Synodalia: Have you noticed what’s missing?

One thing sadly, disastrously, absent from the Synod from the scanty information we have been permitted to receive, is eternity. We look to the woefully deficient Relatio, or working document, that was so unwisely released (perhaps as a belated gesture of transparency and consultation). In its opening paragraphs it seeks to set the synodal discussions in a context, and that context is purely this-worldly. It is as if it is only this life, this world, that truly matters. The focus is entirely socio-anthropological. The closest it comes to moving our eyes away from our navels is the exhortation to have our “gaze on Christ” (#4, et infra). Yet this phrase is never adequately unpacked, except that we look to Christ for teaching on marriage.

eternity

As Archbishop Sheen was so fond of reminding us, Christ came to die. That was his mission: that by the self-sacrificial death on the Cross of his mortal human body we might share in his divine life for eternity. Christ made a condition of following him that we deny ourselves and take up our cross to share in the eternal fruit of his Cross. So intent was his own gaze on eternity that he admitted that following him would divide families, setting one against another. His moral teaching was oriented toward a full identification with him in every aspect of our lives and our dealing with others. He commanded us to love, yes; but then taught us that love is essentially and necessarily selfless, its summit found in laying down one’s life for another. As Christ did for us. We know not that day nor the hour. Live, he bids us, so that you are ready for death and judgment.

What the Relatio calls the “Gospel of the family” can only make sense if it is related to the core gospel of Christ. Family, marriage and sexuality for a Christian must serve eternity and help prepare us for it. Yet the Relatio seems intent on trying to make things as easy as possible in this life for people who do not follow the core Gospel of Christ. If eating and drinking unworthily of the Eucharist brings dire judgment upon us (1 Cor 11:29), and if unworthily has always been defined as labouring under grave, unremitted, sin, then how can granting those in grave sin the Eucharist be helpful to them? Only if our focus is not on eternity, but on here and now, feeling accepted, included and the like. Nowhere in the Relatio do we hear the fundamental gospel proclamation: Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

The temporal, secular focus of this document is lamentable. We see now through a glass darkly, but then face to face (1 Cor 13:12). Surely the Synod needs to be reminding the Church that what we experience and feel now is no guide to anything but the nature and degree of our need for God and his truth. The answer, then, is to satisfy this need for God and his truth by focusing on that which he has definitely revealed to us through scripture and the timeless teaching of the Church.

The bottom line of Christianity is that it is to prepare us for death and eternity, the last things that are so starkly absent from the Relatio. There is comfort in the knowledge that the Relatio is only a “working document”; but if it is representative of the Synod’s work, they have been wasting a great deal of time and money. It has no binding force whatsoever. It should, must, be ignored.

Instead, for now let us live well as the Church has always taught us in fidelity to Christ, with our eyes set in hope on death, and eternity.

In manus tuas, Domine, spiritum eius commendamus*

On Thursday I motored to Strawberry Hill in south-west London, at the invitation of the Frassati Society at St Mary’s University College, to offer a Requiem Mass for the deceased relatives and friends of its members at Benedict XVI House, a small and new residence for students of St Mary’s.

However news emerged that a young male student of the College, M, had died on Tuesday in the most tragic of circumstances. He was a friend of some of the Society’s members and it was quickly and easily decided that the Mass would be a Requiem for M. Instead of the previously expected 15 or so students, over 40 students and lecturers squeezed themselves into the small oratory at Benedict XVI House to commend M to the mercy of God by uniting him to Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross.

It was my sad privilege to offer that Mass and to grope for words to convey the hope that we can still have for M in Christ. Seated or standing, some overflowing out the door, that congregation of M’s friends and well-wishers made it a solemn yet intimate Mass. The liturgy – chants and prayers, unbleached candles, the sacrifice of the altar – spoke for us all far better than any of us could have managed. I was glad to have been wearing black, as any other colour would have seemed inapt: there was no brave yet brittle attempt to deflect grief. We were there to mourn, to let God see and hear our mourning, and to hear His words and signs of hope in response through the liturgy. Afterwards, as we shared food and drink in the House, there was time for a more personal expression of solidarity in grief, and of mutual comfort, and also to remember M whom we had surrendered to God’s tender mercy. The Mass and meal were sensitively and amazingly well arranged by the members of the House.

One thing became clear, to me at least: that God is not the only great mystery in our lives, though He is the greatest. The human heart, also, is a mystery. The unseen burden of darkness and pain that we all carry to some extent is mysteriously greater in some. Sometimes it is so deeply hidden that others are unable to see it and so help bring light and relief. The burden in a person so afflicted can become a weight too heavy for the human spirit to bear, crushing the will and extinguishing hope.

But we can commend M’s soul to God in hope. For no person’s burden is too heavy for Him who bore the burden of our fallen human nature to the Cross. The Cross is the fulfillment of Christ’s words heard in the gospel of the Mass that evening:

All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.     John 6:37-40

M’s burden was too heavy for him but it is not too heavy for Christ. The Father has given him to Christ and it is His will that M should not be lost. So we can pray with true hope that Christ, revealing even now to M the mystery of his human heart, will raise M up on the last day.

* Into your hands, O Lord, we commend his spirit.