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The Joy of Love: 9 Moments to Savor in Amoris Laetitia

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In the coming days, those involved in reading ecclesial tealeaves will pour over Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on love in the family (Amoris Laetitia) seeking places where the Holy Father is proposing doctrinal development in a theology of marriage. Others will look for various episcopal influences: Is this section influenced by Cardinal Kasper or Cardinal Ouellet or Archbishop Chaput? Coverage of said document will focus almost exclusively on what Pope Francis refers to as the “irregular” or “difficult” situations: divorced and remarried Catholics (who have not received an annulment) but want to return to Eucharistic communion and those couples who are cohabitating before the sacrament of marriage.

But, any reader of the document can discern that what is set forth by Pope Francis is not a Jesuitical way of reforming Church doctrine. It is a substantive, transformative, Christo-centric, Pneumatological, and Eucharistic vision of marriage and family love.

The reader of the document, especially if he or she happens to be a member of a family (because of the nature of procreation that will include all of us), cannot help but see marriage and family life as a restoration of human love to its priestly function.

The reader will discover anew the gift of marriage, the manner in which the world is humanely cultivated through the sacramental love of man and woman across the generations. He or she will think anew about the gift of children, not as “objects” to be cared for, not as an extension of parental identity, but as gifts from God, who form us to care for the least among us. He or she will be inspired to consider that the family is the source of missionary engagement with the Church and the world; the family is not simply the object of evangelization. Rather, the family is the subject of this renewal of the world in Christ–the place where the Eucharistic vocation of the Church toward self-giving love takes flesh.

The document is long. Very long. And Church Life will spend the next year unpacking the text through various essays. But for those readers who won’t have time to read the text in the next twelve hours, I wanted to provide nine moments (corresponding to the nine chapters) to be savored in the document, along with a bit of commentary. This article will take up some of the difficult pastoral situations but only in the context of the broader theological and spiritual vision at the heart of the text.

Moment 1: The Threshold of the Tranquil Home

The first chapter of The Joy of Love begins with a meditation upon Psalm 128 (AL 8): “Blessed is every one who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways!…Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house, your children will be like olive shoots.” The reader joins Pope Francis, the Ignatian pedagogue, entering “the threshold of this tranquil home, with its family sitting around the festive table” (AL 9). Here, we discover with the Holy Father that “The 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. For this reason, fruitful love becomes a symbol of God’s inner life” (AL 11). Family life is Trinitarian life. It is that vocation that manifests to the world concretely the fact of divine love.

Yet, Pope Francis is not simply a familial idealist. He is aware that today the family experiences the anxieties of migration, of unemployment, of consumerism, and all those things that seek to stifle this Trinitarian life. He writes, “Jesus knows the anxieties and tensions experienced by families…” (AL 21). Family life unfolds in a world of sin and death, as the Scriptures make clear. But families have a vocation to transform this world: “The word of God tells us that the family is entrusted to a man, a woman and their children, so that they may become a communion of persons in the image of the union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Begetting and raising children…mirrors God’s creative work” (AL 29).

That The Joy of Love begins with a biblical and theological vision of family life should not be passed over. It is the key to reading the entire text.

Moment 2: Wasting Pastoral Energy

The second chapter continues with Pope Francis’ assessment of family life in postmodernity, drawn from comments made by the bishops at the Synod on the Family itself. This section takes up with sober realism the challenges raised by migration, a throwaway culture of individualism, and a culture of the ephemeral in which a person moves from person to person without commitment (often facilitated through the abuse of technology).

Yet, despite the realism of this section, Pope Francis challenges a pastoral approach that begins with a condemnation of the cultural:

…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. Many people feel that the Church’s message on marriage and the family does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery (AL 38).

The mission of the Church relative to marriage and family love is not to proclaim abstract truths (what Pope Francis means by the term doctrine, which should be said are not actually abstract truths but the grammar of love). Rather, Pope Francis asks that in presenting marriage in our age, we take the way of beauty, of truth, and of love itself:

We need to find the right language, arguments and forms of witness that can help us reach the hearts of young people, appealing to their capacity for generosity, commitment, love and even heroism, and in this way inviting them to take up the challenge of marriage with enthusiasm and courage (AL 40).

If we present marriage and family life as that which the Church is against, we forget to actually describe what she is for: the transformation of the world in love. Christian marriage is gift, it is a school of Eucharistic love. We should offer this vision first, only then dealing with the “rules” of the game.

Moment 3: The Nuptial Kergyma

In the third chapter, Pope Francis begins with precisely a vision of what the Church desires in marriage and family:

Our teaching on marriage and the family cannot fail to be inspired and transformed by this message of love and tenderness; otherwise, it becomes nothing more than the defence of a dry and lifeless doctrine. The mystery of the Christian family can be fully understood only in the light of the Father’s infinite love revealed in Christ, who gave himself up for our sake and who continues to dwell in our midst (AL 59).

