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Reflections on Failed Pastoral Care

"Reality is seen better from the periphery than from the center." Francis is convinced of this. He reiterates it in an interview with "La Cárcova News," the local newspaper launched by Padre Pepe's young people in a villa miseria , or slum, in Buenos Aires. The questions addressed to the Pope by the young people from the slums are not the usual questions put to him by the press. Instead, the life of an entire generation emerges, interwoven with fear, fatigue, and great desires. The long-distance dialogue that arises from it is surprisingly intense; it is pure evangelization. Well, isn’t this what the Extraordinary Synod on the Family proposes? The real issue at stake is missionary in nature: to show that Jesus Christ is present in billions of love stories. In two successive sessions, Rome is collecting hundreds of views from the periphery. The Pope has increasingly demonstrated that he considers bishops to be the natural “carriers” of their people’s “odor,” a kaleidoscope of the human experience of loving and being loved. For this reason, the months that separate the first assembly from the second require an active return to the dioceses. It is an excellent opportunity to listen to the heartbeat of reality. If nothing else, the temptation to resolve complex issues in a game of curial factions must be fought against. If attention to life does not prevail, the return to Rome will be reduced to mere show, to a conflict between theological ideas that have already been judged. Actually, it is not very clear whether the media generated or simply amplified the Synod’s slide toward a thoroughly ecclesiastical controversy concerning communion for the divorced and remarried and homosexual unions. 

Giovanni Segantini, «Ave Maria a trasbordo» (1886)

