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September 28, 2015

Pope Francis' reform of the marriage annulment process has been hailed as the most substantial change in Church marriage laws in almost 300 years. Yet, on one hand, the change is no big deal - the rules governing the declaration that a marriage is null and void are unchanged. On the other hand, the reform makes a demand on all Catholics - to respond to the need of the suffering person with haste and to give that response priority over the precise following of rules.

Society and the Church need rules; chaos would reign without them. However, one fault of the modern world is an obsession with devising the right rules and policies and applying them with perfect consistency. That obsession requires bureaucracy to apply rules and policies equitably.

At some point the weight of bureaucracy became so enormous as to crush the goal of fairness. The secular judicial system, as well as the Church's, is so backlogged that it can take years to receive a ruling on even straightforward matters. In that delay, both justice and mercy are lost. Also lost is the human person.

Look at the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 9.25-37), which Jesus tells to a lawyer. A man, beaten by robbers, lies half-dead at the side of the road. A priest and a Levite pass him by, not wanting to violate any precepts of the Mosaic Law. It is only a Samaritan, one not governed by that elaborate code of law, who can and does help.

What is love's first response in this situation? It is not to set up a new organization to help people lying in ditches. It is to be like the Samaritan who, unburdened by law, is moved with pity and meets the man's needs. It is to respond out of one's gut-felt desire to help another human being rather than out of a head full of high-minded laws.

Pope Francis realizes how this challenges the Church as an institution. He also frequently preaches on what it means to us as individual members of the body of Christ.

The discovery of the suffering stranger does not happen according to schedule. It is a surprise in the midst of daily life. As such, it calls us to put aside our important plans to meet the needs of another.

Opponents of the pope's calls for mercy fear someone will get away with something, that perfect fairness and equity will be violated. Due process is important. Even more important is mercy, attending immediately to the person in need. The Gospel calls each of us to put our highest priority on responding charitably to the opportunities to show our humanity that come without warning in daily life.