Q: I am seeking some perspective on
family matters. Frankly, I think many
of us empty nesters, good Catholics caught
in a riptide of family challenges and crises,
feel like we are drowning. Although I
belong to many charitable organizations
and subscribe to several Catholic publications,
attend Mass faithfully and pray daily,
I cannot find a place, the privacy or the persons
with pastoral wisdom to throw me a
spiritual “life jacket” so that I can reach solid
The Church is so busy surviving these
days. I think we Catholics have lost the
most vital connections with our Church:
opportunities to be heard and to talk with
those who are our shepherds. Having been
married for over 35 years, I have seen the
Church and society change and become so
busy, beset by deadlines and dilemmas,
that it is very difficult for people to find a
listening pastoral ear.
Having been involved with counseling
people in my work, I sense that Catholics are
having trouble finding compassionate listeners.
Years ago I was involved with a small
Christian community in my parish, but those
people have either died or moved away.
What can we do, as Catholics, to find
places of refuge and wisdom? We are not
seeking therapy or treatment—simply a
ministry of listening.
We need to connect our everyday experiences
with the wisdom of the Church.
We need to have circles of conversation
with our pastoral brothers and sisters. But
where, how and when?
A: Your concerns are very deep. I
can offer some suggestions
about meeting the needs you have
identified, but your letter already shows
a strong desire to be with others in
Within the Catholic Church, the
needs you describe are being addressed
in various ways. Some people find that
going to a spiritual director fills their
needs; others regularly participate in
group retreats, directed retreats, Cursillos,
Renew or similar groups. The
Sacrament of Reconciliation offers the
possibility that, besides naming their
sins, people can reflect on and receive
feedback about heartening or disheartening
trends in their lives.
In some parishes, groups of Catholic
men meet regularly to share their faith
journeys; there are women’s groups
addressing the same need. If there is
not such a group in your parish, there
might be one at a neighboring parish.
If not, perhaps God is prompting you
to start such a group.
Although some conversations you
may need to have with a priest, please
do not underestimate the help your
parish’s deacons and/or lay pastoral
associates may offer. “Pastoral ears” do
not have to be clerical ears. Some people
seeking the help you describe have
found it through talking with monks or
nuns in monasteries.
The way that we see ourselves is
related to our mental images of God
and how we see other people. A change
in one area influences the other two. If
I think of God as rather stingy, that
gives me permission to be stingy. Realizing
that God is incredibly generous,
on the other hand, moves me in the
Whatever synthesis we have reached
about God, ourselves and others can be
disrupted by new events. Achieving a
new harmony may involve some struggle.
Besides our need for talking and listening,
we also need to serve, to share
generously with people who are in
physical or spiritual need. Faith involves
clarifying our ideas, but it must also be
a faith “working through love,” as St.
Paul said (see Galatians 5:6). A co-worker
in such service may have the
listening, pastoral ears that you seek.
'Lewd Conduct'? 'Unlawful Marriage'?
Q: In Matthew 5:32 we read, “Whoever
divorces his wife (unless the marriage
is unlawful) causes her to commit
adultery, and whoever marries a divorced
woman commits adultery.” This teaching
is repeated in Matthew 19:9.
One Catholic Bible that I consulted in the
1970s translated the parenthetical remark
above as “except for lewd conduct” and the
footnote advised, “See your parish priest.”
A later edition of that Bible removed that footnote. Now the Revised New American
Bible reads “unless the marriage is unlawful.”
What is going on? I am very tempted
to lose trust in Bible translations but not in
the Bible itself.
A: Because biblical translations are
made by human beings, they can
be improved over time, as is the case
with translating porneia, the key word in
understanding these passages. Please
don’t let one difficult passage undermine
your trust in all Bible translations.
The word porneia means “unlawful
sexual conduct” and could thus cover
a wide range of actions, including fornication
and adultery (which have their
own words in Greek) or marriage between
relatives considered too close to
allow for marriage (uncle/niece, etc.).
Jews were stricter than gentiles about
how many family members were excluded
as potential marriage partners.
When gentiles became Christians, the
issue arose as to which traditional
understanding should be followed. The
Church chose the stricter (Jewish) one
but understood that one’s former spouse
must be provided for in a just manner.
No new phrase was introduced into
the Gospel of Matthew in the 1980s
or ’90s. The term in question has always
been there but has been translated into
English differently over the centuries,
moving in the direction of greater precision.
It is clearly a parenthetical remark,
abruptly but temporarily changing the
direction of the sentence. If this verse
is addressing which family relationships
are too close to allow marriage,
then it is saying that, when a gentile
(pagan) becomes a Christian, he or she
must accept the Jewish understanding
on this matter.
If a new Christian was already in such
a marriage, he or she would have to end
it because it was not a true marriage.
This is probably the sense of porneia in
Acts 15:29, which the Revised New American
Bible translates as “unlawful marriage."
In the New Jerome Biblical Commentary,
Benedict Viviano, O.P., writes that
in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 this understanding
of porneia as the marriage of
very close relatives “fits the text best.”
Q: My husband and I disagree on
whether praying for a person’s salvation
makes any difference. He says that
we cannot do anything for the salvation of
another person. Is there biblical evidence
that we can?
A: St. Paul wrote to the Christians
in Thessalonika that he always
prayed for them (2 Thessalonians 1:11).
Earlier he had urged them to pray without
ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
James 5:16 urges us to pray for one
another. The Gospels of Matthew and
Luke especially devote a good deal of
attention to prayer by Jesus and to
prayer by other people.
Prayer cannot guarantee that someone
will respond generously to God’s
grace. We pray for others because we
and they are part of the communion of
saints, which involves three sets of people:
those who are in heaven (who
inspire us but do not need our prayers),
plus those who are in purgatory (who
need our prayers), plus the living people
for whom we pray.
An honest relationship with God
overflows into honest prayer. If you
had a relative, friend or co-worker involved
in some self-destructive behavior
or relationship, wouldn’t you pray
that he or she would wake up and realize
where this is heading? Wouldn’t
your honest prayer eventually prompt
you to say something or do something
to help that person?
Honest prayer is always about opening
up to the grace of God. Your prayer for
someone who is living does not guarantee
that he or she will accept God’s grace,
but it makes you a better sign of God’s
grace for that individual. Perhaps that is
precisely what God is counting on.
Q: In your May 2005 column, you explained that this residence in Vatican
City was used by the cardinals during the recent conclave. Is
it used for any other purposes? It would seem like a terrible waste
to use this facility so infrequently.
A: Yes, it is regularly used for other purposes. Most recently, it
housed many participants at the General Assembly of the
World Synod of Bishops (October 2-23).
The Holy See hosts many international meetings, as well
as periodic gatherings of bishops, archbishops and cardinals who oversee
the Holy See’s 23 main offices. There are frequently bishops who are
making their ad limina visits (every five years), plus papal diplomats
who are reporting to the pope in person about developments in their
region. Clerical and lay participants at meetings connected to pontifical
councils and commissions sometimes also stay there.
If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here.
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