One > 99 – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Matthew 21:28-32, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time


On my first week as a newly ordained priest, a man stopped by Sacred Heart School in Cebu where I was assigned, and asked if he could confess. So, I sat with this very earnest, very gentle man and listened. “Father,” he started, “there’s one thing in the past 12 years I’ve long wanted to do: to receive the body of Christ again. I’ve been separated for 12 years, and I know there’s a rule against people like me, so I’ve kept myself away from communion since. I go to mass every day though.” His wife had left him for another man after just four years of marriage. He himself had met another woman since, with whom he was now living and had a child. They all went to church every Sunday. But their daughter was the only one who would line up for communion because mom and dad took it upon themselves to, well, keep away, according to the rule…even if they’d been wanting to share of the Body of Christ, truly, deeply, longingly all these years. This man had always believed without a shred of a doubt, that Christ’s body was his source of inspiration and healing and strength all his life. If you were there to hear him talk, sisters and brothers, you would realize he would not have come to confession if he were not sincere. Because he was. It was unmistakable. He did get around to confessing his sins. But it was more a confession of a long-standing wish, the granting of which he well knew he didn’t deserve; at least according to the rule, because he was a separated man.

I gave the gentleman absolution. I also gave him the Body of Christ after that. I thought I had already understood his hunger for the Eucharist, until he broke down in big, loud, cathartic, heaving sobs upon receiving Christ’s body. I had no idea. He missed the Lord more than I could fathom. What greater faith could I ask to be shown, seeing someone long for the Lord so powerfully like that? So, his deep faith made me question my faith: When was the last time I longed for God like this? Never. The one verse that played over and over in my head all that day long was that there would be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over 99 righteous who think they have no need of repentance.

Pope Francis’ message in Amoris Laetitia is very clear, but only if priests care to read it carefully, receptively, and intelligently. I hope I did. Because after I read it, the most crucial message I heard in my crazy Jesuit head was twofold. “Arnel,” Pope Francis seemed to say, “Be very careful to not lump together in one basket all the divorced and the separated and the cohabiting, and think of all of them as self-driven enemies of God and of the church.” And you know, in my work as a priest and confessor, that is so true. I have met divorced, separated, and cohabiting people who have sincerely set aright their ways, even if they can no longer change their past wrongs. Should I keep using the past wrong as the sole criterion to doubt their present goodness? If we priests do that, then we are no better than the Pharisees, Jesus’ pet peeves. They regarded as impure and disgusting to God anyone and everyone who wasn’t pure like they were, pure in their sense of the word, according to their standards, and to their construal of the law.

Secondly, the Pope seemed to say, “Count how many times I wrote the word ‘discern’ and ‘discernment’ in that document: that priests must carefully ‘discern each situation,’ that ‘special discernment is indispensable for the care of the divorced, separated, abandoned;’ that these situations require ‘careful discernment and respectful accompaniment.’” 44 times. In other words, nowhere did the Pope imply or even order that all priests must all the time give communion to all the divorced, separated, and cohabiting, regardless of the circumstances. No. We are to carefully listen to people, accompany them, discern with them—in the spirit of compassion and mercy. Because not all the divorced, separated, and cohabiting are the monsters that many churchmen far too easily judge them to be.

But I have met a few who really reject the faith and even mock God and the church. So, yes, there are separated, divorced people like that who couldn’t care less about God or church or decency, because they want to have their cake and eat it, too. Yet, there are others who did say “no” to God at some point in their lives, but they’ve since gone back to the vineyard, to work with the Father—like the first son in today’s gospel. But how will priests know, if we antemano throw all of them into one basket, and then keep sterile distance from them? On the other hand, for all we know, some people we do give communion to,  they may well be legitimately wedded and living together, but have become cruel or apathetic to each other, in a marriage that is lawful, but loveless. Wouldn’t that be the second son in today’s parable—who said said “yes, I will,” or as marriage would go, “yes, I do,”—but did nothing more? “’Which of the two did his father’s will?’ Jesus asked them. They answered, ‘The first.’ ‘Amen, I say to you, tax collectors & prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.’” Then we protest this as in the first reading, “The Lord’s way is not fair!” “Listen, Israel,” the Lord says. “Is it my way that is unfair, or yours?”

I end with a quote in Amoris Laetitia. The Pope says, “I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church that’s attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Church who is Mother, who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.” If priestly shoes are always all clean and shiny, maybe we have stayed indoors far too long, instead of being out there, in the vineyard where the Lord happens to be working wonders to “sinners”.

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