WASHINGTON, D.C. — As it does every year, Valentine’s Day will come and go with cards, roses and chocolate, but a theology professor says a more lasting gift for Catholic couples would be to read and take to heart what Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) says about deepening their love for God and each other.
“I think Amoris Laetitia helps couples discover a more realistic and long-lasting love than the feelings of romance or passion that our culture fixates on at Valentine’s Day,” said John Grabowski, an associate professor in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America.
Grabowski, who serves as a theological adviser to the U.S. Catholic Conference Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family and Youth, was appointed by Pope Francis to serve as an expert at the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family. Amoris Laetitia was drawn from that synod and one in 2014 which examined Catholic teaching on marriage and family and the challenges facing today’s couples and families.
Since the apostolic exhortation was issued last year, much media attention has swirled around the controversy over whether it opens a door for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, but Grabowski said that if Catholics would take the time to read the document slowly and carefully, it could “have a huge impact on couples and families.”
Grabowski and his wife Claire will mark their 32nd wedding anniversary this spring, and they have five children and two grandchildren. In 2009, the Grabowskis were appointed to the Pontifical Council of the Family as a member couple.
For about 25 years, they have been volunteering in parish marriage ministry. At their parish in Maryland, St. Ignatius of Loyola in Ijamsville, they help prepare engaged couples for marriage and lead a marriage formation program that this past fall drew 40 couples, including newlyweds and a couple that has been married for 50 years.
“There’s definitely a hunger out there for this,” the CUA educator said.
And he said the topics that Pope Francis addresses in The Joy of Love, resonate not only in his classroom, but in their parish marriage ministry. Grabowski said the ultimate source of The Joy of Love for couples comes from encountering Christ, experiencing his love and mercy, and sharing it with their spouse and others.
“Growth can only occur if we respond to God’s grace through constant acts of love,” Pope Francis writes.
The pope “is very much a pastor, and he speaks and writes like one,” John Grabowski said. “…Pope Francis is dealing with real-life experiences of couples and drawing on his experiences as a pastor.”
The theology professor said that in The Joy of Love, Pope Francis addresses “nuts and bolts” topics that often come up in their marriage preparation and marriage ministry work, like the importance of couples and family members communicating with each other, spending quality time together and addressing conflicts that arise.
“That’s how you build real, long lasting love, by patiently listening to each other, spending time together and working through conflicts together,” Grabowski said.
Dialogue, the pope writes, “is essential for experiencing, expressing and fostering love in marriage and family life.”
Underscoring the importance of listening, Pope Francis says, “This means being ready to listen patiently and attentively to everything the other person wants to say… Often the other spouse does not need a solution to his or her problems, but simply to be heard, to feel that someone has acknowledged their pain, their disappointment, their fear, their anger, their hopes and their dreams.”
In the document, the pope also notes, “The right words, spoken at the right time, daily protect and nurture love.” The pontiff emphasizes what he calls “three essential words” for family members to say to each other every day – “‘Please!’ ‘Thank you!’ and ‘Sorry.’”
In The Joy of Love, Pope Francis emphasizes the importance of couples showing tenderness for and affection to each other, of making sacrifices and always being willing to forgive. “My advice is never to let the day end without making peace in the family,” he writes.
In an extended section of the document, the pope reflects on the passage in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind…” that is often read at Catholic weddings. Reflecting on the line, “love endures all things,” the pope writes, “It is a love that never gives up, even in the darkest hour.”
Interviewed by Crux at their Frederick, Maryland, home on the weekend before Valentine’s Day, the Grabowskis said they have leaned on their faith and love to endure health problems and the deaths of parents and siblings over the years.
“It’s a love that instead of folding in the face of a crisis, can actually grow stronger,” John Grabowski said. “It’s precisely in those struggles that you experience the grace of the sacrament. You know it’s not your own strength that gets you through that, but it’s the grace of God, and that’s what you’re given in the sacrament.”
Claire Grabowski added, “I love that he [Pope Francis] mentions the crises and challenges” that couples face. “That’s how we grow closer to God and each other as we work through these crises and sufferings.”
In The Joy of Love, Pope Francis offers advice to people in all stages of married life. John Grabowski summarized the pope’s message to engaged couples as “plan for a lifetime, not just for a wedding.”
Tying in that message to the advice she offers to couples preparing for marriage, Claire Grabowski said, “The most important thing is to have a relationship with Christ,” which couples can experience by praying and participating in the sacraments together.
The pope recommends that young married couples have “shared daily rituals. These could include a morning kiss, an evening blessing, waiting at the door to welcome each other home, taking trips together and sharing household chores.”
John Grabowski noted the papal document also emphasizes the importance of parishes promoting the sacrament of marriage not just to engaged couples, but to all married couples, and the importance of veteran couples mentoring younger ones.
“It could also be helpful to ask older married couples to help younger couples in the neighborhood by visiting them and offering guidance in the early years of marriage,” the pope writes.
The Grabowskis say their participation in marriage ministry and trying to support other couples has strengthened their own marriage.
“We need to think about ongoing accompaniment,” said John Grabowski. “…We need mentor couples in the Church to help people live this vocation. Whether they’ve been married 15 or 50 years, they’re in a position to help…Every couple needs friends and other couples to support and encourage them.”
One key message The Joy of Love offers to parents, he said, is “the love between parents is the foundation of the wider love of their family. When couples invest in their own relationship, they’re investing in their children.”
Claire Grabowski noted, “Marriage is hard. Raising children is hard. We have to realize we’re not in this alone. God pours out his love for us in the sacraments we receive. The sacrament of marriage gives us the grace to live faithfully and be faithful to our commitment.”
Reflecting on what the papal document says about sexual relations within marriage, John Grabowski said, “It’s a gift for married couples, but it’s a gift in service of mutual love, that’s founded on respect for each other as persons, and is always open to the gift of life.”
Pope Francis writes that with married love, it’s important to remember “the best is yet to come, that fine wine matures with age.”
He notes that a husband or wife “is a companion on life’s journey, one with whom to face life’s difficulties and enjoy its pleasures…If a couple can come up with a shared and lasting life project, they can love one another and live as one until death do them part, enjoying an enriching intimacy…On this journey, love rejoices at every step and in every new stage.”
Growing in the grace of the sacrament of marriage takes “daily effort,” the pope writes. He recommends that couples pray to the Holy Spirit to help them face “every new situation.”
“We have to be intentional and invest in our marriage every day,” said John Grabowski.
The theology professor recommends that Catholic couples, perhaps as a Lenten spiritual activity, read, pray over and discuss passages of The Joy of Love each day, especially the fourth chapter on love in marriage, which is followed by a chapter on family love. That commitment could be a Valentine’s gift for couples to each other.
“There’s so much more to love than what our culture recognizes, and in understanding that deeper love, we discover joy,” – the joy of true love, he said.