Here, Pope Francis finds good company with Hans urs von Balthasar, with John Paul II, with Benedict XVI, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet. God’s plan for creation, as incarnate in marriage and family life, is redeemed through Jesus, who invites us to the fullness of self-gift. In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, marriage and family life is now taken up into Christ’s very existence: it becomes a living sign of Christ’s love for the Church and the world:

Christian marriage is a sign of how much Christ loved his Church in the covenant sealed on the cross, yet it also makes that love present in the communion of the spouses. By becoming one flesh, they embody the espousal of our human nature by the Son of God. That is why ‘in the joys of their love and family life, he gives them here on earth a forestaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb’ (AL 73).

Marriage is the Church’s Eucharistic ecclesiology made flesh. One bears children into the world (if possible), one affirms the dignity of every child, because marriage is ultimately oriented toward this ecclesial and Eucharistic vocation. The family, in particular, has a vocation to protect life in all stages:

So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never ben considered the ‘property’ of another human being. The family protects human life in all its stages, including its last (83).

The family is not just supposed to be pro-life. Rather, marriage and family is a school of life, where we learn through the gift of divine tenderness to love those on the margins.

Moment 4: Love in Marriage

It has become de rigeur to complain that no one understands love. At the beginning of chapter four, Pope Francis defines love through 1 Corinthians 12–the wedding reading par excellence. If certain notions of love today are inadequate for promoting the Church’s vision of marriage and family life, what is the right one? 1 Corinthians provides a formation into love. Love “allows us to experience the happiness of giving, the nobility and grandeur of spending ourselves unstintingly, without asking to be repaid, purely for the pleasure of giving and serving” (AL 94).

These dispositions of love, which should be required reading for all those involved in marriage formation, are the ones that are transformed in the sacrament of marriage. Pope Francis writes:

This is the love between husband and wife, a love sanctified, enriched and illuminated by the grace of the sacrament of marriage. It is an ‘affective union,’ spiritual and sacrificial, which combines the warmth of friendship and erotic passion, and endures long after emotions and passion subside. Pope Pius XI taught that this love permeates the duties of married life and enjoys pride of place. Infused by the Holy Spirit, this powerful love is a reflection of the unbroken covenant between Christ and humanity that culminated in his self-sacrifice on the cross (AL 120).

Every aspect of human love is therefore transformed in the sacrament of marriage. Friendship finds a place and grows as we age (and as Pope Francis points out again and again, become less “attractive”). This is the life-long project of marriage, the humanization of the world through a love that becomes divine through the sacramentalization of the Church.

And indeed, like John Paul II, Pope Francis refuses to place this vocation to marriage and familial love below that of virginity: “Whereas virginity is an ‘eschatological’ sign of the risen Christ, marriage is a ‘historical’ sign for us living in this world, a sign of the earthly Christ who chose to become one with us and give himself up for us even to shedding his blood” (161). Both vocations are necessary for the evangelization of the cosmos in love. They are both necessary for the salvation of the world.

Moment 5: An Expanding Fruitfulness

Fruitfulness in marriage has often been treated almost exclusively at the level of fertility (at least before St. John Paul II). Pope Francis finds a way in this chapter to expand upon the meaning of fruitfulness, of procreation, while also affirming the gift of children as salvific for their parents.

He writes:

The gift of a new child, entrusted by the Lord to a father and a mother, begins with acceptance, continues with lifelong procreation and has as its final goal the joy of eternal life. By serenely contemplating the ultimate fulfillment of each human person, parents will be even more aware of the precious gift entrusted to them. For God allows parents to choose the name by which he himself will call their child for all eternity (AL 166).

Children are not simply “things” that parents have. They are not disposable. They are a divine gift that provides for parents an invitation to contemplate the order of God’s gift-giving. Children are images of the divine and human exchange accomplished in the incarnation.

Yet, the Holy Father is clear that many couples cannot have children, and therefore this kind of fruitfulness can be lived out in other ways. In adoption and foster care, an infertile couple can transform their sorrow into a Eucharistic gift of love, to let the fruitfulness of their love take flesh in the lives of the most vulnerable. All families are called not simply to increase the size of their own brood but to move outside of self, outside of the home, toward a transformation of the world in justice and love.

