'Amoris Laetitia,' Francis' pontificate are not 'business as usual,' says Seattle priest

This story appears in the Amoris Laetitia feature series. View the full series.

by Elizabeth A. Elliott

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Editor's note: Presented below is the full homily of Fr. Michael Ryan, who has served as pastor of St. James Cathedral in Seattle for 28 years. Ryan provided NCR with his reaction to Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, saying, "We have not arrived at the promised land and this is a step in the right direction, maybe even a leap."

Think back with me, will you, to what I will always think of as a magic moment three years ago when Pope Francis first appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica dressed in a simple white cassock, smiling, sporting a name no pope had ever used, and bowing low as the people blessed him. I remember thinking to myself that this didn't seem like business as usual. It didn't and, considering all that has happened since, including the long-awaited apostolic exhortation he released on Friday, it still doesn't!

Business as usual, on the other hand, is exactly what's going on in today's Gospel reading where the disciples of Jesus are back doing what they had done before they had ever met the charismatic rabbi from Nazareth. They were fishermen before they were disciples and here they are back to fishing, like nothing had ever happened. Business as usual.

And then there's the reading from Acts which was anything but business as usual. The high priest sternly warning Peter and his companions not to speak any more about this Jesus, and Peter boldly declaring that his obedience was to God and not to human beings was not business as usual! Business as usual for Peter was talking big but delivering small. Business as usual was "Even though all deny you, I will never deny you!"

Why the change? We know very well. Peter had encountered the risen Jesus or, better, the risen Jesus had encountered Peter. He had called out to him from the shore, surprised him and his companions with a huge catch of fish, fed breakfast to them, and then questioned Peter about his love not once but three times, and then called him to follow. After all of that, how could Peter have ever returned to business as usual? The encounter with the Risen Lord changed everything!

But, my friends, what about us? We've been through some days and celebrations that should have brought us face-to-face with Jesus. There were the forty days of Lent, there were the powerful celebrations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil when we went from Upper Room to Calvary to the tomb. There was Easter Sunday when we basked in the glorious presence of Christ. But that was then. What about now? Are we back to business as usual now? I can't speak for you but I'd have to own that it's not easy to stay on an Easter 'high'!

But there is a way. The 19th century Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his epic poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, concluded that great poem with memorable words that point to a way to keep Easter alive. Here are Hopkins' words: "Let him Easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us…."

Let Christ "Easter" in us. The poet cleverly turns the Easter noun into a verb, thereby turning Easter into a dynamic force, a someone not a something. The Spirit of Jesus alive and at work within us, transforming us -- that's how Easter keeps going. That's how we keep from going back to business as usual.

But how do we let Christ "Easter" in us? How do we turn Easter into a verb? Jesus shows us the way in his exchange with Peter in today's gospel reading. "Do you love me?" Jesus asks Peter three times, and each time, when Peter assures him of his love, Jesus turns love from a noun into a verb, a most challenging verb: "Feed my lambs," he says, "Feed my sheep!"  My friends, this is the way we keep Easter alive. Whenever we love each other and serve each other -- especially people who aren't so easy to love and serve, Christ is "Eastering" in us.

Back to Pope Francis. If anyone ever made love into a verb it's Pope Francis. Before all else, he is a loving, caring pastor. Feeding the sheep and tending the flock are his priority -- along with reaching out to forgotten, hurting, and wounded people on the margins. That's why we love him so much, and that's why the world is paying so much attention to him, and that's what leaps off the pages of his recent apostolic exhortation.

Expectations for the document were high, if not always realistic, and, contrary to some, I think they were more than met. And it should be no surprise, of course, that the pope affirmed the church's teaching on marriage and family. What should surprise is his heavy emphasis on the need for interpreting church teachings in the light of what he calls "the wonderfully complicated circumstances" of people's lives where little is ever black and white. What does surprise is his deeply compassionate tone, his avoidance of blanket condemnations, his heavy emphasis on prayerful, personal discernment, and his highlighting of the absolutely pivotal role of a free and informed conscience. "The Church," he says, "is called to form consciences, not replace them!"

It will take a long time (certainly longer than the one day I have had!) to plumb the depths and riches of the pope's teaching, but even a cursory reading makes it clear that this is not business as usual, and that Francis the pastor does not live in some ideal world of plaster saints and statues but in the same world we all live in. Unlike many Vatican documents in the past, there is nothing nagging or judgmental in this one: only the strong yet gentle voice of a pastor who is in touch with people -- their sins and struggles, their hopes and their holiness, their failings and their dreams.

But I know, some will complain that the pope didn't go far enough -- that he didn't "change the rules." To that I would say, echoing wiser voices than my own, that Pope Francis is calling for something far more radical than changing rigid laws into lax and liberal laws. Laws are really not the issue here. As one astute commentator put it: "The Virgin Mary did not give birth to a code of Canon Law!" Indeed she didn't. And Pope Francis gets that. And so he proposes a model of church leadership and pastoral ministry modeled not on laws, but on Jesus who spent his time in the company of sinners, reaching out to them, taking them where they were, gently leading them forward.

And then it's important to remember that Pope Francis is committed to governing the church collegially which is very different from governing by papal fiat. Pope Francis is no autocrat: he discerns the movements of the Holy Spirit by listening to the voices of many -- bishops, lay people, religious and priests -- voices that are not always in agreement with each other or even with his. He's not afraid of controversy and he's committed to open discussion and dialogue. How refreshing!

All of this makes for some messiness, and it demands patience but, given the complexity and diversity of the church, it's what we should expect. And a big plus is the greater role it gives for pastors and bishops to walk with people as they form their consciences in company with a church whose teachings can never be just words on a page but which always gain their deepest meaning in the lives and struggles of real people.

I want to conclude with some of Pope Francis' own words that offer both challenge and comfort: "No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love. [We must] stop demanding of our … relationships a perfection, a purity of intention and a consistency which we will only encounter in the Kingdom to come. [And we must not judge] harshly those who live in situations of frailty. All of us are called to keep striving towards something greater than ourselves … Let us keep walking together ... May we never lose heart because of our limitations. May we never stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out [to] us." 

Business as usual? I don't think so!

[Elizabeth A. Elliott, is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Contact her at eelliott@ncronline.org.]

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