The Year of Mercy Continues

Amoris Laetitia, which is Pope Francis’ official response to the Synod discussions on marriage and family seeks to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy.

On April 8, 2016, Pope Francis issued a new document, an apostolic exhortation, titled Amoris laetitia (The Joy of Love). The roots of this document go back to 2013, when a questionnaire dealing with issues of marriage and family life was sent from the Vatican to all dioceses of the world for response.

The responses to these questionnaires formed the basis for discussion of marriage and family in two Synods of Bishops, one in October 2014 and the second in October 2015. Both Synods received fairly significant media coverage when they were in session because the issues raised during the discussions were so difficult and so contemporary.

Following after these two Synods, Pope Francis proclaimed the Jubilee Year of Mercy which began in December 2015. In the document of proclamation, Pope Francis stated: “Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love.”

Then, in August 2015, Pope Francis announced some significant changes in the canon law regulating annulments. These changes went into effect in December 2015. In the document announcing these changes, Pope Francis again explained his motives: “Charity and mercy therefore require that the Church, as a mother, make herself closer to her children who consider themselves separated.”

Now, following in a direct path from these events, we have Amoris Laetitia, which is Pope Francis’ official response to the Synod discussions on marriage and family. Here again, the motive is clear: “[The exhortation] seeks to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect and lacks peace” (#5).

Pope Francis describes marriage as a gift to the Church and to society, and family as an “image of the Trinity, a communion of persons.” He expresses the hope that all who read the text of the document will “feel called to love and cherish family life.”

The text is lengthy, over 250 pages, but the introduction suggests a slow, almost meditative reading, even indicating which chapters would be more suited to married couples or those preparing for marriage, and which are more suited to priests or bishops in their pastoral ministry to married couples and families.

Chapter Four, entitled “Love in Marriage,” is a scriptural and theological study of the famous passage from 1Corinthians 13: 4-7 that begins “Love is patient, love is kind…” Each quality of love named in the passage is explained in a way that is both simple and profound, and is then applied to married life. Anyone, but especially married couples, will profit from a prayerful reading of the entire chapter.

Chapter Seven, directed to parents, discusses the education of children, in both morality with respect to the culture, and in the passing on of the faith. In the latter, Pope Francis states, example is much more effective than any words.

Chapter Eight, on “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness” is directed more to bishops and pastors, but contains very important teaching for any reader. The heart of this chapter, as many theologians have pointed out, is that mercy is the hallmark of the Church’s ministry, and mercy must never be subordinated to law. “No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed,” the exhortation states (#325), and consequently pastors must meet their people where they are, in the midst of whatever trials or irregularities exist in their lives. No one, Pope Francis says, is excluded from grace if their intentions are sincere. Therefore, no one is excluded from the ministry of pastors.

Writing specifically of those married outside the Church, Pope Francis teaches that every situation is different. Consequently, not everyone in an “irregular” marriage can be put into the same category. Rather, he says, every situation must be considered separately, since each situation has its own roots and causes. Also, in addressing each complex situation, Pope Francis gives renewed emphasis to the role of conscience and use of the “internal forum” as a means for an individual to acknowledge his or her own failings and assess suitable participation in the life of the Church community.

Pastors, we are told, are responsible not only for upholding the teachings of the Church on marriage but also for the “pastoral discernment of the situations of a great many who no longer live this reality” (#293). The way of the Church is not to condemn forever, but “to pour out the mercy of God on all who ask for it with a sincere heart” (#296).

This extraordinary document makes no changes in Church teaching. However, it challenges each member of the Church to place mercy above judgment. Pope Francis teaches eloquently of the presence of grace in the sincere heart, whatever might be the circumstances of the person’s life.

May each of us take this teaching to heart, not only for others but also for ourselves.

Sister Elissa Rinere, CP