By Christopher Gunty
and Erik Zygmont
Catholic Review Staff
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore called Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), released April 8, an “expression of the church’s wisdom with regard to marriage and family life.”
The archbishop and other local Catholics involved in marriage and family ministry praised the pope for issuing a document that reaffirmed church teaching while emphasizing the pastoral elements of “accompanying” families that don’t always meet the church’s ideal.
In the document, the pope said, “As this exhortation has often noted, no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need to constantly grow and mature in the ability to love.”
The pope “identifies a lot of problems that I think most families, when they read it, will say the pope understands, the pope is listening, the pope is appreciating the problems they are going through,” Archbishop Lori said.
“He also recognizes many, many good-hearted, loving couples really trying hard to make a go of their marriages and their families but who are facing pretty stiff headwind. It’s truly the work of a pastor of souls, this exhortation.”
The archbishop said the document is a beautiful, compassionate, realistic celebration of love that contains much that is helpful to families.
He especially liked the pope’s beautiful recap and reflection on scriptural references to love.
“The Holy Father proposes marriage in all its truth and beauty,” the archbishop said, “but he knows to whom he is proposing it: people who do not live in some ideal world but people who live in a very real world marked with triumphs and tragedies and daily routines.”
He urged people to take the pope’s advice and read the exhortation carefully and patiently, with special attention, as the pope recommends, to certain sections for certain people. For example, the pope noted that chapters four and five would be especially helpful for couples – married and preparing for marriage. Chapter six is highlighted for those working in the church’s pastoral ministry. The pope also noted that “everyone should feel challenged by chapter eight,” which focuses on “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.”
For Edward Herrera, archdiocesan director of Marriage and Family Life, the pope’s reflection on St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is eloquent.
“For engaged couples, they should just go and read that and say, ‘How are we going to live this out in our marriage?’ Then for married couples, the same thing. ‘How are we trying to live this out? How are we falling short of this?’ It’s a beautiful reflection on what love is and that’s one very important place for couples, both married and engaged to start,” Herrera said.
Herrera said chapter six provides church workers such as himself concrete steps to help couples prepare for and enrich their marriages. The whole exhortation “gives a little something for everyone, no matter where you are in the church. Whether you work for the church, or you’re a pastor or a volunteer, or whether you’re a married or engaged couple.”
He said it will take time to see whether the archdiocese needs to develop or change any of the programs it offers in this area of ministry. Immediately, it calls all those involved in marriage and family ministry at the parish and archdiocesan level to ask whether they are responding in love to people’s needs.
Archbishop Lori said he thinks that much is already being done well in the archdiocese – in the parishes and in the tribunal that helps people deal with failed marriages.
“The tribunal practice is critically important, but it should also be a means or an impetus to greater healing in a general strengthening of family life,” the archbishop said. “I know that orientation is very much in the minds and hearts of the people who carry forward the work of the tribunal now.”
He also praised priests, deacons and ecclesial lay ministers who work with families, inviting people to “come as they are” to our parishes.
“Now when you come as you are, you meet people who are striving to live the Gospel. You hear the truths of the Gospel and you’re exposed to God’s grace that we hope and pray brings about in all of our lives a transformation.”
As much as our parishes strive to be places of welcome, “Of course, we can always do it better,” he acknowledged, himself included.
The exhortation draws on Scripture, church teaching, the work of two meetings of bishops from around the world on the family, and the writings of Pope Francis and his predecessors.
Drawing on predecessors
“My big takeaway was that Pope Francis is really drawing deeply and extensively on the teaching of his three primary predecessors on marriage and the family,” said John Grabowski, a parishioner of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Ijamsville who with his wife, Claire, serves on the Pontifical Council for the Family.
Grabowski, also associate professor and director of moral theology/ethics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, said “Amoris Laetitia” takes the teachings of Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI “and puts them in motion.”
“He wants pastors walking with people and involved with people in their day-to-day lives and concrete situations,” Grabowski said.
The pope’s famous metaphor, that bishops and priests should acquire “the smell of the sheep,” does not explicitly appear in the text, but Grabowski believes the concept echoes throughout.
