One year ago today, Pope Francis published the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The period of time that has since intervened has allowed much reflection and discussion about the document and its teaching and perhaps we now stand in a better position to appreciate its beauty and its relevance for the life of the Church.
Like a many-faceted jewel, Amoris Laetitia needs to be viewed in all its richness to be fully appreciated, avoiding the constraints of a perspective that focuses solely on certain aspects.
This apostolic exhortation, which follows on the Synod of Bishops that met in October of 2014 and another in 2015 to discuss the challenges to marriage and family today, reflects the consensus of those meetings and many voices. Pope Francis has used these discussions to inform this exhortation, and his own pastoral teaching to aid in reflection, dialogue, and pastoral practice.
Over the course of 325 paragraphs in nine chapters, the Holy Father points the way to how the Church might take steps to support married couples and families in their lives, and to mercifully bring hope and healing to those who find themselves in broken and wounded situations, with a sensitivity toward the diversity of particular relationships and cultures.
Pope Francis reminds us of the vocation of the human family which is revealed in the infinite love of the Lord who became incarnate in a human family and who gave himself for our sake and who continues to dwell in our midst. Quoting extensively from Scripture and Church teaching, Pope Francis affirms that the communal life of husband, wife and children can be steeped in and strengthened by sacramental grace.
Even for those in a marriage that does not reflect entirely the Church’s teaching, continues the Pope, Christ inspires the Church to turn to them with love and affection to assist them in overcoming the trials they face.
Love is clearly at the center of Amoris Laetitia. The treatment of love, which occupies the central chapters, is a magnificent contribution to the modern magisterium’s treatment of the subject. Not only does it beautifully synthesize Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, but also adds a masterful and meditative reflection on the qualities of love discussed by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.
In the document, Pope Francis approaches his teaching ministry as a pastor of souls. Without claiming to present an entire pastoral plan, the Holy Father calls for a family apostolate that offers more adequate catechesis and formation, not only of engaged and married couples and their children, but also priests, deacons, seminarians, consecrated religious, catechists, teachers, social workers, medical professionals, and other pastoral workers.
The pastoral implications of Amoris Laetitia have been the object of much attention, and some controversy. The hermeneutic required for a fruitful appropriation of the document’s teaching on this point is based on the understanding that none of the teaching of the Church has been changed: This includes the doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage, the directives of the Code of Canon Law, and also the role of individual conscience in the determination of personal culpability.
The exhortation does not create some sort of internal forum process in which a marriage can be annulled, or in which the objective moral order can be changed. Instead, the exhortation places greater emphasis on the role of the individual conscience in appropriating those moral norms in the person’s actual circumstances.
The judgment of conscience of an individual believer does not replace or change the objective teachings of the Church, but it does address his or her culpability before God for their actions.
In this context, the role of the priest in listening and offering affirmation or challenge to persons as they work through their own understanding of their situation becomes central to the type of pastoral work with married couples needed today. It is the very heart of the ministry of accompaniment that the exhortation calls for.
This can be a challenge, but also an incentive. There is always the temptation simply to annunciate doctrinal points, as if this is the same as engaging in pastoral ministry with a person who is discerning how they can appropriate the teaching of the Church on marriage.
The pastoral ministry of accompanying the discerner benefits over the years from pastoral experience. We hear that echo of experience in this document where, in many places, one recognizes the voice of a pastor speaking directly to members of his flock, sharing his wisdom formed from many years of service to God’s people.
Amoris Laetitia is not a list of answers to each individual human issue. The apostolic exhortation calls for a compassionate pastoral approach to many people – married, single, and divorced – who are struggling to face issues in life, the teaching of the Church, and their own desire to reconcile all of this.
The exhortation is a call to compassionate accompaniment in helping all to experience Christ’s love and mercy. In the action of going out, encountering, sharing, and accompanying, moreover, we also recognize that in the journey, we – ourselves – are also drawing closing to the Lord.
My hope is that this anniversary will bring a renewed enthusiasm in embracing the call that Pope Francis makes in Amoris Laetitia, the call to be apostles of God’s mercy, and to make visible on earth his loving forgiveness.