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Awaken to the Divine: A 5-Day Silent Retreat Guided by Paul Coutinho

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ASK | Examine the pope’s comments in a pastoral, not dogmatic, frame

I hear talk about Pope Francis’ statements and conversations. Many make me uncomfortable. How should Catholics respond to these? Are we supposed to accept his messages as official and authoritative?

The Church uses the term 'subsidiarity’ to express the relationship between higher and lower authority. Higher authority exists to serve lower authority. Even Jesus said that He came not to be served, but to serve. (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:42)

Pope Francis on more than one occasion has tried to empower local bishops who have more direct knowledge about the culture and needs of their people than do leaders in Rome. Part of empowerment is listening. Pope Francis seems to be leading with a pastoral ear that allows people to feel heard.

I see this dynamic even on the parish level when someone brings up a disagreement with a particular Church teaching and is immediately silenced by a chorus of other voices. Listening to someone doesn’t necessarily mean that a tradition or truth will be changed; it just means giving someone the respect to hear and understand where they are coming from.

People have asked me about my opinion about the recent Synod of Bishops on the Amazon. My response has typically been, “If you are asking me what I think is the best way to get the sacraments to people in remote villages of the Amazonian rain forest, I don’t know. I presume those who live there would.”

At the same time, one of the functions of subsidiarity is to express truth when there is confusion. Higher authority serves lower authority by keeping the bonds of communion intact and preventing schism or heresy. This is what many people are waiting for, and in fairness, is something that Pope Francis has not executed at the same level or frequency that his predecessors did.

However, the only definitive changes that Pope Francis has made is that we now mention St. Joseph in each Eucharistic Prayer and that local bishops have more canonical authority over pastoral situations in their dioceses. Everything else has been pastoral conversations with local Churches, and the rest of the world has been eavesdropping.

Pope Francis has not made any definitive statements on faith and morals. The vast majority of his statements should be understood in the pastoral, not dogmatic, context (not that the two are juxtaposed to one another).

We should all continue to pray for our Holy Father that the Holy Spirit continues to guide his pastoral ministry to the world. Allowing for local expressions of the faith while maintaining the universal truths and traditions that make us Catholic is truly a feat that only God can accomplish.

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