Last week, I wrote about the importance of a new pastoral letter by Bishop Mark Seitz on immigration, a current challenge and source of division in both our national and ecclesial conversations. I supported the content and encouraged action as Catholics. I would be remiss if I did not mention another significant document: the decree by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, in June on same-sex marriage and related pastoral issues.
When I was a kid, I remember being struck by the somewhat trite, but nonetheless thought-provoking, phrase: “God always answers our prayers — but sometimes the answer is ‘no.’” Nobody likes to hear the word “no.” Couples struggling to have children turn to immoral fertility treatments to avoid their painful, personal “no.” The Church currently is in upheaval over whether or not a couple, divorced and remarried without an annulment, should be told “no” to receiving the Eucharist. Even Jesus faced an agonizing “no” from the Father on the night before his death: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Mt 26:39). In these moments when we face an answer we don’t want to hear, our human frailty is exposed. We would prefer things to go our own way. We certainly think we would be happier.
But would we? Do we believe we were created to satisfy our own wants and desires? Or did God will us here for a higher, holier purpose? It is in the second part of Jesus’ plea to his Father in the garden where the correct answer to these questions is found: “Yet, not as I will, but as you will.” Where our faith seems to tell us “no,” God really is offering us an opportunity to say “yes.”
Reading Bishop Paprocki’s recent decree, one might be struck by its seeming abundance of “no-ness.” Individuals who have entered into a public, same-sex marriage may not receive Communion, they may not serve as a public liturgical minister and they may not be eligible for a Mass of Christian Burial without first repenting of their sins. For many, such definitive statements can be difficult and even frustrating. It can be painful to be told “no,” especially when something as personal as the practice of one’s faith is concerned. But, as Jesus showed on the cross, when aligned with God’s will, it can be transforming. It can be freeing. It is a “yes” to God’s will.
In an interview following the release of the decree, Bishop Paprocki commented that he was surprised at the attention it had received. He was, he said, simply stating what the Church always has taught. But the seismic shift in today’s culture means that what was once sufficiently stated in the Catechism now must be more precisely spelled out. Bishop Seitz did it on immigration; Bishop Paprocki on pastoral issues relating to same-sex marriage. Two sides of the same coin that is our Church, which proclaims a truth that sets us free and recognizes that out of every “no” we read into God’s commands, comes a better, eternal, “yes.”