Moment 6: Some Pastoral Perspectives

At the Synod, it became obvious that bishops throughout the world are concerned about the inadequacy of marriage formation. And thus, Pope Francis provides a comprehensive vision of what this formation might consist of. For priests, it means getting seminarians out of their monastic hideaways and spending significant time among actual families in parishes. For engaged couples, it means introducing them to practices of discernment relative to marriage very early in their life. For recently married couples:

Each marriage is a kind of ‘salvation history,’ which from fragile beginnings—thank to God’s gift and creative and generous response on our part—grows over time into something precious and enduring. Might we say that the greatest mission of two people in love is to help one another become, respectively, more a man and more a woman? (AL 221).

Couples who are more mature in their marriage (middle-aged and above) often need to be moved away from the headiness of the early love to appreciate the way that mature love is a deeper participation in the mystery of Christ. Divorced Catholics, including those who are remarried without annulment, are still part of the Church and need to know of the pastoral care offered to them, as well as their continued vocation to participate in divine worship, catechesis, and social action. Widows should be led by the Church toward a realization that:

Love involves an intuition that can enable us to hear without sounds and to see the unseen. This does not mean imagining our loved ones as they were, but being able to accept them changed as they now are. The risen Jesus, when his friend Mary tried to embrace him, told her not to hold on to him (cf. Jn 20:17), in order to lead her to a different kind of encounter…(AL 255)

The pastoral vision that Pope Francis presents is not primarily concerned about the divorced in the end. It is about walking with couples throughout their life, from the birth of love to the death of the spouse. There is enough here that diocesan offices will be busy for years to come.

Moment 7: Educating Children in Meaning

Chapter 7 takes up the larger theme of how to educate children in the art of freedom. To be a parent, as Pope Francis notes, is not simply to be responsible for your children’s biological flourishing but their existential flourishing. Schools have a place here. But the family is the supreme location for education into meaning:

The task of education is to make us sense that the world and society are also our home; it trains us how to live together in this greater home. In the family, we learn closeness, care, and respect for others. We break out of our fatal self-absorption and come to realize that we are living with and alongside others who are worthy of our concern, our kindness and our affection (AL 276).

The domestic sphere is not simply a practical way to provide sustenance for spouses and children. It is the school of tenderness, of humanity. We learn reconciliation, practices of faith, all while bestowing tender kisses of love, saying sorry, giving thanks for each other’s presence. The family is the concrete zone of evangelization of the world. It is the concrete place where we learn to say that God is love.

Moment 8: Communion of the Divorced and Remarried Does Finally Pop Up

Although Pope Francis addresses of some of the difficult situations in his section on the pastoral formation, here he takes up cohabitation and divorce specifically. In the days leading up to the document, there has been much emphasis that Pope Francis would change the Church’s doctrine around Eucharistic communion of the divorced. It has not been changed.

Nor for that matter does Pope Francis take up gradualism as a principal of moral theology. Rather, gradualism is necessarily a pastoral practice:

This is not a ‘gradualness of law’ but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully care out the objective demands of the law. For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exceptional; it can be followed with the help of grace…(AL 295).

A couple, who is cohabitating yet still comes to weekly Mass, is an occasion for pastoral practice not immediate condemnation. A divorced person, who is remarried, and comes to seek pastoral counseling about this situation, who still wants to participate in the life of the parish, who has raised children in the Church: this is an occasion for mercy not condemnation.

Again and again in this section, Pope Francis is not talking about changing the Church’s theology or law relative to marriage (except for making questions of nullity easier). He is not encouraging individual priests to let divorced and remarried couples come to communion willy nilly. Rather, he is reminding us that divorced and remarried Catholics are not excommunicated. Cohabitating Catholics are not outside of communion. Communion remains, and the Church has a pastoral responsibility to invite these “irregular cases” to return to the fullness of the sacramental life. Dealing with these cases is about fostering an encounter, a meeting with Christ, who calls each of us toward conversion. And it is the responsibility of the local Church to determine pastoral practice in this regard.

Moment 9: The Spirituality of Marriage and Family

The last chapter, like Laudato Si’, deals with a spirituality, a vision of marriage and family life that might renew the world. Pope Francis writes:

In that variety of gifts and encounters which deepen communion, God has his dwelling place. This mutual concern ‘brings together the human and the divine,’ for it is filled with the love of God. In the end, marital spirituality is a spirituality of the bond, in which divine love dwells (AL 315).

In the end, it is this remarkable theological and social vision of the sacrament of marriage that may come to be Pope Francis’ great contribution to the Church. If the New Evangelization is actually to come into existence, it will be through marriage and family. The vision, the theology, the spirituality: it’s all given by the Holy Father. It is now up to couples, children, and the Church to foster a culture of nuptial love, a love that humanizes a world that has often forgotten how to love aright. Marriage, family life: this is how to deal with a throwaway culture, a culture of disrespect, a culture of a heart grown cold.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,

in you we contemplate

the splendour of true love;

to you we turn in 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.

Amen (AL 325).