Ministering, and being ministered to

by Emeritus Bishop Peter Cullinane
To a particular way of thinking about right and wrong, giving people who are unable to receive Holy Communion lead roles in the Christian community will seem “bizarre” and will perplex. But perhaps it is that particular way of thinking that needs to be re-examined. After all, to Cardinal Scola and others who would allow, in some circumstances, non-communicant Catholics to serve as lectors, catechists and godparents (NZ Catholic, July 26-August 8) it does not seem bizarre at all. What accounts for this difference?

Bishop Peter Cullinane

Bishop Peter Cullinane

In the first-mentioned way of thinking, the underlying foundation of moral life is law. To do right is to keep the law. (God is seen as lawmaker; sin as breaking the law, and repentance involves a juridical process.)
This paradigm for moral thinking has been predominant in the West for
centuries, and seems especially congenial to the Anglo Saxon mind. It is not wrong. It is just inadequate, because life, and therefore morality, can never be wholly encompassed in laws. Traditional moral
theology had to invent ways of justifying exceptions to laws when they did not fit people’s experience of reality.
Another paradigm for thinking about the moral life can be based on what it means to say, with St Iraneus, “The glory of God is human beings fully alive”, and with St John Paul II, “Human beings are the route the Church must take”. This underlying foundation of moral thinking looks to what is required for growth as persons and for
making human relationships and society more truly human. This is an objective norm, but attaining it takes time.
For decades moral theologians have favoured leading people to where they need to be, but always starting from where they actually are, and respecting the law of gradualness. Some struggle with very
difficult circumstances and pressures; some take longer to develop deep personal convictions because of the plurality of “values” they experience around them. For some, changing their situation is simply
not possible. So, if once we branded people as “living in sin”, because their objective situation was out of synch with the law,
today we take more seriously the factors that affect their moral development. This affects how we answer the question: If the are doing their best in their circumstances, what is their place within the Christian community? Is it only to receive, or might they also give?
Notwithstanding their own shortfall (which they and we must truthfully acknowledge), their involvement in nurturing the Christian community would positively witness to Christian discipleship, because discipleship is always a work in progress. Our recognition of them needs to be wholehearted. They should not have to feel “excluded” or “second class” (cf. responses to the consultation for the Synod) because of thresholds which, at given stages of their journey, they have not been able to reach.
Being able to contribute in those ways might also help to offset the loneliness of their situation. When they are not receiving the sacraments, it takes extra courage to come to Mass, especially if their own children will be receiving Holy Communion. Many avoid that awkwardness by not coming, and so nor do their children. The
ancient Order of Penitents at least gave to those excluded from Holy Communion an experience of solidarity, of still belonging to the Church, and of being cared for. What do we do to provide that experience?
Giving them certain roles or ministries, and providing the pastoral and spiritual formation needed for those, would be experiences of inclusion and belonging. In ministering, they would be ministered to.
P. J. Cullinane is Emeritus Bishop of Palmerston North.

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