Love for all families
The pope in this chapter celebrates the human reality of married love, a reality rooted in the origins of creation itself, many millennia before the advent of Christ. In his gospel message, Jesus has reverted marriage to its original divine mandate and added something more. Christ has elevated marriage to the saving mystery of a sacrament. For our part and in the light of our Christian faith, this means that we have to ‘think big’, to stretch our minds and to see marriage in divine terms.
Marriage, says Pope Francis, “takes on its full meaning in Christ and his Church. Through his Church, Christ bestows on marriage and the family the grace necessary to bear witness to the love of God and to live the life of communion. The gospel of the family spans the history of the world, from the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26‐27), to the fulfilment of the mystery of the covenant in Christ at the end of time with the marriage of the Lamb (cf. Revelations 19:9).”
Despite the challenges and occasional heartaches of marriage, despite human frailty and sin, marriage is a living, tangible sign – a sacrament – of God’s own communion of love and life as Trinity, culminating in the ultimate destiny of humankind to share fully in that at the ‘wedding feast of the Lamb’.
In marriage, a couple does not ‘receive’ the sacrament; they become the sacrament. But this demands an attention to gospel values to inspire their relationship, values of love, self‐giving, sacrifice, forgiveness, healing, honesty and so much more.
The bond of love between husband and wife overflows into family life. In this way the family in its turn becomes a mirror of God. As a gospel paradigm for this, Pope Francis draws our attention to the Holy Family of Nazareth. For him this humble family, Joseph, Mary and Jesus, illuminates the divine principle which gives shape to every family and enables it to face the challenges of life. He says that every family, despite its weaknesses, can become a light in the darkness of the world.
May every human family live its truth in God! In our second reflection on Chapter 3 of Amoris Laetitia, we look at the challenge Pope Francis poses to the Church in its pastoral attitude to a variety of marriage situations. He reminds us that God’s love and the presence of the Holy Spirit are not limited to the structures of the Church, nor to circumstances where everything is perfect.
Marriage is first and foremost a human reality and as such reflects the brokenness of our fallen world. Nevertheless, the Second Vatican Council teaches that ‘the light of Christ enlightens every person’ (John 1:9 and GS 22). So, if the Church is to be like Christ it must go beyond itself and offer ‘pastoral care for the faithful who are living
together, or are only married civilly, or are divorced and remarried.’ As always Pope Francis looks to Jesus in the gospels, for example how he treated the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), or how he dealt with the woman caught in adultery (‘Neither do I condemn you.’ John 8).
Jesus accepted people where they were, gently and patently leading them beyond their limitations to new possibilities and hope. “Following this divine pedagogy,” writes Pope Francis, “the Church turns with love to those who participate in her life in an imperfect manner: she seeks the grace of conversion for them; she encourages them to do good, to take loving care of each other and to serve the community in which they live and work.”
Pope Francis is not only being realistic. He is actually reflecting the gospel way of Jesus himself. The Church must always preach and teach ‘Good News’. This includes inspiring hope, showing that there is always a silver lining. So, for example, he says that when a couple living in a so‐called ‘irregular union’ attains stability through a civil or public bond – characterised by deep affection, responsibility towards the children and the ability to overcome trials – this can be seen as an opportunity, when possible, to lead them to celebrate the sacrament of matrimony.
True to his frequent admonitions to clergy, Pope Francis calls on them yet again to practice restraint. He quotes Pope John Paul II: ‘When faced with difficult situations and wounded families, it is always necessary to recall this general principle: Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations.’
As Pope Francis says, “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases and factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision. Therefore, while stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition.”
May the Church continue the work of Christ by being a beacon of hope and Good News to marriage and family life in the world today! We must touch on Chapter 3’s closing section on ‘the transmission of life and the rearing of children.’ Yes, we’ve all heard the jokes that large families must obviously be Catholic. And yes, the issue becomes delicate if we reduce it only to the question of the artificial means of contraception.
But this is not what Pope Francis wants us to focus on. Instead, he wants us to celebrate the ‘giftedness’ of procreation; the dignity of having and raising children. In doing so he draws our attention again to the Biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality. Marriage is firstly an intimate partnership of life and love of the spouses
themselves, while ‘sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman’ (Church’s Catechism, 2360.)
Of course, this doesn’t mean that spouses to whom God has not granted children cannot have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Marriage remains a sacrament in and of itself. Nonetheless, writes
Pope Francis, a child “does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but
springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfilment.”
In a very real sense, a child is ‘present’ from the beginning of a couple’s love because love cannot close in on itself but must always be open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. The pope puts it succinctly: “A child deserves to be born of that love … for he or she is not something owed to one, but is a gift, the fruit of a specific act of the conjugal love of the parents.”
At the heart of the Church’s theology of procreation is the idea that a man and a woman share in God’s own work of creation. But it’s more than the power of creation. A couple’s highest dignity is to share in the most important aspect of God’s very being, which, according to St John, is LOVE. By allowing couples to share in God’s creative energy, God has at the same time, ‘made them instruments of his love…’. This is all grace! It is pure gift! And it is so
despite our human frailty, failings and infidelities.
God remains faithful and God accompanies married couples through their trials, enabling them to constantly renew their vocation to share in God’s own transmission of life and love. So, the Church’s teaching is not meant to be seen as a noose around our necks. If the duty of the Church is to always preach and teach ‘Good News’, then it must, says Pope Francis, “help couples to experience in a complete, harmonious and conscious way their communion as husband and wife, together with their responsibility for procreating life.”
Pope Francis concludes this chapter by adding a word of affirmation for the choice of adopting or fostering children. While not a physical transmission of life, it is still an expression of the fruitfulness of love between husband and wife.
Pope Francis has declared the Year of the Family until June 2022 .
The pamphlet, What Pope Francis Says About Marriage & Family Life is available from Majellan Bookshop for $6.00, postage included.