We should contribute


The saints in Christian history are models for almost any kind of human behavior. Some, like the great Augustine and the modern Irishman, Venerable Matt Talbot, are also models of change. They showed that early wildness does not define a life. The worst cad and drunk can become someone worth imitating for virtue.
At last month’s synod on marriage and family in Rome, some of the bishops spoke of such change as a “gradualism” recognized by the Catholic Church. Some other bishops at the synod worried that such talk is dangerous. People could misunderstand it as tolerance of poor judgment and a careless attitude toward virtue in youth.
St. Augustine is famous for praying, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” This was during his early dissolute years. He finally reached that goal, but not until after fathering a child and leaving the mother. He had been drawn to Christianity even as a young man, and he knew how to pray. Even in his wandering he was listening for the movement of God in his life.
But Augustine’s move from reckless playboy to Christian hero — with the title Doctor of the Church — was made gradually, at his own personal pace.
Matt Talbot’s story is similar. He lived from 1856 to 1925 as a laborer in Dublin. In his early teen years he began drinking any liquor he could get, borrowing money for drinks, even stealing when the money ran out. After 16 years of this he made a pledge of sobriety, kept it, and became known for quiet kindness and charity to fellow workers. When he dropped dead on a Dublin street at the age of 69, he was found with a small chain wrapped around his body. It turned out that he had worn this for years as a practice of penance and self-control.
There are people who seem to move through life on a steady ladder of growth in virtue. For most of us, the story is different. We rise and fall, stumble, slip, rise and fall. And keep hoping, keep growing in our own ragged way, like Augustine and Matt Talbot.
The discussion at that synod last month circled around sex and love, the most difficult management issues in human experience. Striving, falling, rising, desiring, stumbling, ecstasy and suffering mixed together is the common story. And everything discussed in the synod — marriage, family, cohabitation, same-sex relationships — had some connection with sex and love, including the problem of promises not kept.
No wonder it became tense in the end. Our bishops want to find ways for the Church to do better at ministering in that hope-filled yet mistake-prone reality. The word for it is mercy. But the bishops also rightly worry that we could risk losing our vision of marriage as reflecting the faithful, creative love of God. Pope Francis, who clearly wants some movement, warned the synod fathers against a soft-headed version of mercy. He wants us to not forget the deeper need for healing of personal disorder and purging of selfishness.
Next year another synod session will take some action. The Catholic Church will say an important word about marriage, family and sex. The world’s bishops have been asked to be honest and offer their best thought to this project. Wouldn’t it help to have a similar contribution from the Catholic people before the next synod session? Young people and the not so young who seriously reflect and pray about their experience, their hopes, their joy, their suffering, their questions, their faith?
The Catholic Messenger is here as a forum for such people. Contribute. Write.
Frank Wessling

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