There is a chance I could be excommunicated. I might not mind if I was. “Excommunicate” means to “be out of communion with.” There are things in which I am out of step with, in the church, and so it would probably serve me right. Of course, it helps to remember that Jesus was excommunicated by His church. Not only that, but church leaders instigated and encouraged His murder because He, though a faithful rabbi/priest, did not keep in step with their laws or customs. He was faithful to God—not always to His church. For good or bad, that is what I try to imitate.
A woman came to me recently for counsel that resulted in her receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Numerous times over eighteen years since being married outside of church law, she had attempted the sacrament. Each time, she was told by a different priest that she could not be forgiven. Though some were willing to offer her a blessing or pray with her, they could not absolve her of her sin, i.e., they couldn’t get her reconciled with the church. They were only doing their job; they were doing what the church instructs us to do. For eighteen years, she has been tormented, shunned by religious family members, victimized by self-harm and suicide attempts, degraded in her role as a Christian wife and mother, and institutionalized for mental anguish—though I’m convinced it is more spiritual than mental. This state of her being seems directly related to thinking that God will not forgive her because the church does not. Banned from the communion table, she thinks that God doesn’t want or love her. It doesn’t help that religious family members from her side tell her that she lives in sin, that her children are illegitimate, and that she is headed to hell, while her husband’s side hates and condemns Catholicism. That might torment the best of us. Like some of you, I’ve heard thousands of versions of her story, usually connected to marriage or divorce.
I recall that the playwright, Tennessee Williams, when asked why he converted to Catholicism late in his life answered: “Because I wanted to be forgiven.” Don’t we all! In Jesus’ time, church people complained that He did many things that church law forbad, including forgiving sinners. I forgave this woman of her sins—something that had not been offered her in eighteen years. It puts me out of step with the church but, I believe, locks us in closer step with Christ, who was also out of step with His church. The flood of tears that flowed from her eyes and the inexpressible joy that sought form in her actions showed me that even if I am wrong to usurp church guidelines, I am right to offer forgiveness. People come to Confession to encounter Christ and His divine mercy; that’s who they should find there—not a judge.
We should also note that He calls us to receive communion, not excommunication. In His time, when self-righteous church people condemned others as sinners, Jesus went out of His way to break bread with those “sinners.” He invited them to table to receive the bread of life and glory in His real presence. He also challenged them to go and sin no more, i.e., to walk closer with God. There is a lot of darkness and sin in our world right now, and particularly in our nation. Though our initial tendency might be to judge, point fingers, or place blame, our Christian response should be otherwise. Civil law and canon law remind us that sometimes people need to be removed from positions they abuse, resulting in impeachment, expulsion, incarceration, banning, shunning, or excommunication. Moral law tells us that we should hate the sin and love the sinner. And God’s law tells us that we should reflect the light of Christ and the face of mercy. It is not ours to judge and condemn but to forgive and welcome.