"Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to the crowd" (John 6:10).
Pope Francis released his long-anticipated letter on the family today. It is helpful to put his words into the context of today's Gospel about the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.
Jesus looks out at a huge crowd, hungry for instruction and also for food. He engages his disciples in the problem of the cost of buying enough food to feed everyone. Philip, ever practical, calculates that it would cost 200 days wages, while Andrew, naïve but trusting, presents a boy with five barely loaves and two fish. Neither suggestion meets the problem realistically.
Jesus then miraculously multiples the small amount of food at hand to feed everyone, with 12 baskets of leftovers. There are no distinctions about who is worthy or unworthy to receive this bounty. Anyone who is hungry is satisfied. In John's account, the food is blessed and distributed by Jesus himself. Abundance flows directly from him, as the disciples witness in awe the power of God's unconditional love meeting the needs of the crowd.
Pope Francis addresses the bishops and pastors of the church as Jesus addressed his disciples: "How can we meet the needs of this huge crowd?" Francis challenges his brother priests to be as open and generous as Jesus always is, grace flowing freely to everyone who needs it. Need defines the moment, not criteria of worthiness or protocols of control. All are welcome and everyone is fed, as much as they need.
The pope's letter will challenge everyone, including those who seek mercy and truth from the church, to enter into conscientious discernment about where they are in their life situations and what they need to do to grow and be at peace with God, themselves and others. Like hunger, each person must discern their needs, join in the community that shares God's gifts equitably and fairly, for the good of all.
Clergy are challenged to be pastors, accompanying their people, immersing themselves in their struggles and sufferings, helping them discern what is right without judging their inner state before God and where they are on the long journey toward the holiness that only God can give any of us. Priests are not the source of God's grace, but witnesses to the miracles of love occurring in every life.
The pope's letter will challenge most those bishops and priests who see themselves as gatekeepers to God's mercy and not as servants of the mystery of God's encounter with each individual. Whole new skills will be needed for some, not to speak of hearts immersed in the common human condition of weakness and uncertainty. If the pope's letter is a new approach, it is primarily one of attitude and openness for the church's minsters. We will see how they receive the pope's words.
We rejoice to witness a church alive to God's mercy and to the needs of the world for grace and guidance. The Spirit is evident in these events and in all of us.