Novelist Walker Percy once taught an entire course in English literature based solely on exploring the first sentence of novels – with the insight that those first words contain the core of what the novel teaches. This is good advice as you pick up Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation, Joy of Love (or AL for short from the Latin Amoris Laetitia). The title actually begins the letter, with a first sentence that unfolds in the next 325 paragraphs: “The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church.”
Capturing the spirit of the opening line, I described the gift of AL at the press conference in Washington D.C. as “…a love letter to families—a love letter inviting all of us, and especially married couples and families, to never stop growing in love. It is also a love letter calling the Church, the family of God, to realize more and more her mission to live and love as a family.”
This 240-page document is well worth your attention, whether you are a priest preaching on family, a couple preparing for marriage or a family member experiencing trials. It is likely to form a major part of classroom teaching and pre-marital preparation. Some portions will work their way into homilies at weddings, and other parts might be the grist of full day seminars for bishops. Like apostolic exhortations that preceded AL, this document will have great impact on the life of the Church and families within the church over time.
The document is an exhortation or encouragement flowing from the two synods of bishops held in 2014 and 2015 in Rome. I had the privilege of participating in both and can see the fruits of the synods throughout. Each synod ended with a final relatio or document filled with recommendations and next steps offered as advice to the Pope. AL includes a generous number of quotes from these synod relatios.
The document is also filled with the personal teaching and reflections of Pope Francis on marriage and family in homilies, especially his very “hands-on” Wednesday audience catechesis. (Especially interesting is that St. John Paul II made ample use of his early Wednesday audiences when issuing the 1981 Apostolic Exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio.)
Pope Francis gives good advice for receiving this gift, advising that it is lengthy and in places very complex … therefore read it patiently and slowly.
While everyone would benefit from reading and pondering every word, some sections are written for a particular audience. For example, family members might use sections for a retreat or a day of recollection – chapter 4 on 1 Corinthians 13 and chapter 5 on the gift of children are exceptional. Study groups for those recently or long married might find chapters 1 and 9 dealing with family spirituality worthy of careful reflection.
While Pope Francis says he does not intend to present a complete pastoral plan for marriage and family, he nonetheless provides a fine framework with a great summary of Church teaching in chapter 3 and an array of pastoral applications to every stage of family life in chapters 6 and 7. These chapters include generous quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the teachings of recent popes, as our Holy Father seeks to be in continuity and in dialogue with his predecessors.
As Pope Francis indicates, Chapter 8 calls for a careful approach that will require sustained reflection. Such reflection, which our Holy Father both exemplifies and calls us to practice, aims to open our hearts to the teachings of Jesus, proclaimed faithfully by the Church, and guides us further: to a proper formation of conscience as the echo of God’s voice, a deepening of the virtuous life and an understanding of the role of internal forum for both. This ultimately leads to an inviting and solid pastoral approach grounded in the teaching of Jesus.
There are three key “take-aways” from AL:
1. Our eyes must first see the person in front of us – one who is loved by Christ and his church, who has a place in the church and who should not be forced quickly into neat categories. There are no changes in Church teaching but a great call for a new way to accompany all. (This is the pastoral art of accompaniment that I noticed in priests I admired when ordained in 1972. They seemed to have the knack of clearly teaching the faith while walking gently and listening to all, especially those who were struggling.
2. The primary missionary to the family is the family herself. This was the gist of my intervention at last October’s synod. Those who most effectively preach about the family are those families themselves who are imbued with joy and love and who humbly and without pretence witness to the joy of the family!
3. We are called to develop a new language that remains true to Church teaching and that invites those who are distant. This will include seeing in difficult situations some positive steps to build upon. For example, seeing and articulating in a couple who is not married their sacrificial care for one another that points to the lifelong, faithful commitment of a Christian marriage or their loving care for children that the world should clearly admire. Discernment and dialogue will be fostered by such positive outreach.
Through AL, our Holy Father is providing us with an active opportunity to reflect upon how each of us can belong more deeply to Christ and inviting us to share the treasure and medicine of Jesus. The teaching of Jesus inspires us to live out God’s hope for us, and the mercy of Jesus heals and sustains us when we fall short. Let us remember that no obstacle is too big for Christ to overcome.