Jan. 8, 2017

 Bishop Addresses Synod : Medieval ilum. MS;









DEAR Brother in the Priesthood,

Like the star which led the Magi towards their encounter with Jesus, the Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of Love enlightens our families in their journey towards Jesus as his disciples.

This message is also relevant to the couples and families who find themselves in complex situations, especially those involving separated or divorced persons who have entered a new union. Although they may have “lost” their first marriage, some of these persons have not “lost” their hope in Jesus. Some of these earnestly desire to live in harmony with God and with the Church, so much so, that they are asking us what they can do in order to be able to celebrate the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

Akin to the Magi, who took a different route back home after meeting Jesus (see Mt 2, 12), these persons — at times after a strenuous and difficult journey — are able to meet Christ who offers them a future even when it is impossible for them to follow the same route as before. Through accompaniment and honest discernment, God is able to open up new routes for these persons, even if their previous journey may have been one of “darkness”, marked with past mistakes or sad experiences of betrayal and abandonment. In their encounter with Christ and with His Church, these people find a “light” that illumines their present life and encourages them to return to God with hope and courage.

Therefore, in line with the directions given by Pope Francis, we, the Bishops of Malta and Gozo, are offering these guidelines to the priests in our dioceses, in order to accompany these people through “a responsible personal and pastoral discernment” to an awareness of their life situation in the light of Jesus (AL 300). It is important that the following guidelines be read in the light of the indicated references:


1.       Above all, we must always keep in mind that our pastoral ministry towards persons who live in complex family situations, is the same ministry of the Church who is Mother and Teacher. As priests, we have the duty to enlighten consciences by proclaiming Christ and the full ideal of the Gospel. At the same time, in the footsteps of Christ himself, we have the duty to exercise the “art of accompaniment” and to become a source of trust, hope, and inclusion for those who request to see Jesus (see Jn 12, 21), especially for those persons who are most vulnerable (see AL, 291, 296, 308; EG 169). In the case of couples with children, this inclusion is necessary not only for the couple but also for “the care and Christian upbringing of their children, who ought to be considered most important” (AL 299; see also AL, 245-246).


2.       When we meet or come to know of persons who find themselves in so called “irregular” situations, we need to commit ourselves to enter in dialogue with them and to come to know them in a spirit of authentic charity. If, subsequently, they show a genuine desire or  accept to engage in a serious process of personal discernment about their situation, we should accompany them willingly on this journey, with true respect, care and attention. They “should be made to feel part of the Church. ‘They are not excommunicated’ and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community” (AL 243). Throughout this process, our role is not simply that of granting permission for these people to receive the sacraments, or to offer “easy recipes” (see AL 298), or to substitute their conscience. Our role is patiently to help them to form and enlighten their own conscience, in order that they themselves may be able to make an honest decision before God and act according to the greatest good possible (see AL 37).


3.    Before dealing with the pastoral care of those disciples of the Lord that have gone through the experience of failure in their marriage and are now living in a new relationship, we would like to address the situation of those who cohabit or who have only married civilly. These situations call for “pastoral care that is merciful and helpful” (AL 293) and “require a constructive response seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel” (AL 294). In pastoral discernment it is important to distinguish between one situation and another. In some cases, “the choice of a civil marriage or, in many cases, of simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to a sacramental union, but by cultural or contingent situations” (AL 294) and, therefore, the degree of moral responsibility is not the same for all cases. “Let us remember that a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties” (AL 305, EG 45).


4.       We now address our ministry with persons who are either separated and divorced, who have entered a new union. If during the discernment process with these people, a reasonable doubt arises concerning the validity or consummation of their canonical marriage, we should propose that these people make a request for a declaration of the nullity or dissolution of their marriage bond.


5. Throughout this discernment, an adequate distinction should be made between one situation and another, because not all cases are the same. “One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous selfgiving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations `where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.’ There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of `those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid.’ Another thing is a new union arising from a recent divorce, with all the suffering and confusion which this entails for children and entire families, or the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family. It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family” (AL 298).


