The joy of love: a treasure that urgently needs to be discovered!

Today, Pope Francis is giving the Church the gift of this beautiful letter about love in the family. Amoris Laetitia provides powerful missionary inspiration and deserves to be read and considered carefully. Here, Father Cedric Burgun, a member of the Emmanuel Community, gives us a few salient points to allow a fruitful reading.

“Let us make this journey as families, let us keep walking together. What we have been promised is greater than we can imagine. May we never lose heart because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us.” (§325)
Make the journey!

It is with these words that Pope Francis ends this magnificent text on the joy of love in the family, as God planned it. Let us make the journey! The word “journey” or “journeying” occurs nearly 80 times, not counting the “synonyms” or related terms such as “route” or “progress”. This is saying that the Pope is giving us a programme. I give here a few elements which I develop briefly because what is likely to be said here or there might well be distorted.

We may already be familiar with this word that occurs frequently in what the Pope says. It comes from contemplation of the Word of God. The Bible “is full of families” (§8), and of family stories, some happy, some less so. The Pope contemplates the Word of God who became flesh and was not afraid to journey in “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the men of this age. “ (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, §1)

Looking at the two years of the Synod that we have just experienced, we know that people’s expectations and preconceptions about this text have been powerful. But the Pope is aware that his exhortation deals in a variety of ways with many different themes, and he himself takes the literary precaution of not recommending “a rushed reading of the text. The greatest benefit, for families themselves and for those engaged in the family apostolate, will come if each part is read patiently and carefully, or if attention is paid to the parts dealing with their specific needs.”(§7)

The exhortation itself is to be accepted as a journey, a progression, a spiritual itinerary! And it will indeed be disturbing, especially since, from §2 of his text, the Pope avoids “the debates carried on in the media, in certain publications and even among the Church’s ministers, [which] range from an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations.”

Will it be with hope and joy that we look on conjugal love and the family?

This is, perhaps, the first change of position, the first “journey” that the Pope calls on us to make, namely a “missionary conversion.” The proclamation of the Gospel of the family, far from being “a merely theoretical message without connection to people’s real problems,” in fact “responds to the deepest expectations of the human person.” (Relatio Synodi 2014, §32, quoted in §201). This conversion is first of all a conversion to joy, since while the Pope encourages us to admit that “we find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden,” (§37), he reminds us that “the Christian proclamation on the family is good news indeed!” (§1)

Yes, marriage and the family are a joy, an opportunity, and a grace, rather than a problem to be solved! Even if this requires the “take care” of which the Pope speaks so often, with tenderness: “It is my hope that, in reading this text, all will feel calledto love and cherish family life, for “families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity”.” (§7)

As Saint Ignatius of Loyola, so dear to the Pope’s heart, reminds us: “Love is shown more by deeds than by words.” (Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, §230, quoted in §94). It is a question of moving from a certain manner of speaking about the family – a manner of speaking that may sometimes have made it appear as a formulation of the truth to be learned and the choices to be made – to a manner of speaking that is attentive to those listening and that requires discernment and dialogue. The Holy Father wishes to call us to a journey with families, an accompaniment, as it were, on a path towards God’s truth.

The first “accompaniment” exists within married life itself since a “couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon – not an idol like those of stone or gold prohibited by the Decalogue – capable of revealing God the Creator and Saviour!” (§11) The profound vocation of the couple and the family is to be a sign of God in the world, since the attachment of the spouses depicts the attachment of the soul itself to God. “A positive experience of family communion is a true path to daily sanctification and mystical growth, a means for deeper union with God.” (§316) This Trinitarian image is fundamental for the family considered as a school of self-giving, primarily to the children (cf. §29). The union between man and woman becomes the place where God reveals himself to humanity.
In fact, this Trinitarian image of the couple is a journey, a process of construction. It is dynamic. It is built up in dialogue; which is “essential for experiencing, expressing and fostering love in marriage and family life. Yet it can only be the fruit of a long and demanding apprenticeship.” (§136) Indeed, this apprenticeship encounters the difficulties of its time, difficulties that the Pope is not afraid to look at, define and, describe – but also on occasion to denounce, in order better to confront them – for they remain nothing less than occasions of grace. This is where God gives himself! Thus, the Pope is calling for a genuine discernment, through openness to the Word of God that not only sheds light on real situations and practical difficulties, but also encourages everyone to do everything possible, in order to grow from good to better. This is where God walks, although this sometimes happens amid horrendous contradictions: “Here I feel it urgent to state that, if the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed.” (§83) This discernment and accompaniment is the real key to the Pope’s message, in all situations, even the most complex.

God is committed to the family, in all its aspects. God is committed through the sacrament that the spouses give to each other, and through their married life, which makes them an icon of God’s love for his people. It also means that “each marriage is a kind of “salvation history”, which from fragile beginnings – thanks to God’s gift and a creative and generous response on our part – grows over time into something precious and enduring.” (§221) Marriage, a sign of God’s love for the world, and of the love of Christ for his Church, is always imperfect and it is important not “to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church, for marriage as a sign entails “a dynamic process…, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God”.” (§122, quoting John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, §9)

This ecclesial journey leads us to understand how people are trying to correspond gradually to the beautiful, and oh so demanding, calling of marriage! Spouses imitate God’s gift of himself by giving themselves to each other totally and unconditionally, and by embracing each other’s weakness, as God embraces our own poverty. Thus, this school of self-giving is in the image of the Cross.