He acknowledged that the topic of divorced and remarried couples and the sacrament of Communion has been the flashpoint topic in the media and blogosphere surrounding the exhortation.
“It’s clear that there’s no change in the church’s teaching or general or blanket changes to its practices,” Grabowski said.
However, he added, the pope “says we have to make every opportunity to include people in irregular situations, and that includes helping them understand what the church teaches while walking with them.”
He said the pope’s meditation on St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians in which he expounds on the nature of love – “Love is patient, love is kind… (1 Cor 13:4-7)” – was particularly apt.
“If somebody asked me how (the exhortation) could be used in their own life, I would tell them to just take that section and read it slowly and prayerfully,” Grabowski said.
He was not surprised by the celibate pope’s insight into the married and familial life.
“I think what you’re seeing is the fruit of Pope Francis’ practicing what he’s preaching here,” Grabowski said. “He has spent his life as a priest and a bishop walking with people – what you’re getting is the fruit of a man who really listens.”
Monsignor Andrew R. Baker, rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, said that it is important to consider the title of the exhortation, which translates as “The Joy of Love.”
“My first thought is that the exhortation is really about the joy of love, in families and in the church,” he said. “I think we have to keep that in mind first and foremost.”
Like Grabowski, he was impressed by Pope Francis’ meditations on St. Paul’s explanation of love.
“I found them to be very profound, and personally very helpful, too,” he said.
Monsignor Baker also praised the pope’s analysis of the dangers in our culture to married and family life, including extreme individualism, a tendency to treat relationships as consumer products and over-busy schedules.
“I felt that was so well written and so true,” he said. “The Holy Father recognizes the deep woundedness of families and couples, so that the church can figure out how to be a healing ointment, in its role as a field hospital.”
Monsignor Baker said that the exhortation has special significance considering his role as rector of a seminary.
“We have to help our men as they are formed to become priests to not only know the faith, but also how to explain it to others and how to be that kind, compassionate, merciful shepherd when people fail,” he said.
Nicholas Healy, associate professor of philosophy and culture at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at Catholic U., agreed that it’s almost unavoidable that the hot-button issues would get a lot of attention in the media. “It would be better if there were more attention given to the central vision about the mystery of divine love in relation to human love and the importance of the good news that Christ brings about marriage and the family.
“Even though there are many challenges facing the church and young people today, there are grounds for hope,” Healy said.
Father Antonio López, F.S.C.B., provost-dean and associate professor of systematic theology at the John Paul II Institute, noted that it will take time to understand the full impact of this document.
“It’s a long document, the fruit of a couple of years of work. It demands time to be read, understood and appropriated.”
He said the exhortation’s emphasis on accompanying people in irregular situations on their journey will be essential. “It says to see people – people who are always on a path of conversion. There is always something in their life that needs to be purified and also aspects of life that need to be confirmed and strengthened.”
Herrera, from the marriage and family office, agrees with the pope that some people have stayed away from the church out of fear. His advice to them is the same as Pope Francis: “Come. Come talk to someone at the parish. Come and be with someone, whether it be your pastor or some person of the laity that you can trust, that you can talk these things through with. But come, and take it from there.”
He said town hall meetings on marriage and family life will be held around the archdiocese in April to discuss the specific needs of families here. (Click here for more information on the meetings.)
Archbishop Lori said the exhortation is a joyful and hope-filled document that reminds each of us to live our vocation.
“If we get up in the morning and have a sense that our life is a gift from God, our vocation is a gift from God, that it is the result of his self-giving love and we are partners with him in handing on that self-giving love to others,” then spouses can support each other and their children, and this love flows into the church and the broader community.
For all of its problems and challenges, marriage is life-giving, joyful and a true vocation with a mission, the archbishop noted.
“The Holy Father has shown us a path not by over-idealizing marriage, but by showing how couples going though the ordinary challenges of daily life can get there.
“‘Amoris Laetitia’ is a document of ‘getting there.’ That’s why it’s full of hope. (Pope Francis is) telling couples it’s not just for the chosen few, it’s for everyone. The Lord is calling us all to abundant life and salvation,” Archbishop Lori said.
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