A necessary conversion: Jesuit writes about challenge of welcoming 'todos'
"No Christian can question the universal and unconditional welcome of the heart of God without ripping up many pages of the Gospel," a Jesuit priest wrote. This background article looks at the pastoral challenge of letting individuals know they belong and helping them grow in the faith.
Pope Francis signals that hundreds of thousands of young people are not loud enough after he asks them to repeat that there is room for everyone in the church. The pope's remarks came at the World Youth Day welcome ceremony at Eduardo VII Park in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 3, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When Pope Francis says the Catholic Church welcomes everyone -- "todos, todos, todos" -- he is pointing to a basic teaching of the Christian faith, which is that Christ came to save all people.
While many commentators on social media seemed to prefer focusing first on the need for others to convert, the pope insists conversion must begin with those already "inside," who must open the doors of the church and of their hearts to everyone.
But welcoming a newcomer and helping that person grow in faith and Christian virtue has challenging implications for pastoral workers, Jesuit Father Nuno Tovar de Lemos, director of the Centro Comunitário São Cirilo in Porto, Portugal, wrote in the journal La Civiltà Cattolica, which is reviewed by the Vatican Secretariat of State before publication.
The Jesuit's article about welcoming all and calling them to mature in faith was published Nov. 4, just four days before the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith posted on its website a document affirming the possibility of baptizing a transgender person, baptizing the child of a gay couple and allowing transgender and LGBTQ+ people to serve as godparents or witnesses at a marriage.
In each of those situations, the doctrinal dicastery said "pastoral prudence" and discernment are necessary to ensure the pastoral care of the person involved, preserve the dignity of the sacraments and avoid scandal or undue confusion about what the church teaches.
"That God wants to welcome all is a truth of faith. No Christian can question the universal and unconditional welcome of the heart of God without ripping up many pages of the Gospel," Father de Lemos wrote. "God does not place conditions."
It is true, though, that throughout the Gospel Jesus encounters people, listens to them and then calls them to conversion. The order is essential, the Jesuit wrote.
"The pope did not say and does not think that this universal welcome means, for example, that Communion must be given to everyone or that from now on the church will stop presenting the ideal of marriage for life or that it will begin to talk about heterosexuality and homosexuality on an equal basis," he said. "What the pope rejects is the idea that some people must first change in order to then be accepted into the life of the church."
Every case is different, he said, and how actively each person welcomed into the parish can participate will differ based on where they are in their spiritual journey and on the sensitivities of the parish community.
He used the example of a politician with ideas "incompatible with the Gospel," but who has started to volunteer with a parish charity and wants to be more active in the liturgy. While some parishioners would welcome him in a public role, such as lector, others would be scandalized.
"Situations like this, in which there is distance between the objective ideals of Christianity and the person's reality, are 'our daily bread'" in a parish, Father de Lemos wrote. But the goal is always the same: to welcome people and help them grow.
The easy, but "false," ways out, he said, are that of "relativism," which simply accepts everything everyone does, and "sectarianism," which "puts a checkpoint at the door of the church" and tells people they cannot come in unless they live up to the ideals preached -- but not always lived -- by those already inside.
Over the course of history, Christians have leaned toward one or the other, the Jesuit wrote. "In the phase we in the West are in now, it's obvious we tend more -- almost completely -- to relativism" and struggle to convince people that having ideals is not the same as condemning those who do not live up to them.
On the flight back to Rome from World Youth Day in Portugal, where he made the "todos, todos, todos" comment repeatedly, Pope Francis was asked how he could say the church was open to all and yet "not everyone has the same rights and opportunities" within the church, including for receiving the sacraments.
"The church is open to all, then there are rules that regulate life within the church. And someone who is inside, then, is inside in accordance with the rules," the pope said, adding that just because the church says someone cannot receive the sacraments "does not mean that the church is closed."
"Each person in prayer, in interior dialogue and in dialogue with pastoral workers, seeks the way to go forward," he said.
Father de Lemos wrote that he knows many people would have liked Pope Francis to have explained at World Youth Day the distinction between welcoming "todos" into the church and inviting them all to Communion or to serve as catechism teachers or lectors.
But he defended the pope's decision, first because the pope was speaking at an event where "his voice could reach people who don't regularly frequent the sacraments or read the documents of the magisterium and perhaps think the church is not the place for them."
Second, the priest wrote, because each person's situation is different, the pope could not list all possible conditions for who could do what within a given parish community. It is up to the local pastors, who know the person and his or her circumstances, to find "the best way to welcome and help each person grow."
"That the church is for everyone should fill each of us with joy," Father de Lemos wrote. "It is a good that is not reserved only for those already living the ideal. If it were, who would find a place?"