|Jason Clouse, a photojournalist for WSMV Channel 4, interviews Bishop David Choby about Pope Francis’ postsynodal apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”). Photo by Rick Musacchio|
In his apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love),” Pope Francis offers a wide ranging discussion of the many issues facing families today and how the Church can walk with them on a journey, led by the Holy Spirit, to God’s love and mercy.
“It’s a document written in a very easy-to-read style that is primarily pastoral in nature,” Bishop David Choby said. “Certainly it’s not written to propose any new teaching with regard to the Church’s belief in terms of the nature of marriage. Rather it’s a document that seeks to express the Church’s appreciation and concern for the family as it is lived out in the world, lived out in contemporary society.”
The apostolic exhortation, signed on March 19 – the Solemnity of St. Joseph – and released to the public on April 8, is a product of two synods on the family held in 2014 and 2015. The gatherings of bishops from around the world wrestled with the many issues facing modern families and the challenges the Church faces in helping families meet those issues.
“If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations … it is understandable that neither the synod nor this exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases,” the pope wrote.
Instead, the pope urges pastors and ministers to walk with married couples and families to help them find God’s grace in their lives. “No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love,” the pope wrote. “All of us are called to keep striving towards something greater than ourselves and our families, and every family must feel this constant impulse. Let us make this journey as families, let us keep walking together. … May we never lose heart because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us.”
In preparation for the release of “Amoris Laetitia,” Bishop Choby met with people in the diocese involved in programs that prepare people for the sacrament of matrimony and minister to people in difficult marriages. Now that the exhortation is available, he wants the representatives of those programs and ministries to use the document “to evaluate how well as a diocese we do in terms of marriage preparation, how well we do in terms of supporting marriage and the family.”
“I think it will be very helpful to have this document … to help us reflect on the way in which we seek to serve the good of marriage and family life,” Bishop Choby said.
“Amoris Laetitia” will be discussed at the regular assembly of priests in the diocese that is scheduled in May, Bishop Choby said.
The exhortation won’t have much impact on the proceedings of the Diocesan Tribunal, which considers the cases of divorced Catholics seeking an annulment.
“In the tribunal, the document won’t change the way we do things,” said Father Dexter Brewer, Judicial Vicar for the Diocese of Nashville. “We listen to people’s cases and circumstances as sensitively as we can, collect the evidence at hand,” and then decide as a court whether the circumstances indicate whether the marriage was a valid sacrament, Father Brewer explained.
That process is not solely a legal matter; it also is pastoral, said Father Brewer, who also is pastor of Christ the King Church in Nashville. “At every point along the way we are mindful we’re dealing with people who are hurting,” Father Brewer said.
“It’s human nature to seek help when we’re experiencing pain,” said Janette Buchanan, who holds a graduate degree in canon law and is director of the Diocesan Tribunal.
“What struck me was that the Holy Father was asking (us to) minister to people in these situations while helping them to understand what the Church has to say,” Buchanan said. “What the pope really wants is for us to be available to people who need to discern” what they should do.
In many cases, people are simply unaware of what Church teaching is and how it applies to their situation, Father Brewer said. “I run into people who are simply mistaken,” he said. “This tribunal can’t undo choices people have made. They’ll still have to be studied properly. But there are many avenues to solutions.”
Father Brewer has seen instances where Catholics who thought they couldn’t receive Communion because they were divorced and civilly remarried, even though their first spouse had died. In that circumstance, the person can receive communion if their first spouse is dead, he explained.
In other cases, people are unaware that the circumstances of their first marriage don’t meet the criteria for a valid sacrament, which would mean they could receive an annulment, Father Brewer said.
“If people are encouraged to go speak to their pastors and pastors talk through their options, they can find out there might be a solution to their issues,” Buchanan said. “Often people don’t know what can be done. I find people don’t know this is an option.
In other instances, there might not be an easy solution when a Catholic is in a situation that does not comply with Church teaching. But the pope urges the Church not to abandon them.
“He speaks of the ideal, but then he recognizes we don’t always meet the ideal,” Father Brewer said. “The Church doesn’t abandon people because they make mistakes.”
“The Church has a responsibility to be there for us,” Buchanan added. “People’s lives are messy. Not just pastors and people in ministry but we all have the obligation to walk with people through the messiness of life.”
But walking with people doesn’t mean people are free to ignore Church teaching, Buchanan said. “There is nothing in the document to say it’s open season to do what you want,” she said.
“To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being,” Pope Francis wrote.
According to a summary of the exhortation published by the Vatican, “The Pope uses three very important verbs: guiding, discerning and integrating, which are fundamental in addressing fragile, complex or irregular situations.”
“For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it,” Pope Francis wrote.
Discernment is about people honestly confronting the circumstances of their lives and their own responsibility in creating those circumstances, Father Brewer explained. As people confront the choices they’ve made, they can recognize the sin in their choices and how to conform their life to the Gospel, he said.
“By doing that something happens to us,” Father Brewer said. “Conscience is a deep-seated whispering of the Spirit within. Breaking open the Scriptures to see the light it shines on their lives, that’s formation.”
The pope urges pastors to integrate into the life of the community even those who are in irregular situations.
“As a pastor, I could be more sensitive to people’s situations and whether they feel disconnected from the Church and the parish,” Father Brewer said. “People are often on the edges of the community because they feel the Church has pushed them to the edge. The task is to make them feel more welcome. I think that’s what (the pope) would want. Help them feel part of the community as much as anybody.”
While the apostolic exhortation addresses irregular family situations, the pope spends more time discussing ways the Church can help strengthen marriages and families, including ways to improve marriage preparation for engaged couples, extending pastoral care to newly-married couples, advice about how spouses should treat one another, how to educate children in the family, seeing beyond the nuclear family to include relationships with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and relatives of relatives, and the spirituality of family love.
“Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown,” Pope Francis wrote.
The apostolic exhortation is “broad ranging in terms of the Church’s interest in the health and stability of marriage and family life,” Bishop Choby said. “The document certainly will help us to reflect on what we need to do as a diocese both to promote and strengthen and nurture married life and family life for couples and families within the diocese.”
The apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” can be read in its entirety on the Vatican website: www.vatican.va.