This is the fifth in a series of columns on Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), the apostolic exhortation Pope Francis issued last February 2016. This is on the third chapter entitled “Looking to Jesus: The vocation of the family,” where Pope Francis elaborates on essential elements of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family.
In Chapter 3, the Pope depicts the vocation of the family in the context of the Gospel and as affirmed by the Church over time. In and among families, Francis writes, the Gospel message should always resound. The core of that message, the kerygma, is what is “most beautiful, most excellent, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.” This message “has to occupy the center of all evangelizing activity.” It is the first and most important proclamation, “which we must hear again and again in different ways, and which we must always announce in one form or another.”
According to Francis: “Our teaching on marriage and the family cannot fail to be inspired and transformed by this message of love and tenderness; otherwise, it becomes nothing more than the defence of a dry and lifeless doctrine. The mystery of the Christian family can be fully understood only in the light of the Father’s infinite love revealed in Christ, who gave himself up for our sake and who continues to dwell in our midst.”
This chapter gives emphasis on the themes of indissolubility, the sacramental nature of marriage, the transmission of life and the education of children. Contrary to those who reject marriage as evil, the New Testament teaches that “everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected” (1 Tim 4:4). Marriage is “a gift” from the Lord (1 Cor 7:7). At the same time, precisely because of this positive understanding, the New Testament strongly emphasizes the need to safeguard God’s gift: “Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled” (Heb 13:4). This divine gift includes sexuality: “Do not refuse one another” (1 Cor 7:5), he says.
On the permanence of marriage bonds, the Pope clarifies that: The indissolubility of marriage—‘what God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Mt 19:6)—should not be viewed as a “yoke” imposed on humanity, but as a “gift” granted to those who are joined in marriage.
In explaining the magisterium, the Pope liberally quotes on various sources including The Vatican Council II document Gaudium et Spes, along with Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, and St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio. Drawing from the example of the Holy Family, the Pope reflects on the calling of every family in this wise: “The covenant of love and fidelity lived by the Holy Family of Nazareth illuminates the principle which gives shape to every family, and enables it better to face the vicissitudes of life and history. On this basis, every family, despite its weaknesses, can become a light in the darkness of the world.”
On the sacrament of Matrimony, the Pope compares a married couple to the unity of the Trinity. Thus, “Scripture and Tradition give us access to a knowledge of the Trinity, which is revealed with the features of a family. The family is the image of God, who is a communion of persons. At Christ’s baptism, the Father’s voice was heard, calling Jesus his beloved Son, and in this love we can recognize the Holy Spirit (cf. Mk 1:10-11), he says. He further explains that the sacrament of marriage is not a social convention, an empty ritual or merely the outward sign of a commitment. The sacrament is a gift given for the sanctification and salvation of the spouses.
On imperfect unions, the Pope has this to say on the mission of the Church: Church’s pastoral care for the faithful who are living together, or are only married civilly, or are divorced and remarried. Following this divine pedagogy, the Church turns with love to those who participate in her life in an imperfect manner: she seeks the grace of conversion for them; she encourages them to do good, to take loving care of each other and to serve the community in which they live and work.
The reflection also includes the “wounded families” about whom the Pope—quoting the Final Report of the 2015 Synod extensively —says that “it is always necessary to recall this general principle: ‘Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations.’ The degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases and factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision. Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid making rash judgments that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition.”
In a later chapter of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis elaborates on principles of discernment pastors and couples in difficult situations, for example divorced and remarried Catholics, may use to grow and mature in faith. The question of taking communion by these Catholics is specifically addressed in that chapter.
Imperfect as all families are, wounded as some families have experienced, the family is a gift to be celebrated. For as Pope Francis proclaims: “The incarnation of the Word in a human family, in Nazareth, by its very newness changed the history of the world.” He explains the mission of families: “We need to enter into the mystery of Jesus’ birth, into that “yes” given by Mary to the message of the angel, when the Word was conceived in her womb, as well as the “yes” of Joseph, who gave a name to Jesus and watched over Mary.”
But why celebrate the mystery of the family? Pope Francis answers: “We need to contemplate the joy of the shepherds before the manger, the adoration of the Magi and the flight into Egypt, in which Jesus shares his people’s experience of exile, persecution and humiliation. We need to contemplate the religious expectation of Zechariah and his joy at the birth of John the Baptist, the fulfillment of the promise made known to Simeon and Anna in the Temple and the marvel of the teachers of the Law who listened to the wisdom of the child Jesus. We then need to peer into those thirty long years when Jesus earned his keep by the work of his hands, reciting the traditional prayers and expressions of his people’s faith and coming to know that ancestral faith until he made it bear fruit in the mystery of the Kingdom. This is the mystery of Christmas and the secret of Nazareth, exuding the beauty of family life! It was this that so fascinated Francis of Assisi, Theresa of the Child Jesus and Charles de Foucauld, and continues to fill Christian families with hope and joy.”
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