Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia)

Formation session given by Archbishop Joseph Marino, apostolic nuncio to Malaysia, at the Conference Hall, Sandakan Diocesan Pastoral Centre, on 14 Oct 2016, in conjunction with Sandakan Diocesan Day.


The apostolic exhortation on the family was issued on 8 April 2016 entitled “The Joy of Love.”  It represents the post-synodal exhortation of the two gatherings of the synod on the family, which took place in 2014 and 2015.

Pope Francis tells us from the very beginning that it is a rather lengthy document and therefore, he writes: “I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text” (# 7).  Instead, he states, “the greatest benefit, for families themselves and for those engaged in the family apostolate, will come if each part is ready patiently and carefully” (#7).  Nonetheless, the text is quite readable and flows smoothly.  It is for the entire church and offers profound reflections on love, marriage and the family.

Obviously, in this short talk it is not possible to address every part of the document, but what I wish to do is to reflect on what Pope Francis is proposing as a new vision of being church and a new way of dealing with complicated issues with regard to marriage and the family.  In fact, the pope himself, in the second paragraph, defined the topic of the exhortation as complex.

The document itself

However, before moving to the specific aspect of this talk, that is, the new approach to urgent pastoral questions on marriage and the family, I wish to give an overview of the exhortation.

It is a rich document in which the Holy Father oftentimes cites the final reports of the two synods, documents of his predecessors, especially St John Paul II, his own extensive catechesis on the family and his direct pastoral experiences in Buenos Aires.  The pope also makes use of quotes from various episcopal conferences (e.g. Kenya, Italy, Australia, Argentina, etc).  He cites noted figures such as Martin Luther King and Erich Fromm.  There are many references to Thomas Aquinas.

The 256-page document, as printed by the Vatican, is divided into nine chapters as follows:
1) In the light of the Word. In this chapter, the Holy Father begins his reflection as a meditation on Psalm 128, which appears in Jewish and Christian weddings.  The Bible, the pope writes,  considers the family not as an abstract ideal but rather like a practical “trade” (#16).  The Word of God becomes  a source of comfort and companionship for every family encountering difficulties.

2) The experiences and challenges of families.  Here, Pope Francis continues to call us to deal with the family “grounded in reality” and concrete situations.  Only by doing this can we understand the needs of the present moment.

3) Looking to Jesus: the vocation of the family, the third chapter, is dedicated to the essential elements of church teaching on marriage and family.  The entire chapter depicts the vocation of the family according to the Gospel and as affirmed by the church over time.  At the same time, the pope touches on “imperfect situations” and “wounded families” and already calls pastors to remember their obligation to exercise careful discernment of these situations.

4) Love in Marriage is the title of the fourth chapter.  Here the Holy Father treats love in marriage with a deep meditation and reflection on St Paul’s “Hymn to Love,” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, in concrete terms and again affirms that marriage as a sign of the union between Christ and the church.  It is “a dynamic process” which will include “enjoyment and struggles, tensions and repose, pain and relief, satisfaction and longings, annoyances and pleasures” (# 122).

5) Love made fruitful.  This fifth chapter reflects upon procreation in a profoundly spiritual and psychological manner about welcoming new life, about the period of pregnancy, about the love of a mother and father.

6) Some pastoral perspectives.  In this chapter, the pope treats various pastoral perspectives that are aimed at forming solid fruitful families according to God’s plan through marriage preparation, accompaniment of couples in the first years of married life, as well as being near to those who have been abandoned, separated or divorced.

7) Towards a better education of children.  The Holy Father, in this part of the exhortation, deals with the education of children, that is, their ethical formation, the learning of discipline, sex education and the passing on of faith.  In short, he reflects upon the family in an educational setting.

8) Accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness.  Needless to say,  this is the chapter that received the most attention in the various reports about the exhortation.  Here the pope uses three very important verbs: guiding, discerning and integrating, which are fundamental in addressing fragile, complex or irregular situations.  The chapter has sections on the need for gradualness in pastoral care; the importance of discernment; norms and mitigating circumstances in pastoral discernment; and finally, what the pope calls the “logic of pastoral mercy.”

