June 3, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

The joys and challenges of love in the family

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

I hope you’ve heard that Pope Francis has written a lengthy apostolic exhortation, a formal letter to bishops, priests, deacons, religious women and men, married couples and all Christians, called, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”). This is the Holy Father’s formal response to the discussions on marriage and family life that have taken place during the past two years in synods he called to address the opportunities and challenges facing today’s families.

I call this the pope’s “formal response,” but anyone who knows Pope Francis understands that there is a great deal of personal, even passionate, reflection contained in an otherwise official communication between the successor of St. Peter and the family of faith he is called to serve throughout the world.

I hope you will read “The Joy of Love” when you have an opportunity. It is definitely worth the investment of your time. The pope himself acknowledges the letter’s length (264 pages in English), and he suggests we approach it one chapter at a time—reading, reflecting and praying about the various themes addressed. This is what I plan to do, and I hope you will also.

As Pope Francis explains in his introductory remarks, “The Joy of Love” is divided into several sections. “I will begin with an opening chapter inspired by the Scriptures to set a proper tone. I will then examine the actual situation of families, in order to keep firmly grounded in reality. I will go on to recall some essential aspects of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, thus paving the way for two central chapters dedicated to love. I will then highlight some pastoral approaches that can guide us in building sound and fruitful homes in accordance with God’s plan, with a full chapter devoted to the raising of children. Finally, I will offer an invitation to mercy and the pastoral discernment of those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us, and conclude with a brief discussion of family spirituality” (#6).

It’s a tall order—a comprehensive overview of the joys and challenges facing families today inspired by the Scriptures and Church teaching and, at the same time, “firmly grounded in reality.” I hope you agree with me that the Holy Father’s approach is most welcome because it is urgently needed today!

Notice that the news media attention given to “The Joy of Love,” and to the two synods on the family, is almost exclusively focused on what Pope Francis calls “the pastoral discernment of those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us.”

Specifically, the media is obsessed with the debate over reception of holy Communion by Catholics who are divorced and have remarried outside the Church.

Not long ago, in one of the pope’s in-flight press conferences, this question about “access to the sacraments” was raised. An exasperated Pope Francis responded to the reporter’s question saying, “When I called the first synod, the great preoccupation of the majority of the media was ‘will they give Communion to remarried divorcees?’ Not being a saint, that gave me a bit of frustration and made me a little sad. Because those media don’t realize that isn’t the important problem. The family is in crisis, young people don’t want to get married, there’s a plunge in Europe’s birth rate that makes you want to cry, the lack of work, kids who’re growing up alone. … These are the great problems.”

Pope Francis is definitely not insensitive to the painful experiences of Catholics who are divorced and remarried, but he insists that we see this in its broader context. He is challenging all of us to be much less rigid (and much more merciful) in our approach to our sisters and brothers who often through no fault of their own find themselves in “situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us.”

Indeed, as Jesus said when the Pharisees accused a woman of adultery, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7).

None of us is without sin. All of us find ourselves in situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us. That’s why genuine love—especially in the family—requires mercy and forgiveness above all else!

During the next two months, these weekly columns in The Criterion will offer some of my own reflections on the themes that Pope Francis proposes to us in “The Joy of Love.” I hope you will read along with me as we savor the pope’s personal—and passionate—teaching about love in the family! †

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