Among the keys to understanding Pope Francis are the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. In the first of the four-week exercises, you discover yourself to be a sinner, who is unconditionally forgiven and loved by God. This perspective leads the Holy Father to see the Church as a field hospital, as a mother and teacher, and as a fountain of mercy. It is within this Ignatian perspective that the teaching of Pope Francis is best understood, including his latest Apostolic Exhortation on love in the family.
On the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 2016, Pope Francis issued his Apostolic Exhortation on Love in the Family — Amoris Laetitia in Latin, in English “The Joy of Love.”
With a length of 325 paragraphs, it might seem too difficult to tackle. But in fact it is written in the same friendly and personally engaging manner that we have come to love about Pope Francis. It contains great compassion for people living in painful and difficult circumstances (cf. #291) and, at the same time, inspiring words about families who remain faithful to the teachings of the Gospel and “bear witness, in a credible way, to the beauty of marriage as indissoluble and perpetually faithful” (cf. #86).
In this Apostolic Exhortation, there is much to move the heart and fire the imagination. Some parts are exceptionally beautiful and will leave you with a hunger for more as well as a desire to return to them often. Let me give you a few examples:
Chapter 4 on “Love in marriage” begins with an engaging reflection on the Biblical passage on love found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not jealous or boastful …”. Listen to just a little of what the Holy Father says about patience (#92): “We encounter problems whenever we think that relationships or people ought to be perfect, or when we put ourselves at the center and expect things to turn out our way. Then everything makes us impatient, everything makes us react aggressively. Unless we cultivate patience, we will always find excuses for responding angrily. We will end up incapable of living together, antisocial, unable to control our impulses, and our families will become battlegrounds. … Love always has an aspect of deep compassion that leads to accepting the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like.”
In paragraph 133 of this same chapter on love, Pope Francis says that in the family, three words need to be used frequently — “please,” “thanks” and “sorry”: “In our families when we are not overbearing and ask: ‘May I?’; in our families when we are not selfish and can say: ‘Thank you’; and in our families when someone realizes that he or she did something wrong and is able to say ‘Sorry!’, our family experiences peace and joy. Let us not be stingy about using these words, but keep repeating them, day after day. For certain silences are oppressive, even at times within families, between husbands and wives, between parents and children, among siblings. The right words, spoken at the right time, daily protect and nurture love.”
In Chapter 2, Pope Francis writes about the lived experiences of families today, mentioning the many challenges faced by refugee and migrant families, the confusion caused by rampant individualism and the ideological denial of differences between men and women, the damage inflicted by pornography and child abuse, and the special needs of parents with children with disabilities. He closes this chapter by reminding us that there is (#57) “no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of many different realities, with all their joys, hopes and problems.” And then the Holy Father states what he wants to do in this document: “The situations that concern us are challenges. We should not be trapped into wasting our energy in doleful laments, but rather seek new forms of missionary creativity. In every situation that presents itself, the Church is conscious of the need to offer a word of truth and hope.”
In order to offer “a word of truth and hope,” the next five chapters draw heavily upon the Sacred Scriptures and upon the Church’s teaching as found in the Magisterium, especially in that of Pope Paul VI (e.g. Humanae Vitae), Pope John Paul II (Familiaris Consortio and the Theology of the Body in particular), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Deus Caritas Est) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In this way, Pope Francis invites us to understand his Apostolic Exhortation in continuity with the wisdom and pastoral practice that come down to us in the Church’s living tradition.
It is not surprising, then, that the Holy Father reaffirms controversial but vital truths about the indissolubility of marriage, the rights and dignity of children and the elderly, the false premise of same-sex unions, and so forth; yet he presents this teaching in a compassionate and persuasive manner.
Time and again, Pope Francis returns to the topic of children, speaking of them as “living stones” of the family (#14ff), “a gift of God” to be welcomed and never “robbed of their childhood and future” (#166). All of Chapter 7 is dedicated to the education of children. Parents will find here much timely advice; for example (#260): “Parents need to consider what they want their children to be exposed to, and this necessarily means being concerned about who is providing their entertainment, who is entering their rooms through television and electronic devises, and with whom they are spending their free time.”
Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia deals with questions of how to respond pastorally to the divorced and civilly remarried and to others who find themselves in complex and irregular situations. The Holy Father approaches these pastorally sensitive situations through the lens of mercy. He says (#291), “Let us not forget that the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital.”
Then, Pope Francis calls for a pastoral approach of accompaniment and discernment, one that seeks to (#291) “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 …”.
At the same time, while urging us to reach out and help each person to find his or her proper way of participating in the Church, he notes the need of (#299) “avoiding any occasion of scandal.”
The final chapter is devoted to the spirituality of marriage and the family. In this part, Pope Francis encourages family members (#323), “to contemplate our loved ones with the eyes of God and to see Christ in them.” Then, he closes with this helpful perspective (#325): “No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love. … All of us are called to keep striving towards something greater than ourselves and our families. … 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.”
In the next several months, I hope to delve more deeply into this important document on love in the family. In the meantime, let us love one another with the love that comes to us from our heavenly Father and makes us a family in His Son.