9) The spirituality of marriage and the family.  The ninth chapter is devoted to marital and family spirituality, which “is made up of thousands of small but real gestures” (# 315).

In his introduction to the exhortation, the Holy Father defines the context of the document, which is important, because with his words, we already have a key to how to read the text and to understand its orientation and the approach that the pope proposes for the church to take in dealing with the issues outlined in the exhortation.

In paragraph 5, he writes: “This exhortation is especially timely in this Jubilee Year of Mercy.  First, because it represents an invitation to Christian families to value the gifts of marriage and the family, and to persevere in a love strengthened by the virtues of generosity, commitment, fidelity and patience.  Second, because it seeks to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy.”

With these two reasons, we see that the Holy Father, on the one hand, is calling us to a positive affirmation of the gifts of marriage and love while at the same time, he calls us to the periphery to those whose family life is imperfect.  As such, the words that he spoke in his talk to cardinals in the pre-conclave congregations before he was elected pope take on concrete form: “The church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”

Beyond rules

At the very beginning of the document, Pope Francis in many ways reflects on the dynamic of the discussions that emerged during the two synods.  He states that the complexity of the issues that arose during the debates produced a wide range of options, ranging from a “desire for total change, without sufficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological consideration” (# 2).

By illustrating these two approaches as options ranging from one end to the other, Pope Francis obviously is already telling us that neither would be found in the document.

At the same time, the pope, on many occasions throughout the exhortation, will affirm that imposing rules and norms is not the way to deal or settle the matter being reflected upon with all its complexity.

Already in the third paragraph, he writes: “I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium,” because, and these are the words of the pope: there are “various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it” and because “each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs” (# 3).

Specifically that means that “there is no sense” for the magisterium “simply to decry present-day evils, as if this could change things.  Nor is it helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority” (# 35).  Moreover, “we have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life” (# 37).

When dealing with difficult situations, the church on many occasions instead of giving “understanding, comfort and acceptance,” … “imposed straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very mother called to show them God’s mercy.  Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others” (# 49).

Moreover, here again I go directly to the words of Pope Francis: “While clearly stating the church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid 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” (# 79).

The pope goes even further and states that “the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today’s problematic situation” (# 36), because “at times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families” (# 36).  He considers that “this excessive idealisation” has scared people from marriage instead of drawing them toward marriage.

In fact, “the synod’s reflections show us that there is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of many different realities, with all their joys, hopes and problems.  The situations that concern us are challenges” (# 57).  In other words, the Holy Father, while speaking throughout the document about marriage with all its beauty, will lead the church to deal directly with challenges that many people face in their particular married life.

With regards to the challenges, the Holy Father goes to the reality of life in which marriage is lived or failed.  Far from judging people who fail, he critiques the culture which surrounds the human experience that influences our ability or inability to live the fullness of marriage.  The Holy Father affirms that we are living in “a cultural decline that fails to promote love or self-giving.”

We are surrounded by narcissism which “makes people incapable of looking beyond themselves, beyond their own desires and needs” (# 39).  These situations need to be called in question because they make it almost impossible for individuals to commit fully in a relationship oriented to the other rather than self.

However, even in the critique of the “world,” Pope Francis affirms that “we have often been on the defensive wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness” (# 38).

Consequently, Pope Francis is affirming that “one size does not fit all” and therefore, he rejects any idea of articulating norms and rules to address the complex individual realities of people which are so different and diverse.  Moreover, even when critiquing the environment in which we live, he prefers not to attack and condemn, following his own instructions in the “Joy of the Gospel” where he wrote: “It is true that in our dealings with the world, we are told to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns” (EG, 271).  Rather, he encourages us to deal with it in a creative and pastoral manner.

