an invitation to church after refusing many of them.  She wrote, “I can’t really recall much of what [the pastor] shared but each word began to open the window in my heart just a little farther.”  Eventually, on August 8, she was baptized Christian, then became pro-life, then a vocal pro-life advocate, and three years after that, she became Catholic.

This story illustrates by example and counterexample what Jesus did in the Gospel.  Like Jesus, Flip was very clear about God’s teaching on life.  However, unlike Jesus, he insulted Norma. When was the breakthrough?  When he started acting the way Jesus would want: He humbled himself and apologized.  You see, Norma was made to be loved, and when Flip insulted her, he wasn’t following God’s original plan.  Norma, even if she didn’t know the Bible at that time, knew she was designed by God to be treated with respect.  So, when he apologized, Norma experienced God’s original plan in a concrete way.  Also, when Flip admitted that he, too, needed God’s forgiveness, her stereotype of pro-life people’s being ‘self-righteous’ began to crumble (Fr. Frank Pavone, Ending Abortion, 128).

Consequently, part of our answer to, “How do we welcome people who don’t follow Jesus’ teaching?” is to welcome them like everyone else!  We’re all sinners; none of us should act self-righteously.  So I hope everyone here, guests included, feel welcomed.  Every Catholic church has people who have had abortions; every church has people who are divorced and remarried, every church has people who have same-sex attraction, etc.  The only two people who never sinned are Jesus and Mary.

You’ve heard the joke, right, about the woman caught in adultery?  The crowd was ready to stone her, but Jesus said, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7).  And, right then, a stone goes flying past the woman’s head.  And Jesus says, “I wasn’t talking to you, Mom.”

Fr. Frank Pavone, who was the priest who received Norma into the Church, says one of his favourite pro-life activities is to sit down and talk with abortion providers.  Like Jesus, he doesn’t soften his position, but he says, “The best way to convince someone of the dignity of human life is to treat him/her with dignity” (127).  When Christians stand up for the dignity of life, we have to stand up for the dignity of all people by treating them with respect.

If ever we’re in a dialogue with someone who feels we’re not welcoming in terms of the Eucharist, because anyone who commits a mortal sin cannot receive, perhaps we could explain what we talked about on June 3, Corpus Christi Sunday, where we said that Communion isn’t a question of welcoming, it’s a question of covenant.  The Catholic Church, like Jesus, offers blessings to everyone and will pray for anyone.  However, covenants mean we’ve made a promise to God to keep His commandments—this applies to Catholics, too.  If we break the covenant, then we can’t receive the symbol of that covenant, the Eucharist.

Accordingly, let’s address the situation of divorce and remarriage because Jesus does so in the Gospel.  First, start with the original plan: Jesus says, “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’  ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Next, as Pope Benedict said, if we’re divorced and remarried, we’re not excommunicated (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth, 205), which is a formal penalty in Church law designed to wake people up to the seriousness of a sin.  We’re still Catholic, accepted and loved by God, and part of the big dysfunctional Catholic family.

And just to be clear, Jesus says today, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11-12).  Because of this, if we’re in this situation, we can’t take Communion.  However, we’re not alone, because there are many Catholics who shouldn’t take Communion for one reason or another.  But, please, come talk to me, Fr. Pierre, or Deacon Andrew about this because we want to see if we can help you on your journey; many couples already have!

With the permission of one couple who are divorced and remarried, I can share that they’ve decided to abstain from sexual relations, because they’re trying to follow Jesus, and they’re currently investigating whether a previous marriage was valid or not—what’s called the annulment investigation.  These are all great steps in the right direction.  They, and other couples, have not given into discouragement and just walked away.  They never miss Mass and are involved in the life of the parish, as we all should be.

Fr. Mike Schmitz tells the story about his family:  In 2012, during the debate in Minnesota on the redefinition of marriage, a family member brought home his gay boyfriend, and on the family lawn was a sign that said, “No,” to the redefinition of marriage.  At the end of the weekend together, the boyfriend was driving away with Fr. Mike and said, “I’m so worked up.”  “How come?”  “We just spent this great weekend with your family who clearly love you and love me, and yet they have that lawn sign that says they don’t want the redefinition of marriage.”

The stereotype is that you either celebrate everything I choose and do—that means you love me—or you must hate me.  That’s a false choice.  But this man realized, “They really, really cared about me, and yet they still disagree with this redefinition of marriage.”

Jesus’ response in the Gospel today is beautiful!  And we, who are trying to love like Him and proclaim Him, have to imitate His response: We speak the truth and welcome everyone.

We welcome every person according to God’s original plan.  His plan is that we respect life, and marriage, and every single person.

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