During my life as a priest the sacrament of marriage has been a major interest of mine. We say, “Marriages are made in heaven”, but that seems to be one of those pious phrases we could do without. In the marriage service we say about marriage that it is “the one blessing that was not destroyed by original sin.” This means that a happy marriage is a sign of what heaven will be like – an eternity of bliss, love that can never be destroyed or even dimmed!
I have celebrated many marriages and that has given me the chance to be with a couple at the moment when they make the deepest commitment of love to one another – “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.” I have always told couples that I also accept the responsibility to help them live up to that promise. I do not take that responsibility lightly!
It has meant that I have been involved in marriage preparation. Unfortunately the Church has gotten a bad name for negative preparation. I was involved with the most enlightened style of preparation when I was as part of a team with married couples. They talked about the experience of their own marriage, to give those preparing an opportunity to discuss their dream of loving each other sincerely forever, and through the highs and lows of that dream.
And consequently I have had the burden – undertaken very willingly, of being with couples in times of difficulty, and sadly when that love has been damaged, abused or destroyed. It is obvious to me that this has also been the ministry of Pope Francis and so he has used the depth of his experience in writing this letter “Amoris Laetitia.”
We translate “Amoris Laetitia” as “The Joy of Love.” But “Laetitia” is a special kind of joy. I call it “excited” joy. When we watch a dawn or sunset, when we celebrate a birthday, or dance with a friend – our joy comes bubbling out of the deep recesses of our belly, it takes over our whole personality. It is infectious! You only have to see Pope Francis’ smiling face to realise that “joy” is in his heart!
“Amoris Laetitia” is a long letter which can put people off, but I have been impressed by a study guide available free from the National Catholic Reporter in USA (www.ncronline.org/products). This makes the letter easy to digest and it has excellent questions so that a couple or a group (or family) can read it together.
“Amoris Laetitia” is a controversial document, consequently even bishops and Cardinals have publicly disagreed with the Pope. This fact has proved to me how few bishops have really been involved in celebrating marriages or been involved in preparation or marriage counselling. Pope Francis says that there can be no black and white laws governing every marriage and we priests and families need to do a lot of listening before making judgments. He emphasizes that couples have to make their own decisions trusting their conscience formed and guided by the Holy Spirit. None of us can be the conscience for anyone else.
Pope Francis was guided by what we call a “Synod of Bishops”, from all over the world. The synod met twice and the discussions were very public. At the end of the meetings they conveyed their deliberations to the Pope for his decision. Pope Francis reflected on their statements, writing “Amoris Laetitia” nearly a year later.
Our Pope never writes formally, a style that represents so many Papal documents; you can imagine yourself being in conversation with him. He also does not just repeat formal teaching but uses his imagination to flesh out that teaching. “Fruitful love” implies having children but what else does it mean? As the NCR Study Guide repeats Pope Francis saying, “Biological procreation is not the only way to be fruitful.” The Pope also mentions adoption, caring for the outcasts, raising teenage mothers and elder care. It provides a way for me as a priest to share the fruitful love of parents. The Pope also emphasizes the fruitfulness of our love necessary in the wider human family. I think of the care we need to give to homeless refugee children.
Loving is not just a physical activity but involves our whole being 24 hours a day. I learnt that from Marriage Encounter, and how important it is to keep showing love. Pope Francis says in par. 127, “Tenderness..is a sign of love free from selfish possessiveness. It makes us approach a person with immense respect and a certain dread of causing them harm or taking away their freedom.” If only this were part of our marriage preparation programs!
Every married person knows that their love is not always perfect. How easy it is to have an argument, to treat your partner abusively. Over time this can destroy the love that was promised in the sacrament. Bishop John Heaps (deceased bishop in Sydney,Australia) wrote.a powerful book “A Love That Dares To Question” in which he says forthrightly that “sin destroys a marriage.” Just as sin destroys the effects of receiving Eucharist, and the profession of faith in Baptism, it destroys the promised love of marriage. Marriage Tribunals generally try to establish that the marriage was not a valid marriage in the beginning. False promises, lack of maturity can easily be observed in many marriages; if we even think “I will love you until…., or as long as…., then the marriage promises are not shared since couples give each other the sacrament. But people have also said to me, “We were so happy until he/she met someone else, until our children became difficult teenagers, until work and ambition took over.” A partner’s depression can become impossible to live with despite the promise to love “in good times and in bad”! We know these things happen and that sometimes separation is the only solution.
We also know that resulting loneliness can be killing. In meeting an understanding person another love can begin. Many find it impossible to face a tribunal. The hurt can be difficult to revisit; it can be difficult to prove what we “felt”! There are many reasons why we cannot go through a legal process.
This is where Pope Francis seems to contradict the “only after a marriage is annulled” process commanded by the church before a second marriage. It is a reason why some bishops and cardinals refuse to accept “Amoris Laetitia”. I have to say though, as a priest who has seen great suffering, Pope Francis is offering a merciful alternative.
He speaks of our conscience under the influence of the Holy Spirit, guiding us to make a decision. Of course we can deceive ourselves; that is why we are taught to pray before making serious decisions, even seeking help from wise and prudent friends. This helps establish authenticity.
The fact that a marriage cannot then be celebrated, forces people into difficult decisions and it seems they are cut off from the love of Christ in the Eucharist or in the sacrament of Reconciliation. We have to ask ourselves, “Is this what God wants?”
The Study Guide asks, “Might this mean readmittance to Communion for those who are divorced and remarried and do not have annulments? Perhaps, Francis purposefully leaves these and other discernments to particular people involved in particular situations rather than trying to create a law that would universally apply to all.”
‘We are asked to take up the difficult and time consuming task of accompanying others toward the light of Christ. This requires patience, generosity and love, about which we have read much already in this letter.”
I am thrilled with this letter of Pope Francis. It has “heart” and is, I think, the mind of Jesus. But people who are suffering will not know about it unless we tell them. We all need to be involved!