As John in his Gospel, tells the story of Jesus and his disciples we discover the significance of relationships for the disciples of Jesus. Before his death and resurrection, Jesus reflects on his departure from them. (John 14:23-29) As he does so, Jesus reassures them in two ways. First, his vision is that they not be troubled or fearful. He wants his disciples to be at peace, in their own hearts and with one another.
The second reassurance is his promise that the Father will not leave them alone or abandoned. God will gift them with “the Advocate”, the Holy Spirit of God will be with them always. With this Spirit, Jesus will continue to be among them, guiding and supporting them as they carry on his message and mission.
Over the past three years Francis I has launched our church on a journey to discover the peace of heart and peace with others that is Jesus’ vision for disciples. The focus Francis has taken is to lead us away from commands, rules and judgement, to see ourselves as a church of mercy.
The image that Francis has applied to the church is t he image of a “field hospital”. That is, our church is to be out among the struggles and challenges, physical, social, economic and moral of all humanity. It is to reach out in particular to the lost and the excluded, the outcasts, the suffering, the wounded and the hurting.
At the same time we are to acknowledge or own weakness and wounds. We are not a church of a perfect society. Nor are we a church with all the answers. Together with all of humanity, we are a community on a life pilgrimage. This is a trek of searching and seeking for peace and a sense of what is good and for all. The road is not always clear and so we search together, seeking to do the best for all humanity and creation at large.
As church, doctrine and teaching, rules and laws are significant helps, guidelines for our quest. But they are not the end or the goal of who we are as church. Church doctrines, teachings and laws cannot provide all the answers to humanity’s changing questions and challenges. The ultimate and real goal is Jesus’ vision of peace that “the Advocate”, the Spirit assists us with along our way.
The merciful church that Francis calls for is a pastoral church, one that cares for all and is walking and working with a searching, struggling humanity and its many questions. It is a church that rests on compassion, not commandments. In the vision of Francis, we are a pastoral church. We do not have all the answers, but we do have a capacity for love and care. And we are willing to search with others for the best response in challenging situations of life.
Francis has expressed this most recently in a document he issued this April, Amoris laetitia (The Joy of Love). Amoris laetitia is the fruit of Francis’ reflection on the two synods on family held in 2014 and 2015. It is a pastoral, real life reflection flowing from and directed to the life experience of all humanity.
In a recent article in the British Catholic newspaper theologian Richard Gaillardetz commented: “[The document] is the Pope’s vision of the Church as a field hospital and his insistence on meeting people where they are. When considering those whose relational commitment falls outside church norms, he offers what might be a preferential option for mercy and inclusion. Pastors must discern, ‘which of the forms of exclusion currently practised in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted.’ [Francis] is convinced it seems, that in at least some of these irregular situations (e.g. divorced and remarried) a return to the Eucharistic table may be pastorally justified.” (The Tablet 16 April 2016)
While its focus is on Catholic views of family and marriage, in fact it addresses how we as a whole church, laity and clergy, can be a compassionate, merciful, welcoming and inclusive church, not just on family but on the many moral, ethical and social questions we face in the 21st Century.