We can see the direction that the pope is bringing us to dealing with questions facing marriage and the family.  It will not be by giving new norms and rules; it will hesitate in over-idealising marriage and it will refrain from condemning the world in which we live.  Rather, it will be composed of a pastoral approach to to to individuals, men and women, living in concrete and unique situations.  It will be a call to go out and find those in need.

In a sense, it will be a concrete application of what he wrote in “Joy of the Gospel”: “I do not want a church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.  If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the face that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support hem, without meaning and a goal in life.  More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37)” (EG, 49).

Towards missionary creativity

While Pope Francis calls us to go beyond rules and idealised doctrine and wasting our time on judging and condemning, he knows that he must provide the church with some principles in order to assist many of our people who are confronting challenges in marriage and family life.  He does so by pointing us to missionary creativity, which has as its basis the recognition of the powe of grace, which is the love of God who is with us in our journeys in life.

The paradigm then is journey, a movement, which implies that each person goes through a personal growth.  In this context, marriage becomes, according to Pope Francis, “a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment rather than as a lifelong burden.”  In other words, it is an adventure that is to be undertaken, rather than a heavy problem that is to be carried.  Consequently, we must “make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best as they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations” (# 37).

The phrase “to respond as best as we can” finds a precise definition in the document when Pope Francis speaks of the law of gradualness, which will become a defining element when dealing with the question of divorce and remarried people in the church.

When writing about the law of gradualness in his exhortation, Pope Francis recalls that St John Paul II had already referred to this basic moral principle in his own apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, in 1981, over 35 years ago.  The “law of gradualness” recognises that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth.”  This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather “a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law” (# 295).

The law does represent the will of God for us and can never be set aside arbitrarily or frivolously.  In fact, if we do that or even suggest that the law itself is gradual we need to refer back to the sources of faith and enter into conversion (# 297).  The law certainly is a gift from God destined to everyone, but it can be followed only with the help of grace.  Yet, “each human being advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life” (# 295).

We find “the demands of the law” in the Gospel, and, in living the life of marriage, we must always have the Gospels before us, because as Pope Francis so succinctly wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel,” the kerygma is “most beautiful, most excellent, most appealing and at the same time, most necessary” (EG, 35).  Indeed, this message “has to occupy the centre of all evangelising activity” (EG, 164), because “nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wise than that message” (EG, 164).

With the Gospels before us, we must understand that relationships of love “occur through a process of constant growth.”  The very special form of love that is marriage is called to embody what St Thomas Aquinas said about charity in general.  “Charity,” he says, “by its very nature, has no limit to its increase, for it is a participation in that infinite charity which is the Holy Spirit” (# 134).   When Pope Francis speaks about the lovely day of a wedding, he asks the couples to realise that the moment of the exchange of vows is not the end but the beginning of an entire life of development in love.

In general then, we can say that we approach love, marriage and family as an adventure which implies growth and development, setbacks and failures, always with the presence of the grace of God which keeps us walking in the right direction.  This process is unique and relative to each and every person.

The agents of missionary creativity

It is clear thus far that Pope Francis is proposing a new way by which we view married life and the family.  Simply put, he points us to look at married life and the family not through mere doctrinal or theological lenses, which have the possibility to lead to general norms or law.  Rather, he has decided that in our time, we must look at individuals, those preparing for marriage, those who are married and those who are in irregular situations within the context of each of his/her singular situation.  In other words, as I said above, one size does not fit everyone.

To place our emphasis on individuals requires of the church as an institution an enormous responsibility and a vast amount of work.  The pope, citing the Final Document of the 2014 Synod, affirms that “the main contribution to the pastoral care of families is offered by the parish, which is the family of families, where small communities, ecclesial movements, and associations live in harmony.”  Along with a pastoral outreach aimed specifically at families, this shows the need for “a more adequate formation … of priests, deacons, men and women religious, catechists and other pastoral workers” (# 202).

Consequently, it seems from a careful reading of “The Joy of Love” that such work or ministry, on the front line, rests with priests.  Of course, this ministry extends to the entire church and all her members, but the priest remains the centre and guide of this important ministry.

