Dear brothers and sisters,
The recent publication of the Apostolic Exhortation arising from the Synod on the Family by Pope Francis has received considerable media attention by both Church and secular media. With that coverage of course has come a vast range of possible interpretations of the document and the consequences for those of us who are members of the Church. What is clear however, is that the Holy Father is seeking to reach out to a wide audience, and in particular to married couples and their families. In fact, in the opening sections of ‘Amoris laetitia’ the Joy of Love, he identifies himself that some chapters will be of greater interest to some rather than others. As I read and reflected on the Exhortation (which is by the usual standards very long) I was very moved by Chapter IV which addresses Love in Marriage. This part of the Exhortation which runs from paragraph 89 to paragraph 164 is a “must read” for every married couple as the Pope uses the familiar passage from 1 Corinthians 13 to reflect on the meaning of love in the context of a committed relationship. To that end I would encourage married couples (and those engaged and planning to be married) to read this chapter and discuss how you see Pope Francis’ understanding of love in the context of your own experience.
There is of course much else to ‘The Joy of Love’ and no doubt there will be much written about it and available through the Diocese over the coming months through the Office for Family and Life, the Institute for Mission and Catholic Care Social Services. As they say: “Watch this space!”
As you all know there has been a great deal of discussion in recent years about the notion of the family; what constitutes a family, different ways of being a family, and more recently considerable discussion on the question of marriage, what it means, and who can and should be married? The Pope very clearly presents an understanding of Christian Marriage and family that is consistent with Church teaching over many centuries and which owes its origin to God’s plan for human beings. There is nothing new here, but it is a classical restatement of what had been revealed through the mystery of God’s action in creation and the pinnacle of creation being man and woman made in the image and likeness of God. (Genesis 1)
But the Pope also readily acknowledges that many families are not perfect and as he quite frequently remarks we are often faced with messy situations which require a sensitive and pastoral heart in dealing with the lived reality of families in a whole variety of situations. It is important then that at the parish level we appreciate that there needs to be an outreach to families that is not condemnatory but accepting of where people are and assisting them to find the presence of God even if the ideal is not easily attainable. The Church does set before us the ideal of Christian marriage to which couples are earnestly asked to aspire to. But Pope Francis is also quick to point out that because the ideal is not reached that means that people are neither condemned nor cast aside because of human failure. In this Year of Mercy it is a timely reminder to us all that sometimes we can be quick to judge and condemn others without being in receipt of all the facts. Ours is a mission of mercy in the name of Jesus Christ who of course condemned no one except those religious people who will filled with hypocrisy. The Pope says on that score that the Church needs to engage in some healthy form of self-criticism.
But above all this document is challenging us all in the Church, laity, religious, deacons, priests and bishops to think in a different way when approaching the subject of marriage and the family. And one thing I am sure of is that it will take some time to unpack the contents and to understand the ramifications for future pastoral outreach. Does this mean that ‘The Joy of Love’ is the last word on the subject – I think not, but rather a beginning point as the Church adjusts to the age in which we find ourselves. One of the most enduring characteristics of this time is the speed of change to so many elements of life. For some that is exhilarating and for others frightening. Pope Francis carefully anchors us in the teaching of the Church about marriage and family, but also confronts us with the truth about our circumstances today. In the community of the Church let us pray for all our families no matter what their circumstance and that we may show in our lives the merciful face of Christ to others.
With greetings in this season of the Risen Lord,
Very Rev Peter G. Williams