One of the most touching post-resurrection stories recounts the encounter between Jesus and Peter on the shores of Lake Tiberias. I am sure you are familiar with that passage. Jesus prepares breakfast for His disciples and while they are smacking their lips and relishing the delicious fare, the Master takes Peter aside. I imagine that a million thoughts raced through the first apostle’s mind. He wonders whether Jesus would reprimand him or express His disappointment. Instead, the Lord floors him with a simple question: “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”
When Peter protests his profound love for the Lord that he had denied knowing, the Lord commissions him to take care of His sheep. How is Peter to take care of the sheep? Just like a shepherd, he has to feed them, protect them, nurture them. He has to bind wounds and mend broken limbs. In his brokenness he can sympathize with the brokenness of the flock. The first set of sheep that he had to tend was the group of his fellow disciples.
Just like Peter, they had abandoned the Master. They were filled with shame and doubt. They wondered whether they were even worthy to be called apostles. The first task for Peter was to reassure them that the same Lord Who had forgiven him would also forgive them. He had to bring the Lord’s compassion to the men who would eventually carry that Good News to the ends of the earth. At the Last Supper Jesus said to Peter: “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Peter knew that Jesus’ words were being fulfilled.
The primary mission of Peter and also of his successors has been to bring the mercy and compassion of Jesus. In recent memory all the Popes, beginning with St John XXIII have brought the same Good News of God’s love and forgiveness to our broken world. However, the papacy of Francis has been one that loudly proclaims this central message of the gospel. More than any other Pontiff, Francis has tirelessly declared that the name of God is mercy.
It is in that spirit that Pope Francis has issued his latest Apostolic Exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia” which is the result of the discussions held at the Synod on the Families last October. In it he reiterates all the central moral teachings of the Church regarding marriage and family. At the same time he is calling for a more compassionate pastoral approach to couples who are in irregular situations. In the final chapter, the Holy Father writes:
Although she constantly holds up the call to perfection and asks for a fuller response to God, “the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence, like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port or a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way or who are in the midst of a storm”. Let us not forget that the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital. (#291)
Some liberals criticize the document for not going far enough. Some people on the extreme right take the Pope to task for relaxing the rules. I am puzzled by the criticism. Have we forgotten that Jesus Himself was accused of being too lax? The leaders of the Jews took issue with Him because he worked miracles on the Sabbath. For the Jews the observance of the Sabbath is a sacred duty. Jesus Himself followed all the Jewish laws because He was a faithful Jew. Even though He did not do away with that law, He defended His disciples who ate grain from the fields on the Sabbath. To His critics Jesus responded: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”
It is this attitude of compassion and mercy that makes the Church a haven of hope for all the broken. Let us remember that what will win us favor in the eyes of the Lord is not merely our orthodoxy but our love and compassion. The word “compassion” is derived from two Latin words “cum pati”. It means to “suffer with.” We are not standing apart from the rest of the world. We are as broken as everyone else. In recognizing our own sinfulness we develop compassion for others.
You may be familiar with TED talks on the net. In his talk, "The Power of Vulnerability," which has garnered over 24 million views, sociologist Brene Brown reminds us that we are — or easily could be — just one step away from the broken people all around us. Brown says:
We are "those people." The truth is … we are the "others." Most of us are one paycheck, one divorce, one drug-addicted kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one sexual assault, one drinking binge, one night of unprotected sex, or one affair away from being "those people" — the ones we don't trust, the ones we pity, the ones we don't let our children play with, the ones bad things happen to, the ones we don't want living next door.
Let us reject judgment and condemnation. Let us embrace compassion and forgiveness. Let us listen to the voice of our Holy Father. May our Church be the loving home where the imperfect and the broken, the fallen and the sinner will be welcomed as members of the family! This is what Jesus intended His Church to be!
Born in India to deeply-committed Catholic parents, Fr Britto is one of seven children. He joined the Salesians of Don Bosco as a young man and was ordained a priest in 1981.
After he completed his priestly formation and his early education in India, he came to the US for his graduate degree in Journalism at...Read more...