The morning of Wednesday, August 6, Pope Benedict XVI met with some 400 priests of the diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone in the local cathedral. He was welcomed by the local bishop, made some brief opening remarks, and then took six questions. The pope spoke in German and Italian; the following is an excerpt from a rush NCR translation of the transcript of the exchange released this morning by the Vatican. Published by National Catholic Reporter and translated by John L. Allen, Jr.
Well, I can’t give an infallible answer right now, I can only try to respond based on what I see. I have to say that I’ve followed a path similar to yours. When I was young I was rather more severe. I said: the sacraments are the sacraments of the faith, and when the faith isn’t there, where there’s not practice of the faith, the sacraments can’t be conferred. When I was Archbishop of Munich I always discussed this with my pastors, and there too there were too factions, one severe and one more generous. I too in the course of time have realized that we have to follow instead the example of the Lord, who was very open also with the people who were at the margins of Israel at that time. He was a Lord of mercy, too open – according to many of the official authorities – with sinners, welcoming them or allowing himself to be welcomed by them at their dinners, drawing them to himself in his communion.
Thus I would say in essence that the sacraments are naturally sacraments of the faith. Where there is no element of faith, where First Communion would just be a party with a big lunch, nice clothes and nice gifts, then it can’t be a sacrament of the faith. But, on the other hand, if we can see even a tiny flame of desire for communion in the church, a desire also from these children who want to enter into communion with Jesus, it seems right to me to be rather generous. Naturally, for sure, it must be part of our catechesis to make clear that Communion, First Communion, is not automatic, but it demands a continuity of friendship with Jesus, a path with Jesus. I know that children often have the intention and desire to go to Sunday Mass, but their parents don’t make it possible. If we see that the children want it, that they have the desire to go, it seems to me almost a sacrament of desire, the ‘vow’ of participation at Sunday Mass. In this sense we naturally should do everything possible in the context of sacramental preparation to also reach the parents and – let’s say – also awaken in them a sensibility for the path that their children are taking. They should help their children to follow their own desire to enter into friendship with Jesus, which is the form of life, of the future. If the parents have the desire that their children should make the First Communion, this somewhat social desire should be expanded into a religious desire to make possible a journey with Jesus.
I would say, therefore, that in the context of catechism with children, the work with parents is always very important. It’s an occasion for meeting the parents, making the life of faith present also to the adults, so that they themselves can learn anew from the children – it seems to me – and to understand that this great solemnity makes sense only, and it’s true and authentic only if, it’s realized in the context of a journey with Jesus, in the context of a life of faith. The challenge is to convince the parents a bit, through the children, of the necessity of a preparatory path, which reveals itself in participation in the mysteries and begins to foster love for those mysteries.
This is a fairly insufficient response, I would say, but the pedagogy of the faith is always a journey, and we have to accept today’s situation, but we also have to open it up little by little, so that it’s not directed at the sole aim of some exterior memory of things, but so that the heart is truly touched. In the moment in which we become convinced, the heart is touched, it’s felt a bit of the love of Jesus, and it’s experienced a bit of desire to move in this direction. In that moment, it seems to me, we can say that we’ve accomplished a real catechesis. The true sense of catechesis, in fact, should be this: to carry the flame of the love of Jesus, even if it’s small, to the hearts of children, and through the children to their parents, thereby opening anew the places of the faith in our time. (Pope Benedict XIV)