When Pope Francis in his recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) says the Church’s marriage and family outreach should sometimes be like shoes getting “soiled by the mud of the street”, that’s something John Grabowski definitely understands.

In their nearly 31-year marriage, Grabowski and his wife Claire have raised five children and also are longtime volunteers in marriage preparation programs and outreach to married couples at their parish in Maryland, St. Ignatius of Loyola in Ijamsville.

Sometimes the programs have involved Theology on Tap talks, movie nights and romantic dinners. This year, they’ve organized a 12-week formation series on Catholic marriage, drawing on Scripture and Church teaching.

“We’re getting our feet dirty here,” Grabowski laughs.

While most media attention after release of Amoris Laetitia focused on what the pope had to say on hot-button issues such as Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, experts on the Church’s approach to marriage and family ministry say its real revolution may lie in what pastoral care for couples actually looks like.

Grabowski – an associate professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America, who serves with his wife as one of two American couples on the Pontifical Council for the Family – said Pope Francis underscores the importance of parishes serving married couples in all stages of life, not just in limited programs for engaged couples.

He hopes the exhortation serves as a catalyst for the Church in the United States to broaden its outreach and support of married couples – “That we stop ignoring people once they get married,” he said.

In his theology classes, Grabowski said, his students sometimes include seminarians or religious who spend 6-12 years in formation for their vocations.

“Married couples are also a lifelong vocation, and we give them six evenings or a weekend (to prepare for marriage), and then tell them to have a great life together. It makes no sense,” he said.

Grabowski hopes that people read the pope’s new document “and take up the challenge that we need better formation for people preparing for marriage and living marriage.”

In Amoris Laetitia, Francis makes it clear that he’s not changing Catholic teaching on marriage, but calling on the Church to undertake “a different style of pastoral engagement”, Grabowski said. He noted that as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the future pope went out and spent hours with the poor, having meals with them and listening to them.

“He’s asking pastors to take on that style, which is basically the style of Jesus in the Gospel – eating with sinners,” he said, and walking with and listening to their people, especially those on the margins of society like the poor, and on the margins of the Church, like the divorced and remarried or single parents, Grabowski said.

“He’s challenging his pastors – the bishops and priests – to adopt that style,” the theology professor said, adding that the exhortation emphasizes the importance of parish priests inviting people such as the divorced “deeper inclusion in the life of the Church… to pray and discern, to help them understand Church teaching and apply it and live it in their situation.”

Andy Lichtenwalner, the executive director of the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the pope in his new document is calling on the Church to see parish life and family life as inseparable, and the parish as a family of families.

He believes the exhortation will challenge dioceses and parishes to re-evaluate the effectiveness of their marriage and family programs and outreach, especially to those who have experienced brokenness. That soul-searching, he said, should also inspire individual Catholics to take steps to deepen their marriage and family life and share that gift with others.

“The Holy Father is encouraging all of us to reflect on it,” Lichtenwalner said. “He’s calling all of us to search our hearts to see how we can be closer to those who are hurting, and bring the Lord’s mercy to those situations… He’s calling pastors and lay leaders to be more receptive to those situations, to meet people where they are and walk with them toward Christ.”

In Amoris Laetitia, Francis encourages older married couples to visit and offer guidance to younger couples, and he notes that outreach to families is not just a matter of offering programs at parishes.

The pope writes, “Nowadays, pastoral care for families has to be fundamentally missionary, going out to where people are. We can no longer be like a factory, churning out courses that for the most part are poorly attended.” (no. 230)

Tim O’Malley, the director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Liturgy, said the papal document “gives us a vision of marriage formation that should guide the U.S. Church moving forward.”

He said the Holy Father emphasizes that the family is a school of love where children learn to love God and others, and the vocation of marriage is a lifelong journey, where people learn about the sacrament of marriage from lessons of love that should begin in childhood.

“You start marriage preparation with children, not at 22 years old,” he said.

O’Malley also noted Francis’s emphasis on a missionary call for families to deepen their vocation through prayer and reflection at home, and then to go out and bring Christ’s love to others.

“Families should be inviting other families and people into their life,” he said. “The family itself is called to go to the margins. The love in the family enables (its members) to go out and find Christ in the poor and forgotten… A Christian family is a family for others.”

Edward Sri, a professor of theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, agreed that the pope’s exhortation is a clarion call for parishes to expand their outreach for married couples and families, because too often the focus is almost entirely on engaged couples, with little offered for couples once they’re married, “precisely when they need help the most.”

The pope’s challenge is not just to parishes, but for Catholic married couples and families to be missionaries and witnesses of Christ’s love in the world, especially to the poor in their community, or to neighbors or family members who are hurting, Sri said.

“It can happen around the barbecue, in the neighborhood, at school, on the soccer sideline, in the workplace, at the Christmas party, just actually living the joy of married life. That’s what Christ is calling us to do,” he said.

Maybe it all comes down to getting your shoes dirty.

Grabowski said the exhortation might lead him and his wife to develop a study series at their parish based on the document, to help couples read it together and reflect on how to apply it to their lives.

He confessed that he doesn’t know what form that future parish marriage ministry might take, but using some of the pope’s language from the document, he added, “I don’t know, but we need to discern that!”

(Zimmermann writes for Crux out of Washington, where he also serves as editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper and website of the Archdiocese of Washington.)