So, I will try to be the first to adhere to what I observe in order to contribute, if possible, to the ongoing discernment. I am not a bishop and I do not live in Rome; therefore, I am in no way at the center of the Church. I just need to give a voice to the periphery from this particular place in which I have been put. If my intuition is right, the tension between rich, tired Churches and poor but dynamic Churches was felt yet again at the Synod, and many observers called attention to an unstoppable shift toward the southern hemisphere. Well, Milan, the diocese where I live, and northern Italy in general are a rather exceptional case of popular Christianity, even in a postmodern context. After six years of ministry in difficult neighborhoods on the outskirts, I dedicated another six years to youth ministry in a Brianza (an area in the region of Lombardy) shaped by parochial culture. Culturally, my parishioners and I take in everything that is upsetting and confusing Europe; it is a world in crisis. But this is happening in churches that are still full. Although many things have changed over time, here Christianity and society have not yet divorced. I teach in public high schools and ninety percent of the students continue to attend religion class. In fact, that percentage is slightly on the rise. The majority of my nearly four hundred students attest to having had good experiences in youth groups and other Catholic associations, which in many cases continue into adulthood. Furthermore, I can count on a large number of young people to lead parish activities and attend catechism classes, and many teenagers come to confession. Is Christian life widespread then? The answer is not simple. In reality, I am burdened by facts that the Synod on the Family ought to consider. I remember a headline in the “Corriere della Sera” just over a year ago that made an impression on me: “Record Divorce Rate in Prosperous Cities.”Fidelity and everlasting love, observed the journalist, are on their way to extinction, especially in Lombardy. The journalist reported the latest figures on Italian families from the National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), which placed Lodi, Monza e Brianza, and Pavia (provinces in Lombardy), in that order, at the top of the list of provinces with the greatest number of separations and divorces. The newspaper commented on Lodi’s primacy: “Surprising perhaps for a city with a strong Catholic tradition, with many organizations committed to the world of the family and numerous churches and parishes with high attendance, immersed in a bucolic setting.” On the other hand, in the diocese of Milan, Christian marriages fell from 15,954 in 1999 to 6,135 in 2014; in the city of Milan, they dropped forty-four percent in just the last ten years. The collapse is demographic, but not only – the fracture in the symbolic order is more radical. Those who encounter Catholicism in childhood and adolescence perceive less and less the love between man and woman as a public issue, as a good for society. That certainty that God reveals Himself in a new way in every love story and that what is given to the couple is a gift for everyone appears very far from everyday experience. One might ask if the Christian family has gotten wind of its being a sacrament. In the joys and hardships of our love, God reveals Himself. Has the enormity of this identity suddenly vanished? When I tell this to young people, they stare at me. For them, marriage is a special day, a celebration, the solemn signing of a pact. And even if the family is among their highest values, and their parents, also those separated, are solid points of reference, “marriage” is not the word that means a daily moving forward together. That bond, especially when everything is running smoothly, is transparent, entrusted to memory albums, buried for decades in the living room cabinet. Sacrament means vertigo, enchantment, or a sense of God's presence in a fragile sign. What makes the heart beat in the days of falling in love is transformed with the passage of time and through crises and challenges, is forced to continually rediscover itself, is forged by the density of life. And in this movement, in which friction and fatigue are only a confirmation, the lovers are shaped and become a man and a woman never before seen in the world, one due to the fact that the other is there. It is a mystery of breathtaking beauty that God reveals Himself even in this way, that their moving through seasons and responsibilities communicates the concreteness with which Christ has bound Himself to the Church, that the Holy Spirit does not assist from without, but that He enlivens the love of the two spouses from within. A house built by those who are aware of this cannot but be filled with perfume. So, the Synod should retrace the centuries when the laity were understood essentially as the object of pastoral care and not as the subjects of evangelization. Secular life was hardly considered a place of revelation and even less did the carnal encounter between man and woman take on a theological or missionary significance. In the history of two spouses, maybe our mother and our father, we have not re-read the Gospel. The numerical collapse of marriages only documents the realization that no public bond is needed for romantic love. Pure feeling cannot be institutionalized. The agreed custom to marry managed to dissolve even in a land where people grow up in youth groups, student associations, volunteering, and scouts. And then, one wonders, who comes to the courses for engaged couples? Generally adults, with a stable emotional bond, after months of cohabitation, sometimes crowned by the birth of a child – a phase in which you have already set up a good part of married life. Evidently, thank God, by turning toward the sacrament, they are seeking something more: the evangelization of the experience underway. On the pastoral level, it is an extraordinary opportunity. But we must also ask, what was the community able to offer in the years in which the attitude toward love was taking shape? I look at the young people I meet and admit: almost nothing. In love, it seems obvious that everyone must find his own way. It might be reservedness, it might be that we passed from a thorough moral casuistry to an overly general anthropological mindset. What stirs the heart in early youth is not heard, is not accompanied, is not worth investment. The exception, among practicing Catholics, are those who ask for advice; the norm, while appreciating an education that does not separate body and heart, is that each develops their sexual ethics and emotional life without reference to tradition and far from any network of guidance and friendship. That raises the question on how much youth groups offer institutionally, on the strength of the bonds that spontaneously arise within it. Are they sufficiently real? Or does courtesy prevail so that even friends do not ask real questions? And, above all, never say that I see what you are doing and what I would do in your place, if it has to do with your life! If anything, we have groups where, as in almost all human contexts, it is okay to speak about people in their absence. We form a common opinion about everything, but certain "good" manners are then abandoned in radical solitude! I remember two sixteen-year-olds from the suburbs who came years ago and rang the intercom – the kind who had not entered the church since their first communion and that the police had already investigated. Very determined, one of them had questions for the priest on behalf of his friend, who appeared sullen and silent, concerning a disruptive event: "At the dance club, his girlfriend made out with her girlfriends on the couches. For him, it’s worse than treason and now he’s furious. Instead, they argue that it’s no big deal because there isn’t another guy involved and it’s just a way to have fun and to learn to kiss better. Can you tell us, Father, what to think about this? Because otherwise he’s going to kill her!" Far removed from Christian life, they came to the rectory to settle what upset their hearts – an interesting perception of what to look for in the Church. How can we foster in those who participate, in church goers, something of the same freedom? Not necessarily in relation to the priest, but at least in the broadest range of educational, affective, guiding relationships that we still have the strength to generate. All this, even more so now that the role played by pornography is more andmore disconcerting. The availability of internet on smartphones coincided with the spread, even among children who are nine or ten years old, of an imaginary world that eventually takes over hours and hours of time in delicate seasons of life. Thus, sexual attraction and falling in love are now completely redesigned from the beginning, even among young Christians, by unprecedented exposure to fantasies in other unexpectedcontexts. This introduces new concerns, especially when the gap suddenly widens between virtual experiences and the substance of reality. Today an economic empire feeds off of sexual desire, detaching it from its interpersonal context, but to reveal it is taboo. Yet, the data has anthropological, psychological, and emotional consequences and not only moral consequences. It cannot be dealt with only in the confessional. At the synod, I would point out the opportunity to indicate today - in a solemn way and with unprecedented clarity - human flesh, blood, and heart as a temple of the Spirit, so that the concreteness of loving one another is clearly perceived by Christians as an area of sanctification. Already, millions of men and women are witnesses and the Church should encourage them to testify. Sacramental theology, matrimonial moral theology, and family ministry should be written with them. In an age that exalts freedom and happiness, the unbreakable bond that generates families might then seem filled with positivity. With eye opening beauty.

by Sergio Massironi

         The Author

Born in 1977 in Merate (Lecco), Sergio Massironi has been a priest for the Diocese of Milan since 2002. After his first experience as a parochial vicar in Corsico and Buccinasco (Milan), in 2010 he was put in charge of youth ministry in the parishes of Cesano Maderno (Monza). After a degree in philosophy, he then studied theology at the Facoltà di Teologia di Lugano and the Facoltà Teologica dell'Italia Settentrionale. Since 2003, he has taught Catholic religion in public schools. Since October

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