Growing in love
Couples and families, faith sharing and bible study groups, could spend several sessions just taking Pope Francis’ descriptions of love according to St Paul one sub‐section at a time: Love is patient, love is kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Limited space does not afford us the luxury and enjoyment of going through the pope’s beautiful reflections on each of these. But he does make one or two overriding comments that are worth noting. The first is the contrast that Paul makes between what love is ‘not’ and what love ‘is’. We all know that tension. We sometimes find ourselves struggling against tendencies that are negative to love, that detract from love.
At the same time, we struggle to grow into a greater maturity of loving. But we must not see this dual challenge as depending entirely on our frail human efforts. It is only possible by the grace of God who is LOVE and who empowers us through the Spirit of Love. Related to this is the comment that Pope Francis makes about the biblical and divine origins of each of the descriptions Paul has about love.
The pope takes each of the original Greek words in Paul’s ‘love list’ and shows their sources elsewhere in the Bible and how to understand them therefore in a wider biblical context. But he also shows us how the definitions of love are to be found in the attitudes and actions of Jesus.
And because Jesus is the perfect revelation of God, these qualities of love also speak to us about God – what God is like. We have space to touch on one example of Pope Francis’s meditations on love. Let’s take his thoughts on love as ‘kind’. The word St Paul uses refers to a person who shows goodness in action. ‘Kindness’ complements the word ‘patience’ right next to it. Paul wants to make it clear that patience is not a passive attitude, ‘but one accompanied by activity, by a dynamic and creative interaction with others.
The word indicates that love benefits and helps others’. In other words, says Pope Francis, love is always ready to be of assistance. So, it’s clear that Paul wants to stress that love is more than a mere feeling. Rather, it should be understood along the lines of the Hebrew verb ‘to love’ which means ‘to do good’.
Pope Francis finally quotes St Ignatius, the founder of his Jesuit congregation: ‘Love is shown more by deeds than by words’. Having inspired us with a beautiful reflection on St Paul’s famous hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13:4‐7, Pope Francis, in the second part of Chapter 4 of Amoris Laetitia, gives attention to the dynamic of ‘growing in conjugal love’.
By this he means ‘the love between husband and wife, a love sanctified, enriched and illuminated by the grace of the sacrament of marriage. It is an ‘affective union’ which combines the warmth of friendship and erotic passion and endures long after emotions and passion subside’.
These words remind one of the advice in the novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, where the daughter shares with her father her fears about getting married. He gently explains to her that she must trust ‘the love that remains when “being in love” has burned itself out’. In other words, love can never be limited to its emotional and physical manifestations.
Most people, even those who do not share the Christian faith, would agree with that. But for Christians, married conjugal love contains an added divine dimension. Pope Francis puts it this way: ‘Marriage is a precious sign, for when a man and a woman celebrate the sacrament of marriage, God is, as it were, “mirrored” in them; God impresses in them divine features and the indelible character of divine love’.
He then uses a lovely literary image (no pun intended as ‘icon’ actually means ‘image’). ‘Marriage is the icon of God’s love for us.’ But here again Pope Francis comes through with his empathetic attitude to life and to human nature. He doesn’t want us to be intimidated by loopy theological principles.
And so he adds: ‘We should not, however, confuse different levels: there is no need to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church, for marriage as a sign entails a dynamic process, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God’. This sentence ties in perfectly with Pope Francis frequent reference to the ‘law of gradualness’.
Marriage does not attain perfection in day one. It is a life‐long process that calls for continual renewal of commitment and deepening of understanding and growth between the couple. It is in this sense that Pope Francis suggests that marriage should possess all the traits of a mature friendship: concern for the good of the other, reciprocity, intimacy, warmth, stability and the resemblance born of a shared life. And he adds that those who marry ‘trust that it will pass the test of time.
Children not only want their parents to love one another, but also to be faithful and remain together.’ Unfortunately, space does not allow for a fuller treatment of the much longer reflection Pope Francis offers with regard to conjugal love, where he talks about the continual self‐revelation of couples to each other; the erotic dimension of love; the importance of dialogue and many other topics both practical and inspirational.
But what he states at the end of the chapter says it all: “Married love constantly seeks new ways to grow in strength.”