In the exhortation, Pope Francis delineates so many aspects of this pastoral activity: marriage preparation, attention to newlyweds, care for those couples in difficulties, etc.  However, the one that receives extensive reflection is the care for those who participate in the life of the church in an “incomplete manner” (# 291), like the divorced and remarried.

In this regard, the Holy Father calls ministers to treat those people with a recognition that the grace of God works also in their lives and to approach them with mercy caring for the weakest and thus restoring them to hope (# 291).

Concretely speaking, that means that we must realise that some unions fall short of the ideal marriage as a perfect reflection of the union between Christ and the church.  In fact, and these are the words of Pope Francis: “Some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realise it in at least a partial and analogous way.  The synod Fathers stated that the church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage” (# 292).

The teaching thus far is quite clear.  Such imperfect unions cannot be disregarded and those living such realities cannot be considered condemned for “no one can be considered condemned forever, because” as the Holy Father asserts, “that is not the logic of the Gospel” (# 297).

Therefore, specifically in our pastoral care of those, our brothers and sisters, living in such painful and agonising situations, Pope Francis teaches us to minister to them, by accompanying them, discerning with them and reintegrating them.  Those are the three elements of this missionary and pastoral approach or creativity based in mercy: accompany, discern and integrate.  It is a personal and individual approach of offering assistance, because each person finds himself or herself in unique situations, and therefore they cannot be “pigeonholed” or “fit into overly rigid classifications” (# 298).  There are no “easy recipes” (# 298).

To accompany means to have a welcoming approach to those who are in irregular or imperfect situations.  It is “to be attentive by necessity to how people experience distress because of their condition” … “it is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person” (# 297).  It is in a sense to open the church as “a field hospital,” (# 291) where those who are suffering can come to feel the soothing balm of the understanding, mercy and healing of the Lord.

The attitude of accompanying was described already in the homily that Pope Francis gave at his first Chrism Mass a few days after he was elected.  At that time, he reminded priests of our mission to go outside of ourselves to the “outskirts where there is suffering …to go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all … to be shepherds with the smell of the sheep, making it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men” (28 March 2013).

Accompanying in complex situations, which need the light of grace and conscience, will lead to that dialogue of discernment.  This journey of discernment is individual and personal because there is an “immense variety of concrete situations” which do not allow a set of norms applicable to all cases.  Instead, and these are the words of the Holy Father “what is needed is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognise that, since the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily be the same” (# 300).

In this process of discernemnt, which the heart of the pastor is able to undertake, we come to realise that “we have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (# 37).

In this context, the pope develops in depth the needs and characteristics of the journey of accompaniment and discernment for profound dialogue between the faithful and their pastors.  He writes: “The divorced and remarried should ask themselves: how did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; and what example is being set for young people who are preparing for marriage” (# 300).

Of course, the pope affirms the Christian meaning of marriage and the responsibilities therein.  At the same time, however, he recalls the church’s reflection on “mitigating factors and situations” regarding the attribution of responsibility and accountability for actions.  In that regard, he affirms: “It is true that general rules set forth the good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.  At the same time, it must be said, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule” (# 304).

This journey of accompaniment and discernment then opens all possibilities including the most basic and desired, that is, reintegration.  Yes, it is a desired possibility because we begin with the fundamental fact that those in irregular or imperfect situations are not excommunicated at all.  Therefore, the goal of the pastoral approach is that of helping “each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community, and thus to experience being touched by an unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous mercy” (# 297).

For that reason, in the exhortation, Pope Francis, in putting together the insights given by the synod Fathers, states that “the baptised who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into the Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal …the logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care, a care which would allow them not only to realise that they belong to the church as the body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it” (# 299).

The process of reintegration should make them feel “as living members, able to live and grow in the church,” and “it is needed in the care and Christian upbringing of their children” (# 299).

