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Genuine Needs Not Being Addressed
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


Where to Find Pastoral Ears?
'Lewd Conduct'? 'Unlawful Marriage'?
Intercessory Prayers Worthwhile?
Does Domus Sanctae Marthae Have Any Other Use?

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 ground.

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 Christ.

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 same direction.

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. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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