“The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church.” (AL 1) Preparing couples for marriage and working with families were among the greatest joys of the time I spent in parish life. Walking with families through their celebrations and sorrows and helping to equip engaged couples for their lives together, as a representative of Christ’s Church, was a joyful privilege and, at times, a daunting task. In his recently issued Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (AL), or “The Joy of Love”, Pope Francis encourages all of us to live the joy that authentic love brings and to accompany individuals and families through the challenges of life.
Pope Francis again emphasizes “joy” as he did in his first apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel”. The word “joy” appears 83 times in the document Amoris Laetitia and this is not an accident. In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, the exhortation is an invitation for families to seek the joy that the Lord gives and for the Church to extend the mercy of Christ to the world. Over and over the Pope asks that we trust in God’s grace, and that families avail themselves of that grace as they seek to live the love and joy they have been called too. In fact, the word grace appears some 54 times in the text.
There is much material to contemplate in this 256 page document. Pope Francis himself suggests, “I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.” (AL 7) Audiences include mothers, fathers, singles, bishops, priests, those who direct marriage preparation programs, and those involved in pastoral counseling and healing ministries. Some of the more beautiful sections are directed toward parents. “…it is beautiful when mothers teach their little children to blow a kiss to Jesus or to Our Lady. How much love there is in that! At that moment the child’s heart becomes a place of prayer.” (AL 287) In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for families to read the section on mothers around Mother’s Day and the section on fathers around Father’s Day.
In the document, Pope Francis traces the history of families in the Bible, both the joys and the tragedies. He then goes on to speak about the realities of family life today and how Jesus provides the key to a joyful family. He follows with a long meditation on the oft-used wedding Mass reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, love is patient, love is kind…cf 1 Cor. 13 From there he discusses the church’s role in assisting families and walking with them through life, especially focused on accompanying families and integrating them, even amidst limitations. The document concludes with a prayer to that “icon of family life” the Holy Family.
As Pope Francis presented in the Joy of the Gospel, he seeks to propose a positive and joy-filled model of Christian marriage, “Yet we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness.” (AL 38) Joy is attractive. One need only observe the world’s and, especially, young people’s response to Pope Francis.
He encourages families to be a “…joy-filled witness as domestic churches.” (AL 200) He comments, what a profound influence on the world such families can have, “By their witness as well as their words, families speak to others of Jesus. They pass on the faith, they arouse a desire for God and they reflect the beauty of the Gospel and its way of life. Christian marriages thus enliven society by their witness of fraternity, their social concern, their outspokenness on behalf of the underprivileged, their luminous faith and their active hope. Their fruitfulness expands and in countless ways makes God’s love present in society.” (AL 184) Furthermore, “The experience of love in families is a perennial source of strength for the life of the Church.” (AL 88)
There is a tenderness and beauty when Christ is seen in the family, “It is a profound spiritual experience to contemplate our loved ones with the eyes of God and to see Christ in them.” (AL 323) “’The two are thus mutual reflections of that divine love which comforts with a word, a look, a helping hand, a caress, an embrace. For this reason, “to want to form a family is to resolve to be a part of God’s dream, to choose to dream with him, to want to build with him, to join him in this saga of building a world where no one will feel alone”’. (AL 321) What young person or engaged couple doesn’t seek or desire this?
How do families achieve this dream or experience this joy of love? “None of this, however, is possible without praying to the Holy Spirit for an outpouring of his grace, his supernatural strength and his spiritual fire, to confirm, direct and transform our love in every new situation.” (AL 164) The Lord’s grace can accomplish all things…”for nothing is impossible with God.”(Mt 19:26). Francis adds, “If a family is centred on Christ, he will unify and illumine its entire life.” (AL 317)
Pope Francis is very much a realist, “As this exhortation has often noted, no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love.” (AL 325) Every family is a work in progress. This requires our active cooperation. There is never a “neutral” gear in any relationship. All relationships are either growing closer or drifting apart. “In marriage, the joy of love needs to be cultivated.” (AL 126) Pope Francis adds, “A love that fails to grow is at risk.” (AL 134) While this requires effort, the payoff, as in any strengthened relationship, is a greater happiness and joy.
Pope Francis reminds us in the Church, “Our teaching on marriage and the family cannot fail to be inspired and transformed by this message of love and tenderness…” (AL 59) At the same time, he doesn’t back down from spotlighting the horrible nature of divorce, “Divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling.” (AL 246)
In the face of this reality, he challenges us, “But nowadays who is making an effort to strengthen marriages, to help married couples overcome their problems, to assist them in the work of raising children and, in general, to encourage the stability of the marriage bond?” (AL 52) This must be our work as members of the Church. We must go out to “treat the wounded” as Pope Francis has stated on multiple occasions, “Nowadays, pastoral care for families has to be fundamentally missionary, going out to where people are.” (AL 230)
As we go out to the peripheries, to encounter the wounded, “’the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence, like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port or a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way or who are in the midst of a storm’. Let us not forget that the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital.” (AL 291)
The Church also offers hope, “…every family, despite its weaknesses, can become a light in the darkness of the world.” (AL 66) And like a loving mother, the Church always consoles and encourages her fallen children, “as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel. (AL 299).
Lastly, while exhorting the Church to mercifully and lovingly accompany her wounded children, which today includes all of us, Pope Francis encourages us to not cease proposing the full ideal of marriage and the joy it can bring. “In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur: ‘Young people who are baptized should be encouraged to understand that the sacrament of marriage can enrich their prospects of love and that they can be sustained by the grace of Christ in the sacrament and by the possibility of participating fully in the life of the Church’”. (AL 307)
In keeping with the themes of joy and mercy, Pope Francis states, “It is my hope that, in reading this text, all will feel called to love and cherish family life, for ‘families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity.’” (AL 7) This joy and mercy is what I and so many priests and pastoral workers seek to bring to the engaged couples and families in our parishes and world. I pray that, here in the Diocese of Burlington, all our pastoral efforts aimed at families and marriage can be undertaken with such a perspective! And like Pope Francis, we invoke the Holy Family:
“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. Amen.”
Phil Lawson is the Director of Evangelization & Catechesis for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. He can be reached at 802-658-6110 ext 1453 or firstname.lastname@example.org