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Learning to Appreciate Church Documents

May 19, AD2016

CS-St. Peter Balcony-Pixabay

On the day that the much awaited apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, came out, one of the leading evening news channels here in the Philippines immediately had an editorial piece about the document. While listening to the commentary of the news reporter, I was asking myself, how much of the document did the reporter actually read? If the document became public only in the morning of that day, how was it possible that he was already speaking as if he had read the whole document from cover to cover that night? Did he have extraordinary reading abilities ? Was he able to scan a 200-page document in a matter of minutes and then come up with a deep analysis at once?

For most of  the Catholics in my country, who were listening to the evening news that day, that will be perhaps the first and the last time they will get to hear something about Amoris Laetitia. And for most of them, they will think that what they heard that night was already the proper interpretation of the latest Apostolic Exhortation of the Pope.

Responding to Church Documents

With the advent of modern technology and social media, more and more Catholics are getting to know the teachings of the Church and her leaders primarily through second-level sources. This is one of the biggest problems facing most Catholics today. For lack of time or interest, they tend to get their interpretation of what the Church says, not through proper channels, but through the social media or mainstream media. Sad to say, the reports coming out of these sources will always depend on the bias of the person or groups who control them.

How do we as Catholics come to understand and appreciate the richness of the documents of the Church? I have to admit that I am no expert at analysing papal encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, and pastoral letters. However, for my column this month at Catholic Stand, I would like to offer to our readers three short suggestions on how we can approach the way we treat and read whatever document that comes from our Holy Mother Church.

We have to understand that not all Church documents, not all writings or speeches of the Pope, have the same value with regard to our response in faith. There are Church documents, for instance Dogmatic Constitutions, that carry a lot of weight in Church life. Then we have encyclicals, which tend to give us an inside look at the mind of a certain pope with some of the most challenging issues of our time. We also have apostolic exhortations, which come after a long deliberation of bishops with regards to certain  challenges facing the Church today. We also have the different pastoral letters of the bishops, which try to put the Word of God and teachings of the Church in the context of their particular countries and localities.

However, whatever the level of authority these different types of documents will have, I believe that the following basic reflections can help the serious Catholic appreciate more the richness of the documents of the Church.

Read the Document in the Spirit of Faith and Prayer

Papal encyclicals, apostolic exhortations and pastoral documents of the Church are attempts by Church leadership to discern the way we are to live the faith in today’s world. If such is the case, then the first thing we need to do when we decide to read these documents is that we read them in the spirit of faith and prayer.

What does it mean to read a Church document in the spirit of faith and prayer? Prayer is a deep moment of dialogue between a person and his God. It is a moment of silence, of listening and of being open to discover God’s will in one’s life.

Prayer is not a dialogue where we try to  convince God to grant us the favour we ask. If we approach prayer this way, then chances are we will end prayer with a sense of disappointment, because not all our favours will ever be granted. And when we feel that God has not met our expectations, we may even start doubting his love for us. But if we approach prayer as a means to listen and discover God’s will for our lives, we notice that our prayer becomes more fruitful. Yes, it can also be disappointing, but we tend to overcome these disappointments with serenity in the knowledge that we are following what God has set for us.

To read the Church documents in the spirit of prayer is also like that. Take for instance, the way some people approached Amoris Laetitia. Days or months before its official publication, Church observers were already divided into two camps — the liberals and the conservatives. For the liberals, they were already expecting to find a revolutionary declaration from the Pope that divorced Catholics can now receive communion, or even the Pope approving same-sex unions. The conservatives, on the other hand, were expecting the Pope to finally end the debate of the reception of communion for divorced Catholics and say with finality that they can never approach the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

If we are to read this document with such preconceived notions, then chances are we will end up reading them with lots of disappointment. But, if we are to read it in a spirit of prayer and deep faith, then we will surely appreciate how the Pope truly brings us back to the sacredness of the family and marriage, and at the same time, how we see the depth of our Christian faith when he calls for mercy to the broken families and situations that we see around us.

To read the Church documents in a spirit of prayer and faith is to allow ourselves to be open to guiding hand of the Holy Spirit. When we do so, then we will appreciate that these documents were never written merely to be placed in Church libraries. They were written with the purpose of helping us live our faith more fully.

Read the Whole Document Personally or As a Church Community

The second advice I would like to share with those who are quite serious about learning their Catholic faith is this: try to take the time to read the whole document by yourself.

With the advent of technology, a lot of Church documents can now be downloaded in our own devices. Do that. Carry the document with you. Read it in your spare time. Study it. Make your own notes and reflections about it. Do not rely only on what mainstream or social media says about any Church document. Some of them may take certain paragraphs and quotations totally out of context. Some of them may even add their own spin to it. Worst, some may even try to distort it.

If you do not have time to read the whole document, I suggest that you form study groups in your own church communities about it. The best way to grow in faith is when we gather not only to pray and worship, but also when we gather to learn and study about our faith. You may want to ask your pastors to form such groups in your own parishes.

The sad thing in some Catholic communities today is the absence of any attempt to have continuous programs of adult faith formation. Many of our church groups have become places for gossip instead of becoming communities growing in faith. I do not believe that there is a dearth of topics to discuss in many or our prayer communities. There is a lot of material that can be found in the exhortations, encyclicals and pastoral letters written by Church leaders. Let these materials become sources of prayer in our small group communities.

Read the Document in the Context of the Rich Tradition of the Church

When one reads any of the Church documents, one can compare it to watching a TV or movie series. The best way to understand a certain episode in a series is by knowing what happened before the episode one is watching. The same is true with any of the Church documents that we have.

To appreciate, for instance, the beauty of Amoris Laetitia, it would help a serious Catholic to also take into consideration the past teachings of the church regarding the family and the  sacredness of marriage. Church documents are never written in a vacuum. Rather, they form part of a process of the attempt of the Church to continually grow in the faith. Each document is a deepening of a previous work. Again, having a community where one can study such documents together is such a wonderful blessing to have.

In a society marked by great changes in paradigms and cultural thought, any Catholic who really wishes to grow and practice the faith today must take to studying his or her faith seriously. There are many reasons why some Catholics leave the Church. There are those who live because they become scandalised by the lifestyle and the abuse cases happening in the Church. Some leave because they do not find any emotional bond between them and the other members of the community. Then there are those who leave because  their understanding of the faith has not really grown.

How I really wish that our Church communities not only provide solace for those seeking the mercy and love of God, but also provide growth and wisdom to those who truly wish to understand the intellectual and the cultural dimensions of the faith.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Mon hails from the Philippines and currently works as a school head in an affordable private high school in Manila. His passion lies in bringing educational opportunities to young people who have less in life. Someday, he dreams of writing his own book that relates the Gospels to the daily life of teachers and educators.

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  • Guy McClung

    Sadly, very very few Catholics, of all the hundreds of millions of Catholics in the world, ever read any church document. They simply do not care. And there is a very long “parade of horribles” that flows from this not caring. Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas

  • Kevin Aldrich

    It is great to get such a rich and faith-filled perspective from the Philippines!