The Holy Father already gave us deep insight into the process of reintegration in the homily that he gave at the Mass with the new cardinals which he had just created on 15 February 2015.  In that liturgical context reflecting on the gospel of the healing of the leper, he said that Jesus, in dealing with that painful situation of the leper who lived on the outskirts of society, was moved by compassion and “he simply wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (Jn 10)” (Homily, 15 Feb 2015).

By reinstating the untouchables, the misunderstood, the discriminated, Jesus “revolutionises and upsets the fearful, narrow and prejudiced mentality.”  His purpose in reinstating is at once profoundly human and divine, he simply wanted “to restore them to the community without being hemmed in by prejudice, conformity to the prevailing mindset or worry about becoming infected … what matters for Jesus is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family” (Homily, 15 Feb 2015).

Then in critiquing the reality of the church today, Pope Francis stated that “there are two ways of thinking and having faith: we can fear to lose the saved or we can want to save the lost” (Homily, 15 Feb 2015).  However, he went on to say: “The church’s way … has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement … rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world.  The way of the church is not to condemn anyone for eternity, but rather to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart.  The way of the church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the ‘outskirts’ of life” (Homily, 15 Feb 2015).

In order to put into practice this personal pastoral activity based on the logic of the Gospel whose goal is reintegration, Pope Francis singles out priests as the primary agents of this missionary undertaking.  He writes: “Priests have the duty to accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the church and the guidelines of the bishop” (# 300).  He “also encourages the church’s pastors to listen to them with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincerely desire to understand their plight and their point of view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognise their proper place in the church” (# 312).

To do so, we must approach them with the “eyes of Christ” (# 78), “illuminated by the gaze of the Lord” (# 291).  Consequently, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those in “irregular situations” (# 305) with “a closed heart” and “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging” (# 305).

On the other hand, while always upholding and proposing the grandeur of marriage, pastors are called “to show understanding in the face of exceptional situations” (# 309), to accompany those in such situations with “mercy, patience, compassion and tenderness” (# 309) and to believe “that the Holy Spirit can sow goodness in the midst of weakness” (# 308).

With that in mind, the Holy Father encourages “the faithful who find themselves in complicated situations to speak confidently with their pastors or with other lay people whose lives are committed to the Lord.  They may not always encounter in them a confirmation of their own ideas or desires, but they will surely receive some light to help them better understand their situation and discover a path to personal growth” (# 312).


It is clear that Pope Francis has radically shed new light on the way we approach those irregular and imperfect situations of marriage and family life or perhaps he is simply bringing to light what many pastors have been doing in carrying their pastoral ministry.

He calls the church away from condemning those in such situations.  He asks the church to no longer waste her energy in judging the world, which can create an environment that hinders us from living what is expected in married life.  He moves the church away from dealing with difficult situations with a set of rules and norms that are/were mistakenly designed to apply to all cases.  He literally rejects any “bureaucratic morality” (# 312) in dealing with these sensitive issues.

Rather, he gives us “a framework and a setting” (# 312) to respond to those in need.  What the Holy Father has given us “sets us in the context of a pastoral discernment filled with merciful love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope and above all integrate.  That is the mindset which should prevail in the church and lead us to open our hearts to those living on the outermost fringe of society” (#312).

Therefore, what must fill our hearts is the “logic of pastoral mercy.”  We must overcome all hardness of heart because – and again these are the words of Pope Francis – “at times we find it difficult to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity.  We put so many conditionjs on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance” (# 311).

In closing, I ask you to understand this document within the context of the Jubilee of Mercy during which it was issued, this special time of rediscovering the mercy of God in our lives and becoming more effective ministers of mercy.  At the same time, we can appreciate its richness which arises from the magisterium of Pope Francis, a magisterium which has at its centre, mercy, which is “the beating heart of the Gospel” (MV, 12), “the very foundation of the church’s life” (MV, 10) and the engine of her pastoral activity (MV, 10) and especially important, it is “criterion for knowing who the true children of God are” (MV, 9).


Copyright © 2021.