Opening Gospel at Synod: Jesus' prohibition of divorce

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis is expected to open the highly anticipated second global meeting of Catholic bishops on family life issues Oct. 4 by celebrating Mass with the several hundred gathered prelates in St. Peter's Basilica, where he will likely offer the homily.

And the Gospel reading the pontiff will reflect on that day, as provided by the universal Catholic lectionary? Jesus' seemingly clear denunciation of divorce.

The reading, first noted Tuesday by Italian journalist Sandro Magister, presents an interesting confluence, as one of the questions the bishops are expected to discuss are possible changes in the church's pastoral practice towards divorced and remarried persons.

The global meeting of bishops, known as a synod, is the second of two the pope has called for 2014 and 2015.

German Cardinal Walter Kasper introduced the idea of easing restrictions on the divorced and remarried before last year’s synod, suggesting the creation of some sort of penitential path to allow them to take communion after repenting of their first marriages.

That idea, backed by a number of other influential cardinalatial voices, has met stiff resistance by those concerned with upholding church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

This year's synod will be held Oct. 4-25. It will be opened by the Mass Oct. 4, which is also the feast of 13th-century St. Francis of Assisi. The pope's homily then will likely be scrutinized by many as a possible signpost for what he wants from the prelates' discussions.

The Gospel reading from the lectionary Oct. 4 is taken from a passage in Mark, where Jesus is tested by some Pharisees who ask him whether it is lawful for a husband to divorce his wife.

"What God has joined together, no human being must separate," Jesus is stated as replying, adding: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

Many might debate the meaning of the Gospel text. Even though Mark is widely held to be the first of the four Gospels to be completed, it is thought to have been written many decades after Jesus' death.

Magister, who wrote about the reading for his blog at Italy's l'Espresso newsmagazine, thinks its meaning is quite clear.

The first person to speak at the synod, the journalist wrote, "will be the Holy Spirit, with the voice -- in fact, the roar -- of the Gospel of Mark."

He continued: "The champions of communion to the divorced and remarried -- that is in reality the breach for the legitimization of divorce -- will therefore have some difficulties right away to set aside these fairly clear-cut, even unmistakable, words of Jesus -- [which are] from their point of view so unmerciful for the 'hard of heart.'"

"To refresh the memory of all -- ringing again the first day of the synod, in all the churches of the world -- will be the roar of the evangelical lion," Magister said, referencing the typical animal depiction of the Gospel author.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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