 Accompany, discern and integrate frailties

Pope Francis invites us to make this journey in every aspect of married life, which he depicts realistically as long accounts of the joys and difficulties of family life – irregular situations evidently are not exempt.

Nowhere in the text does the Pope point to any particular type of people in any particular situation. Those divorced and remarried, for example, are integrated into a larger whole – Chapter 8 deals with the accompaniment, discernment and integration of ‘frailties’. It thus treats in the same way those who do not live the ideal of the indissoluble marriage willed by God, fully realized in the union of a man and a woman, situations which ‘radically contradict’ it, while others realize it in ‘at least a partial and analogous way’ (§292) – an extremely important nuance. Here also, the Pope invites us to discern very carefully. On the subject of the Sacraments, it is important to note that the Pope throughout the text does not want any “all white or all black” solutions, which he moreover denounces! Whoever wants to find affirmative decisions, one way or another, will be even more disappointed! Francis insists on accompaniment and discernment, so that people in ‘complicated situations’ can receive every help from the Church – a true pastoral care, participation in a prayer group, perhaps liturgical roles.

In some cases – let us be clear about this – in footnotes (351 and 305), the Pope talks about the Church’s help explicitly by means of the Sacraments e.g. confession and Holy Communion, which he states are ‘not prizes for the perfect, but are a generous medicine and food for the weak’. This means that the Pope immediately places this in a broader context, that of our conversion – do I let myself be converted by God and by the Church, an essential criterion, if not the ultimate criterion? This clarification is provided in a note – while helping us to understand his remarks, the Pope obviously does not want to stress this point and focus on it. Holy Communion, for him, is never for self-service – far from it. The Pope moreover recalls that ‘when those who receive it turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality, the Eucharist is received unworthily’ (§186)! We all have to ask ourselves how we receive Holy Communion.

This means that after a process of discernment and accompaniment, distinguishing ‘objective situations of sin’ (divorce is an evil, he clearly warns!) and the subjective responsibility and accountability of the person, we are invited to accompany and to discern. Although priests and committed lay people often talk about a lack of time, the Pope asks us, ‘do we really know how to generously use time in accompanying people?’ Here is without doubt a very clear call from the Pope make our mercy effective! And so the priest (who the Pope puts at the heart of this accompaniment) will assess, walk with the person and understand what the person sees, why they cannot get out of a situation of sin (and this may be true!), whether they need the Church’s aid, and what kind of aid.
Yes, this opens a door – but this especially asks of priests and consecrated persons to really accompany and discern. Any strict interpretation, in one sense or another for that matter, will only open the door to a form of relativism of the Gospel truth and its mercy. The Pope insists that we will we solve nothing by rigorousness or laxity.

Self-criticism of our practices or of our shortcomings

The Pope especially wants the Church to make a salutary criticism of itself. I myself remember having held to somewhat similar propositions and delivered certain ‘thunderbolts’ etc. The Pope is very clear – we have our own responsibilities in the suffering of families and we must be aware of them. We should not speak of ‘irregular’ situations as if we were completely external and foreign to them.

 ‘We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite!’ (No 36)

And again, ‘We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life’ (§37).
Yes, ‘Marriage is a vocation, inasmuch as it is a response to a specific call to experience conjugal love as an imperfect sign of the love between Christ and the Church. Consequently, the decision to marry and to have a family ought to be the fruit of a process of vocational discernment’ (§72). And this vocation deserves to be cared for, accompanied and surrounded by the community at all stages of its existence. Concerning marriage preparation – which the Pope wants to develop – accompanying suffering, marital breakdown, marriage annulments, passing through the early years of marriage where a child is wanted – the Pope wants very much to put family ministry at the heart of the life of the Church!

And so, through all this, we can understand, in my opinion, the profound intentions of Pope Francis to strengthen family ministry so that it is no longer one pastoral annex among others, as is too often the case, but which should irrigate the whole life of the Church. The last synod, in its conclusions in 2015, had already expressed this well, as transpires throughout the Pope’s exhortation.

A renewal of pastoral care in the light of the Gospel concerning the family and the teaching of the Magisterium is necessary … The commitment proper to this precious ministry (to the family) would receive a vitality and concreteness through a renewed alliance between the two main forms of vocation to love – that of marriage … and that of the consecrated life … The spiritual direction of the family can be considered as one of the parish ministries. We suggest that the diocesan service for the family and other pastoral ministries should intensify their cooperation in this field’ (Relatio Synodi 2015, §61). It also will require a renewed formation of ordained ministers on all of these issues – the Pope is calling for this. Again, the field is wide-open.

* * *

Yes, marriage is prophetic for our humanity, and not outdated, as contemporary man may sometimes be tempted to think. Marriage is a way for the couple, but also for the Church, ‘the family is good for the Church’, as ‘the Church is good for the family’ (§87). And even beyond this – by living according to the loving plan of God for the family, the latter reminds all humanity of its vocation to communion and reconciliation. The family remains also ‘a good which society cannot do without’ (§44). And for this good, ‘as Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer!’ (§35).


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