God asks hard things of us. He asks for chastity. He asks for fidelity. He asks for trust when we are afraid. He asks for discipleship when we want independence. God gives us great blessings, and all that we have we owe to God, but there is no denying that there are burdens to be borne.
Father Walter Ciszek, SJ, in his reflection on the spiritual lessons learned in the labor camps and prisons of the Soviet Union, wrote: “‘My yoke is sweet and my burden light,’ said Christ, but the burdens of life, the sacrifices and self-denials, the humiliations, can be so only if we see in them the express will of God.”
This is so difficult for the modern soul to contemplate. We view mercy as the removal of burdens. We view self-denial too often as self-loathing, and humiliation as something to be avoided at all cost. For us it is fight or flight, and the idea that we would drop our hands but stay in the ring, believing that all was in the hands of a God who loves us, is difficult to accept, especially when the burden feels heavy.
For most of us, such faith does not come easily. Gradually and over time, in fits and starts, we respond to God’s invitation, edging toward what Father Ciszek describes as “an act of total trust.”
But how many of us are capable of this? How often do we fail? And how does the Church minister to those of us who struggle, who fall, indeed who lose their way?
The extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family is launching the Church on a yearlong reflection of these questions.
Much of the news coverage leading up to the synod focused on a debate between cardinals regarding how best to minister to those who were divorced and remarried outside the Church but who desire the sacraments. That this is debated is not a problem for me. In fact, such debates provide a catechetical moment and do not need to be censored, although the filter of the news media may distort the issues (yet another reason for a strong Catholic press).
But with the release of the synod’s relatio Oct. 13, it seems that the fathers of the extraordinary synod are not simply lining up theses to argue about with modern world. Instead, they want the Church to confront the sufferings and confusion of her people in a way that does not diminish the teaching but allows the Church to “accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them ...”
Or as the document said elsewhere, “Jesus looked upon the women and the men he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps with patience and mercy, in proclaiming the demands of the Kingdom of God.”
The demands do not vanish. God does ask hard things of all of us.
But in this field hospital that is the Church in the modern world, the image that the synod document brings to mind is that of Simon of Cyrene. Simon could not free the Lord from his cross. He could simply walk with him and help him carry it. The synod fathers seem to be asking how the Church can do the same.
The doctrine does not change, nor the call to repentance. But the Lord does rebuff those who would “tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4). Our challenge is to help families in their struggles to carry their crosses.
During this coming year, with the World Meeting of Families next September and the Ordinary Synod of Bishops next October, the Church will be reflecting on how best to walk with all her sons and daughters.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.