My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
This week, I begin a series of four articles in which I hope to give you a sampling of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, entitled, “Amoris Laetitia,” “The Joy of Love.”
After each Synod, it is the custom of the Roman Pontiffs to offer their insights into the work of the Synod, which represents a collaboration of many bishops elected by Episcopal Conferences all over the world. The last two Synods have been on the issue of the family.
Our Holy Father, in offering this large document of 276 pages, gives us a passionate and heartfelt exhortation on the meaning of family life in the world today. In this series, I will paraphrase and try to give some indication of what Pope Francis has said to us, so that you will have the desire to read the document (www.vatican.va).
The joy of love experienced in the family is also the joy of the Church, as the Holy Father reminds us. He also reminds us that the Magisterium of the Church cannot settle all moral questions, given the diversity of the Church’s presence in the world. For example, I would think that polygamy is an issue in some places in Africa, while what I would call serial polygamy is an issue in Western cultures, meaning that one marriage follows another. It is especially important in the Year of Mercy that the faithful are called to live the Gospel, also recognizing that many fall short of what the Lord demands and that mercy must be correctly understood.
In the light of the Word of God, the document reminds us that the Bible is full of family stories – of weddings, of love stories and of all that we can imagine. These begin in Genesis when we are reminded that two become one and that man was created in God’s image. The image of God’s creation is recreated in the creative act of love between husband and wife, a couple’s love which can be compared to the work of creation and of the Savior.
The family can be likened to the Blessed Trinity where love binds the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the unbreakable union which is likened to marriage. When God creates a helpmate for man and woman, it is to make sure that children result from the union of a husband and wife and children are compared to olive shoots, a symbol of fertility in the ancient world. The family is the place where the transmission of faith occurs, reminding parents that they are responsible for the education of their own children.
An important statement is made when it is said that children are not the property of the family, giving the example of Jesus who as a young boy is found in the temple. He caused His parents grief when they could not find Him, however, He told them that He must be about His Father’s business. There are many Scriptural references which remind us that the Word of God is not abstract, but rather it is concrete. As men and women are charged with completing the work of creation, we are reminded that their labor must bring about development in the world. It is, however, inevitable that suffering occurs where the world is underdeveloped and when there is not an opportunity for work.
Pope Francis also mentioned in the Exhortation that there are other social problems that affect the family today, such as the degradation of the Earth and other issues that impact family unity.
He says, “The law of love and the gift of self are biblical images that remind us that love is not just a term.” The family must show tenderness because the Holy Family is an icon for every family, especially when Mary’s maternal intercession is sought in the midst of family turmoil.
The experiences and the challenges for families today are different from the past. The welfare of a family is challenged in the world today.
“The anthropological and cultural changes” that have occurred no longer support the social structures which have supported family life in the past. We see extreme individualism in the world today, where people live alone or when they cohabitate with one another for convenience sake. The ideal marriage, however, one which is exclusive and stable, is more difficult to find.
We must work harder, our Holy Father tells us, to propose the ideal marriage which is only possible when it is helped by God’s gift of grace. The examples Pope Francis gives to us are very concrete and do not ignore the reality of the world today. Grace and conscience, however, must also be considered as we propose the ideal of marriage. The Church, for some, is not living up to the difficult and demanding teaching of Jesus, but at the same time the Church must recognize the mercy that Jesus showed in so many instances.
In the world today, the problem of an “ephemeral culture,” one with no substance which concentrates on having more leisure and giving in to narcissistic tendencies, makes marriage hostage to so many current trends. Marriages are difficult to contract because of economic and other circumstances which lead to the aversion of marriage as a social convention. The many cultural influences on marriage make true marriage more difficult than ever.
A lack of effective relationships and narcissistic tendencies which look for quick solutions to the deep problems of marriage all contribute to the dissolution of marriage. How important it seems that we consider all of the difficulties today which have weakened the marriage bond, and, as a result, have weakened the family. We must look to protect all that are part of the family union: the unborn, the aged, the infirm, those with special needs, those living in poverty. There are so many other difficulties that must be overcome for a stable family life. The document states clearly: “There is no stereotype of the ideal family.” The Church seeks to offer a word of truth and hope to those who struggle today to make family life what it was intended by the Creator.
In addition, there are several other difficulties mentioned for the family in today’s world: the unfortunate abuse of children, the issue of migration so current in the world today which effects the welfare of families, the existence of same-sex unions, the problem of gender identity and even the misunderstanding of the rights of women which allows even for surrogate motherhood. Again, the Church must defend marriage as exclusive and in-dissolvable, as well as open to life.
The vocation to family is an important vocation which we can only find when we look to Jesus, Himself. Jesus restored and fulfilled God’s plan for family life. A review of recent documents of the Church on family life is all based on the doctrinal teaching of the Church which comes from the Sacred Scripture itself. Marriage is a gift from the Lord, Himself, St. Paul tells us. The Synod Fathers remind us that it is “an in-dissolvable union between husband and wife, not a yoke to be imposed, but rather a gift from God, Himself.”
As Jesus reconciled all things to Himself, so too He restored marriage and family to their original form and intent. Marriage and the family have been redeemed by Christ, Himself. The example of Jesus is what the Church proposes. His presence at the wedding feast of Cana, His conversations with the Samaritan Woman and the woman found to be in adultery all remind us that Jesus, the Incarnate Word, lived in a human world and was part of a human family and showed consummate human tenderness and mercy.
What the Church teaches in the modern world is based on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. Numerous references are given in the Exhortation to past teaching which in no way is rejected, but rather enhanced by the current document.
The teaching of Blessed Paul VI in his Encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” “On Human Life,” reminds us of the intrinsic bond between conjugal love and the generation of life. So, too, the teaching of St. John Paul II gives much attention to the pastoral care of the family.
Pope Benedict XVI, in “Deus Caritas Est,” “God is Love,” reminded us of the love of husband and wife which is fully illuminated only in the love of the crucified Christ. Pope Benedict told us that love is a principle of life in society, the place where we learn the experience of the common good which is in the family itself.
It is so important to remember that the sacrament of marriage is not a social convention, an empty ritual or just a sign of commitment. Rather, it is a vocation to love, even when life cannot be perfect. The mutual self-giving in the sacrament of matrimony constitutes the sacrament itself as is the teaching of the Church. It is the couple who administer the sacrament to one another, which is blessed by the presence of the priest who represents the Church itself.
The sacrament of matrimony reminds us that the love of the husband and wife is a sign of the love of Christ for His Church, and the essential union between couples is truly part of the nuptial mystery which recognizes the hand of God in each marriage. Natural marriage, therefore, is fully understood in the light of its fulfillment in the sacrament of matrimony. Christ raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament which is grace-giving. Today, couples in irregular unions can obtain stability, but at that time they should be offered the opportunity to receive the sacrament of matrimony.
The transmission of life and the bringing up of children are so important to married life, because the conjugal union is ordered to procreation by its very nature. Pope Francis’s document reflects on “Humanae Vitae” and reminds us that there is a need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods of regulating birth. The alternatives to infertility can be adoption or foster care.
Children themselves are neither the possession of a couple nor their absolute right. Again, the family must protect life at all stages against euthanasia, and the death penalty. In short, the family is the bulwark against a world which does not support family values. “The Church is a Family of Families,” constantly enriched by the lives of those who form the domestic Church; namely, Christian families.
In this brief summary, I have attempted to give key phrases and speak about issues touched on in the document. It is like putting out into the deep but skimming over the waters. There is no substitute for a careful reading of this wonderful document that inspires understanding and hope for the family.