A QUESTION came from a local pastor named Father Paolo Rizzi, and it expressed a typical pastor’s gripe: Too many kids these days, Father 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 practise 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.

It would be a fascinating exercise to press Benedict XVI to reflect on how that preference for mercy over severity, yet always in respect of the faith, might be "cashed out" in other thorny pastoral situations – such as, for example, the vexed questions of Communion for pro-choice politicians, or administering the sacraments to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

One hopes that priests in northern Italy, who will probably get another shot at quizzing the pope next year, are taking notes. - National Catholic Reporter

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