A couple of weeks ago, Pope Benedict while on his vacation in the Italian Alps, met with the local diocesan priests to talk with them about the state of the Church from their perspective. He answered some questions (submitted in advance) and John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter comments upon them in his weekly column.
One in particular has generated heated discussion among some U.S. Catholics. Mark Shea, a prolific (and terrific) blogger (Catholic and Enjoying It) and magazine journalist, started it out by writing about Those Angry Traditionalists in InsideCatholic.com Those angry traditionalists are responding with equal warmth on the AngelQueen Forum and other traddy websites.
The final question came from a local pastor named Fr. Paolo Rizzi, and it expressed a typical pastor's gripe: Too many kids these days, Rizzi complained, come forward for First Communion and Confirmation but don't show up at Mass on Sunday. Sometimes, he said, he's tempted to tell them, "Just stay home for all of it!" Rizzi asked the pope what pastoral strategy he would suggest.
In response, Benedict said that when he was a younger priest, he was "rather more severe," taking the position that if candidates didn't practice the faith on a regular basis, they shouldn't receive the sacraments. Today, however, he said he sees things a little differently.
"In the course of time, I have realized that we have to follow the example of the Lord, who was very open with people who were at the margins of Israel," he said. "If we can see even a tiny flame of desire for communion in the church … it seems right to me to be rather generous."
Naturally, Benedict said, when the faith is completely absent, administering the sacraments would be a sham. He described the phenomenon in terms any pastor will readily recognize: "Where there is no element of faith … First Communion would just be a party with a big lunch, nice clothes and nice gifts," the pope said.
At the same time, Benedict said, even small stirrings of the faith ought to be encouraged rather than snuffed out, and thus his instinct is usually to err on the side of mercy.