Rita wrote a beautiful post about the passing of Austin’s own Leslie and how, despite virtually everyone’s uneasiness when meeting him for the first time, he had some impact on many in Austin. My wife and I had a brief conversation with the priest who administered Leslie’s last rites and celebrated his funeral. On the way home, my wife observed that part of the church’s beauty is our acceptance of anyone who wants to come back home, no matter their life circumstances.
Long before I was born, my family fell away from the church. The reasons are for a different day, but it took many decades for parts of the family to come back. Despite being away for many years, the path to return was simple. Celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation and start practicing the faith again. That’s it. There wasn’t an inquisition about why he or she left, no list of prereqs we were required to make up, and no barriers beyond what we ourselves have constructed.
Scripture gives us great imagery to support this. The Prodigal Son returning to the open arms of the Father, despite his unworthiness and squandering the gifts already received. The Good Shepherd risking it all to find and bring the lost sheep back to the flock. Jesus Christ giving up everything to reconcile all of us sinners back to our Creator.
In realty, this can be hard for us. Whether it is someone on death row who had committed horrific crimes, someone weird to our sensibilities like Leslie, or the person we know personally whose actions consistently fall far short of the line, very little is required of them to return to the full grace of God. Even though we have been toiling for years to do everything right, we become “even” with something that seems easy—just asking for it. It seems not fair. It seems like it doesn’t make sense. We struggle understanding it sometimes. Why put forth all of the effort if, in the end, we can just “make it up”. Unfortunately and usually unintentionally, us within the Church will sometimes erect barriers that keep people from feeling welcome to return to the faith.
Of course, we know better. We know we are to live the life God desires for us and, while not always easy, is worth the cost. We all have been lost—and will be lost again—and so we do rejoice when a soul finds his way back to God.
When the Pope passes away, all positions that “depend” on him cease to function. All of the “department heads” in Rome, technically, cease to hold position upon his death. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith isn’t the prefect any longer. The Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, the Congregation of Divine Worship, Catholic Education, Clergy and the rest are no longer prefects. The Roman Rota, the Vatican “Supreme Court”, is dissolved. Every position that is a direct extenuation of the position of the Pope ceases to exist upon his death–except one. The Major Penitentiary, the cardinal who directs the Apostolic Penitentiary (the “tribunal of mercy”), retains his position. This office is responsible for the absolution of excommunications that are reserved to Holy See, certain dispensations that are also reserved to the Holy See and for granting indulgences.
If the Major Penitentiary is a cardinal-elector, he is one of only three people in the conclave who is allowed communication to the outside world.
The Church wants everyone to return home to God. No matter what you did to deserve such a severe excommunication, the Church wants you to return as quickly as possible. The fear that you may pass to eternal life wanting to be forgiven but unable to be reconciled—and our Christian duty to aid in your return to God—means that your return is more important than the death of the Pope.
As we prepare to remember and celebrate the Paschal Mystery through Easter, we are to feel encouraged that no matter how short we think we may be or what we have done in the past, God wants us to come back to him. His Church is here to bring us back. Each one of us is too important in God’s eyes.