A Jubilee for the Millennium: a Lost Opportunity
The year of Jubilee is older than the Church. For the Israelites it was preeminently "a time of joy, the year of remission or universal pardon" (Catholic Encyclopedia). "Thou shalt sanctify the fiftieth year and shalt proclaim remission to all the inhabitants of thy land: for it is the year of Jubilee." (Leviticus 25:10) Those in bondage because of poverty must be released; the slave could be set free. (Jeremiah 34) It was a year of "release" when people returned to their homes. Throughout the Christian era the Church has continued the tradition in various ways.
So it was on October 9, 1998 that Pope John Paul II delivered a speech at a Vatican-sponsored World Congress on refugees. Speaking of the forthcoming Millennium and a year of Jubilee the pope "called on the nations to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants within their borders as a concrete gesture of justice and forgiveness during the year 2000." (Catholic New York, 10/15/98)
The Holy Father's appeal, using words such as "amnesty" "regularization" "forgiveness" and "reconciliation," would have carried more weight during the Jubilee Year had he applied them to those in his own family. For it is a fact that our Church has vast numbers of its own "refugees" who have become marginalized and alienated in one way or another, sometimes at the very hands of church authorities. They are the exiles and spiritually homeless who cry out daily for "amnesty, regularization, forgiveness and reconciliation." Just who are these people?
The largest group within the church are surely those countless souls who are in marriages that are "invalid" in the eyes of canon law. For example, there are the second marriages ("outside the church") following a divorce. There are those who cannot or are unwilling to play the annulment game. They are often victims, sometimes flawed- less than perfect people who are presently denied the sacraments because of their marital status.
Might not the occasion of the Jubilee have been a time to rethink some church policies in this regard. Without a doubt the church has an obligation to hold up the highest standards of behavior as a goal for all who would follow the Gospel. But, given our human condition, when people fall short of perfection should the church then disown them and cut them off from the sacraments? If we say that sacraments exist for people ("sacramenta propter homines") why should they then be denied access to them? Did not Jesus say that he did not come for those who were well but for those in need of the Divine Physician? Do the sacraments exist only as rewards for being good?
This is why some national conferences of bishops have appealed to Rome for a change in policy - so far to no avail. One wonders sometimes also if there might not be another kind of death in a marriage besides physical death. Does it not make more sense to admit that a marriage has simply died rather than to go through ecclesiastical gymnastics to demonstrate that it never existed in the first place? One had hoped for a Roman Jubilee gesture of "amnesty", "regularization", and "forgiveness" toward these "refugees."
Then, of course, there are the theologians and other professors who have been silenced, sacked, or even excommunicated for one reason or other. One looked in vain for the example of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in search of the lost one, of the Prodigal Son's father who neither scolds nor punishes. What of Catholic hospital workers, for instance, who try to organize a union in the spirit of the great social encyclicals yet sometimes find themselves shut out and broken in spirit? Where do we find in the Gospel the kind of vindictiveness we have seen even in our own day? We have witnessed some feeble Mea culpas of late for the outrages of the past: the rack, the exile, the stake. A few more would always be welcome.
While thousands of the faithful are allowed to go without a Sunday Eucharist there are over 20 thousand married priests in the U.S. alone who are available. Yet their talents, training, experience and love of ministry go unwanted and unused by church authorities. For the price of an all-too-human law the ministry of the Word and Eucharist are denied to the faithful who a have been promised these gifts. What gesture of "amnesty" and "regularization" did these men receive during the year of Jubilee? What of an expanded ministry for others about whom even discussion is forbidden?
If, already in the Old Testament, "by virtue of the Jubilee, God allows all people to begin their careers afresh with equality restored," what did the Christian year of Jubilee bring forth? Was it "a year of remission and universal pardon," in the words of John Paul II? Was there be "amnesty," "regularization," "forgiveness and reconciliation"?