Our secularised society has seen Christmas merchandise in the shops for some time, but for Christians, Christmas does not start until the Mass of the Nativity. Before then we have the four weeks of Advent, which start next week, and before that, today, we have the end of the liturgical year and, in the Catholic Church, the Feast of Christ the King. For me, as for many, the end of the Church year is a time for reflection.
The year began, as it ends, with continuing controversy over the position of Pope Francis on the issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried. The attempt by four Cardinals to get him to give a clear ruling has failed, and for all his self-proclaimed desire to have a robust debate, on this issue one is not going to be had. The teaching of the Church remains where it has always been, and all that is likely to happen during this pontificate is that those Bishops who have always allowed it will claim that they have the Pope’s approval, and those who have not, will continue to claim that they have the unbroken tradition of the Church on their side. There will be no judgements, except against the ‘rigid’ and the ‘inflexible’, by which we are meant to understand not those who rigidly and inflexibly believe that the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ gives carte blanche to an idea of ‘mercy’ close to indifference, but rather those who rigidly and inflexibly stick to what they have always been taught; still, to repeat a much quoted set of words ‘who am I to judge?’
We can, I suspect, concentrate too much on this situation where, as I say, not very much is likely to change. The Pope wishes to take what he considers a more Christ-like attitude to those who have fallen, whilst those who oppose him wish to assert that whatever the change in the context, the rules apply; the division between the two mind sets is as old as Christianity, it did not begin with Francis and it will not end with him. The assumption that there are a host of divorced Catholics busy flouting the rules is just that – an assumption. No one knows if it is true. If there are those who flout the rules, they would no doubt point to the many who do the same with regard to contraception and pre-marital sex. The fact is that on these issues many Catholics defy Church teaching, and will no doubt continue to do so. It’s quite unclear whether anything can be done here. It isn’t really, pace the famous footnotes in Chapter 8 of AL about whether the rules are clear – on contraception and fornication they could not be clearer, it is about whether we are willing to submit ourselves to the teaching of the Church; we only look for ambiguity if we wish to find it – and if we wish to find it, we shall surely do so.
As we reach the end of the liturgical year and prepare for Advent, which is a period where we prepare for the two comings of the Lord – the Incarnation, and His second coming again in glory at the end of time. It is often said that it is a penitential season, but this is not what the Catechism says. It is, though, a time for thoughtful reflection and meditation, and the beginning and the end of Christian wisdom is to prepare for the Second Coming by bearing in mind what we receive from the Incarnation and the Resurrection. We cannot, of course, hope to merit what we have received, but we can show our gratitude.