“The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church.” With these words, Pope Francis begins his post-synodal apostolic exhortation entitled Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family), which was signed on March 19, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, patron of our spiritual family, the Church.
In the opening chapters, Pope Francis discusses God’s creation and plan for marriage and family as revealed in scripture, and how it contrasts with the experiences of the family in the human condition and the challenges that families, and those who wish to form families, face in the world today. Particularly challenging is an individualism that is concerned only with one’s desires, as well as the throwaway culture that sweeps away marriage and family whenever they prove inconvenient or tiresome. Against this is needed a greater effort to help couples and families to respond better to the grace God offers them and to form their consciences as they make their own pilgrim journey through life.
The Holy Father then reminds us of the vocation of the human family which is revealed in the infinite love of the Lord who was made incarnate in a human family, and who gave himself for our sake and who continues to dwell in our midst. Quoting extensively from scripture and Church teaching, Pope Francis affirms that the common life of husband, wife and children can be steeped in and strengthened by sacramental grace. For those in irregular situations, continues the Pope, Christ inspires the Church to turn to them with love and affection to assist them in overcoming the trials they face.
At the center of the Gospel of marriage and family is love, says the Holy Father. Offering counsel to couples, family members and all of us while reflecting on Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he explains that authentic love is patient and merciful, love is at the service of others and is marked by generosity and humility, it is neither rude nor resentful, and it rejoices with others in hope and fruitfulness. Love surmounts even the worst barriers and always brings new life. Furthermore, he emphasizes, dialogue, quality time, valuing the other person and keeping an open mind are essential for experiencing, expressing and fostering love in marriage and family life.
Sadly, as has been said, this is not always the experience of people. In the second half of his exhortation, Pope Francis provides some pastoral perspectives, saying that the Church wishes, with humility and compassion, to reach out to these people and families and help them through discernment, dialogue and prayerful support and understanding to overcome obstacles.
Without claiming to present an entire pastoral plan, the Holy Father calls for a family apostolate that offers more adequate catechesis and formation, not only of engaged and married couples and their children, but also priests, deacons, seminarians, consecrated religious, catechists, teachers, social workers, medical professionals and other pastoral workers.
Formation for marriage and family life needs to begin at an early stage, Pope Francis urges. A more intensive long-term and short-term marriage preparation, as well as continuing to accompany newly-married couples, will provide the tools needed to face trials together and thereby prevent in the first place problems that might lead to a break-up of the marriage and family. Education of children in schools, parishes and within the family with respect to caring for one another, moral virtues, socialization, fostering good habits – all these are necessary
If there is a breakdown that leads to separation or even divorce, that loving accompaniment by the Church needs to continue, said the Holy Father. “It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church,” he added, and pastoral care to their children needs to be a primary concern (243-45). Likewise, the Church accompanies with love those who are co-habiting or who experience a same-sex attraction to help them to carry out God’s will in their lives.
The rule to follow in all cases, the Pope makes clear, is the love and mercy of the Lord. “It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy,” he says. “No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves. Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion. Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of community, whether in social service, prayer meetings or another way that his or her own initiative, together with the discernment of the parish priest, may suggest” (297).
Marriage and family, as we know from personal experiences, endure all the pains and sufferings, the trials and tribulations of the human condition. Yet, we know that with and through the Risen Christ, all things are made new. Marriage and family are revitalized and are made into the marriage and family that God wants for us.
This apostolic exhortation, which follows on the Synod of Bishops that met in October of 2014 and 2015 to discuss the challenges to marriage and family today, reflects the consensus of those meetings and many voices.
Throughout the Synod process – which was supplemented by the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, an array of books and articles, and vigorous discussion amongst many people who were following the Synod – there was universal recognition by all of the critical importance of marriage and family to humanity. More specifically, it was widely understood that a special task of the Synod, and thus the Church, was to help pastorally those who find themselves in unique or challenging situations and to patiently and lovingly accompany them with special concern, helping them to live as fully as possible the life-giving experience of Christ and his Church.
Pope Francis has used these discussions to inform this exhortation, his own pastoral teaching to aid in reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice. Over the course of 325 paragraphs in nine chapters, the Holy Father points the way to how the Church might take steps to support married couples and families in their lives, and to mercifully bring hope and healing to those who find themselves in broken and wounded situations, with a sensitivity toward the diversity of particular relationships and cultures.
The exhortation is sure to generate much discussion in the secular media, but instead of viewing it through their particular lens, I strongly suggest that you read the document itself to know what our Holy Father is really saying.
Given that this exhortation was released earlier today, it is not possible to fully analyze Amoris Laetitia, but in the coming days, I will revisit this teaching and more fully discuss the fruits that it offers us and the world. In the meantime, it falls to us now to read and reflect upon this pastoral gift from our Holy Father in this Easter season. Let us also join in his prayer:
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love;
to you we turn with trust Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel and small domestic churches.
Holy Family of Nazareth, may families never again experience violence, rejection and division;
may all who have been hurt or scandalized find ready comfort and healing.
Holy Family of Nazareth, make us once more mindful of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, and its beauty in God’s plan.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Graciously hear our prayer.