It probably shouldn’t be necessary to have pastoral letters or papal encyclicals or apostolic exhortations to tell us what we should already know: that marriage and the family life it creates are holy and sacred.
And yet, as someone celebrating 40 years of marriage and 36 years of parenthood this year, I readily admit that there are times when the sacredness of marriage and family life gets lost amid the day-to-day challenges and struggles of surviving in the world.
Sometimes these challenges and struggles lead me to act or react in a less-than-loving or Christian fashion.
That’s why it’s as good a reason as any to welcome “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family. The document is the result of synods called by the pope in each of the past two years to address this most integral component of Christ-centered living.
As a husband and father, I find it illuminating that this document sprang from the synod process, a process that by definition indicates not simply an opportunity but a need for dialogue, for listening, reflecting and sharing.
So, too, in a marriage and in a family, there is the need to listen, reflect and share, to communicate and to pray with love and respect. That is who we are as a church, as a family.
“Amoris Laetitia,” in the words of Pope Francis, invites Christian families “to persevere in a love strengthened by the virtues of generosity, commitment, fidelity and patience” (virtues, I would suggest, that also are common to an effective synod process).
I also appreciate “Amoris Laetitia” and its humble, non-lecturing tone, quite in keeping with this Year of Mercy and with the tone of this pontificate that is not afraid to take the church, the papacy included, to task.
Pope Francis says what many of us in marriage have often felt: that the church has a hard time presenting marriage “more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden.”
“We also find it hard,” he continues, “to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
In other words, there is room for growth — spiritually and in other ways — as we journey in faith. Marriage and family life offer a unique and beautiful opportunity to experience that growth.
I know for certain that my faith journey would have barely progressed, if not stalled completely, had I not met and married the woman I’ve shared my life with these past four decades. Through her and the son we brought into this world I am more aware of and pray more closely to Christ and his church.
Or, as Pope Francis writes: “It is a profound spiritual experience to contemplate our loved ones with the eyes of God and to see Christ in them. This demands a freedom and openness that enable us to appreciate their dignity. We can be fully present to others only by giving fully of ourselves and forgetting all else.”
Bottom line: When we set aside selfish needs, the difficulties of marriage and family life become far less daunting. “If a family is centered on Christ,” the pope says, “he will unify and illumine its entire life. Moments of pain and difficulty will be experienced in union with the Lord’s cross, and his closeness will make it possible to surmount them.”
“Amoris Laetitia” is an affirmation of who we are as members of God’s family and as members of the church that is the bride of Christ. It’s well worth the read.
Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.