In August 2016, Pope Francis published his Apostolic Exhortation on the family, entitled Amoris Laetitia, two Latin words meaning the Joy of Love. This document draws together almost three years of consultations at the Synod on the Family which involved hundreds of bishops and input from Catholics in countries around the world. The Pope affirms the Church’s teaching that stable families are the building blocks of a healthy society and a place where children learn to love, respect and interact with others. At the same time the text warns against idealizing the many challenges facing family life, urging Catholics to care for, rather than condemning, all those whose lives do not reflect the teaching of the Church. In particular the document focuses on the need for “personal and pastoral discernment’” for individuals, recognizing that “neither the Synod, nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases”.
This document has been met with many different responses, including a letter written recently by four cardinals of the Church asking the Pope to clarify what he has written in light of the Church’s teaching. But another cardinal who is the archbishop of Washington, DC, Cardinal Donald Wuerl wrote this: “The Pope’s document has been widely and wholeheartedly embraced because we recognize in it a loving openness to pastoral ministry attuned to the needs of an increasingly broken world.” It is important to remember that love is at the center of the pope’s teaching. The Church’s teaching on marriage, human sexuality and the family is affirmed and held up in all its beauty. But what the pope reflects in his words are the result of his active listening, a listening to countless people on the lived situation of married couples and family life throughout the world. He has listened to the struggles, the disappointments, the challenges and sufferings borne by so many around us as they seek to embrace the truth of the Gospel.What has emerged is not a lessening of the need to teach clearly the doctrine of the faith. This is a task that the Church must be about in every age. We need to continue to find ways to bring the message of the Gospel into the hearts and lives of people everywhere. But Pope Francis is calling on the Church – and its pastors in particular – to do more than simply present the Church’s doctrine. We must learn to accompany those we teach, to “take on the smell of the sheep” whom we serve so that the “sheep are indeed willing to hear the voice of the shepherd.”
This is an insightful approach and one that is needed today more than ever. It requires a more careful and intensive formation for all those who minister in the Church. We must be close to couples as they prepare for marriage, walk with them as they begin married life especially in those first years of marriage, be close to them in times of crisis, and embrace their children.
Amoris Laetitia is not a list of answers to each individual human issue. It refuses to “beat people over the head” who might find themselves in difficult or imperfect situations. What the apostolic exhortation does do is to call for compassion, for tenderness, for kindness and for love. We are invited by Pope Francis to reach out to those who are struggling to face issues in life, who find it hard or impossible to embrace fully the teachings of the Church, and who find themselves on the outside looking in. As Cardinal Wuerl beautifully wrote: “The exhortation is a call to compassionate accompaniment in helping all to experience Christ’s love and mercy.”
In the end this is the exact response expected of anyone who desires to be an “evangelizing disciple” of Jesus. In the action of going out, encountering others, and walking with them on their journey, we also must recognize in the journey that we ourselves are drawing closer to the Lord. None of us can claim to be perfect; we are sinners not saints – every one of us. It seems to me that the pope is encouraging us – indeed begging us – to move away for judging others and to move towards a walk of faith and love with all our brothers and sisters. As they see our love for Jesus, as they hear our conviction about his teaching, as they experience others who are living out the Gospel authentically, their hearts will be open to the mercy, the love, the grace and joy of Jesus Christ. This is what will ultimately work to transform lives and enable each of us to have the kind of life God wants for us. Saint Paul’s words come to mind: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never ends.”Let us learn to speak the truth in love, to accompany those whose life situations are not perfect, so that together as the sinners we are, we can lead others to the truth, and grow ever closer to the Lord, “who will by his grace heal us so that we can have the life he wants for us.”