Friday, October 24, 2014
Graduality and the Terror of the Field Hospital
"Graduality" was one of the controversial ideas introduced in the Synod. I must admit I am a 'gradualist', I believe conversion is a gradual process, getting to Heaven is a gradual process. My thinking is based on such VII ideas as 'the pilgrim people of God', I believe we are a 'becoming' people. I even think we are 'becoming' Catholic.
It is interesting that the name of God can be understood both as 'I am who I am' but also 'I am becoming who I am becoming'. I like Newman's "To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." Being a Catholic is about growth, like the Holy Vine, it grows and it is pruned and grows and bears fruit. The problem is avoiding the sense that progress is always about positive, sometimes growth can be in the wrong direction, sometimes it can be fruitless.
With 'Graduality' the problem is that we set the bar too low, similarly when we rule out 'Graduality' we can end up in process where there is no growth.
A layman told me story about a friend of his who was daily communicant, who was addicted to using prostitutes, having spent the night in his vice, he used go around London churches for Confession, having confessed and done his penance, he would receive Holy Communion and that evening return to his habitual vice. This continued for years. Confessors took his stated sorrow as a 'firm purpose of amendment', which it might well have been but he lacked the will to change. Even if he willed it, he didn't do it. Indeed he might well have desired it, he might well have detested his sin, been cover in guilt and anxiety, been torn in two for his genuine love for and desire for Christ, often with sexual sins there is loathing both of self and of the sin, but for all of that this man was making no progress but returning like a dog to his vomit. In fact those priests who handed out absolution, often because it is easier to do so than to confront someone with their sin, did this man more harm than good, and compounded his sacrilege and re-enforced his weakness. Yes, in strictly canonical terms he fulfilled what is required for absolution, he expressed sorrow for his sin but there was no growth, instead a hardening of irresolution.
Though personally I fear it because I am such a poor confessor, what I hope the pro-Graduality Synod Fathers were calling for wasn't about simply saying, 'It is alright come to Holy Communion' but what Pope Francis himself has used in the metaphor of a field hospital, indicating that a priest has to be like a doctor in a field hospital. It is easy to be sentimental about such a place, I think one of the good things about the Holy Father he is not sentimental but quite realistic. Sometimes a doctor in a field hospital must amputate a diseased limb, must operate without anesthetic or cause pain in order to reset fractured bones, have to sometimes apply a burning ointment to a festering wound or to give a bitter medicine, and sometimes force those who would prefer to lay in bed to get up and walk on tender stumps. A field hospital is a terrible place for both patients and doctors, it is full of smells and screams and often disorder. Sometimes one has decide a patient is too sick to be treated, or simply there is isn't space or time or medicine for a particular patient, or even that they are so diseased, so contagious they will infect other patients and even the staff that their very presence is a danger.
I think that today we have lost a sense of 'Graduality', I admit I am part of the 'Church of Nice', I like to say 'yes', I bend-over backwards to look for the good, like most modern priests, in fact all the priests I know. Yet this is something new. Constantine was baptised only on his death bed, not at the first sign of faith. In the days when the Church had to make it a rule that people received Holy Communion once a year (at Easter or thereabouts) it was only after a strict period of penance; -prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and meditation on the Passion, and of course Confession, and indeed a penitent rather than skipping from Confessor to Confessor was expected to go to their parish priest, who knew them and there own situation and was expected to 'examine' them, like a doctor in a field hospital and to prescribe, as the Council of Trent demanded, 'suitable medicine'.
'Gradualism' is about 'process', one of the great faults of the Church before VII was a loss of a sense of process, and of progress in the spiritual life, sacraments were given almost on demand, without any sense of the Church interacting with the recipient or expectation of growth. We do indeed need to welcome everyone, whatever their condition but we can't leave them in the same condition they entered the field hospital. The Pope used that metaphor, not that of a hospice, where we simply care for the dying, making them as comfortable as possible with increased doses of morphine until they eventually die!
Pray for Pastors to be courageous, especially in the Confessional.
Posted by Fr Ray Blake