6. It would be appropriate that throughout this process of discernment, we accompany these people to make “an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance”, in which they “should ask themselves: how did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; and what example is being set for young people who are preparing for marriage” (AL 300). This applies in a special way for those cases in which a person acknowledges his or her own responsibility for the failure of the marriage.


7. Throughout the discernment process, we need to weigh the moral responsibility in particular situations, with due consideration to the conditioning restraints and attenuating circumstances. Indeed, “factors may exist  which limit the ability to make a decision,” (AL 301) or even diminish imputability or responsibility for an action. These include ignorance, inadvertence, violence, fear, affective immaturity, the persistence of certain habits, the state of anxiety, inordinate attachments, and other psychological and social factors (see AL 302; CCC 1735, 2352). As a result of these conditioning restraints and attenuating circumstances, the Pope teaches that “it can no longer simply be said that all those in any `irregular situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (AL 301). “It is possible that in an objective situation of sin — which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such — a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end” (AL 305). This discernment acquires significant importance since, as the Pope teaches, in some cases this help can include the help of the sacraments (see AL, note 351).


8. “By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God” (AL 305). This calls for more prudent instruction in the law of gradualness, (see AL 295) in order to discern, the presence, the grace and the working of God in all situations, and help people approach closer to God, even when not “not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law” (AL 295).


9. THROUGHOUT the discernment process, we should also examine the possibility of conjugal continence. Despite the fact that this ideal is not at all easy, there may be couples who, with the help of grace, practice this virtue without putting at risk other aspects of their life together. On the other hand, there are complex situations where the choice of living “as brothers and sisters” becomes humanly impossible and give rise to greater harm (see AL, note 329).


10. IF, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351).


11.   During this discernment process, we should examine with these people, how “their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services”, particularly within “the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional frameworks” (AL 299). One should not exclude that these people be considered suitable to be godparents. On the other hand, “if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others”. It is our duty to preach anew “the proclamation of the Gospel message and its call to conversion”. Moreover, there could also be ways in which the person participates in the life of the community, such as in the social field, in prayer meetings, or as suggested by his or her personal initiative, together with our discernment (see AL 297).


12.   In this journey of accompaniment, we must listen to and give value to the suffering of the persons who are innocent victims to separation, divorce or abandonment. Conditions of poverty make this pain even more traumatic. Forgiving an injustice suffered and endured is far from easy, but grace makes this journey possible (see AL 242).


13.   While exercising our ministry, we must be careful to avoid falling into extremes: into extreme rigour on the one hand, and laxity on the other. This process should be an invitation to harness certain attitudes, such as pastoral charity, honesty, discretion, an ongoing conversion, and love for the Church and her teaching (see AL 267, 300); attention to what God made “from the beginning” (see AL 61-66); humility in order to shed our sandals in front of the sacred ground of the other (see Ex 3, 5; EG 169); the wish sincerely to seek God’s will, and to be able to present the fragrance of Christ’s presence and his personal gaze (see EG 169).


14. In order to avoid any cause for scandal or confusion among the faithful (see AL 299), we must do our utmost in order to inform ourselves and our communities by studying and promoting the teachings of Amoris Lcetitia. This teaching requires us to undergo a “pastoral conversion” (EG 25). Together with the Pope, we do understand those who would prefer a “more rigorous pastoral care”, but together with him, we believe that “Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, `always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street”‘ (AL 308).


We pray to God, with the intercession of the Holy Family of Nazareth, that through her priests, the Church in Malta and Gozo can indeed be a messenger that helps today’s Christians to be open to God’s voice in their conscience and, thereby, see the new path opening before them, leading from darkness to light.

Today, 8th January 2017, Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.


X Charles J. Scicluna

Archbishop of Malta


X Mario Grech

Bishop of Gozo


Document published by the Archdiocese of Malta and the Diocese of Gozo




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