Michael A. Hayes
Pope Francis’ post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia ‘The Joy of Love’ is his response to two Synods on the Family which he convoked in 2014 and 2015. The process of both Synods was an exploration of families in the context of today’s world and they encouraged a broader vision and a ‘renewed awareness of the importance of marriage and the family’(2). While establishing the importance of unity of teaching and practice for the Church there is a pastoral response that ‘does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it’(3). This is important for Francis as ‘the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth’(3).
In the context of the Year of Mercy the Exhortation is timely: ‘first, because it represents an invitation to Christian families to value the gifts of marriage and the family, and to preserve 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’(5).
For Francis discernment must begin with a reflection on the scriptures and this is where he begins Amoris Laetitia: the vision of families found in the scriptures: ‘the Bible is full of families, births, love stories and family crises’(8). From there he addresses the experiences and challenges of families, returning then to Jesus who begins his public ministry with the miracle at the wedding feast of Cana; he explores love in marriage and love made faithful, he draws out some pastoral perspectives and calls for a better education of children and the role parents have in the moral development of their children. But it is in chapter eight, ‘Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness’ that the Exhortation brings mercy to the fore. Here we have an invitation to mercy and the pastoral discernment in situations that do not fully match what the Lord proposes. He uses the metaphor of a field hospital to describe the Church. ‘The Church illumined by the gaze of Jesus Christ, she turns with love to those who participate in her in an incomplete manner, recognizing that the grace of God works also in their lives by giving them the courage to do good, to care for one another in love and to be of service to the community in which they live and work’ (291). This approach is also echoed in the Pope’s call for a year of mercy where ‘the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence’(291).
Reaffirming the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage as the consecration of the couple through the sacrament whereby they are granted the ‘grace to be a domestic church and a leaven of a new life in society’(292), he notes that for the Synod Fathers the Church at the same time ‘does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage’(292). The Exhortation reiterates the call to gradualness in pastoral care first proposed by St John Paul II when dealing with those who find themselves in irregular unions. The Pope uses the verbs: guiding, discerning, and integrating. Echoing the Synod Fathers Pope Francis is clear that ‘there is a need to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations and to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition’ (296). The logic of the Gospel is not to condemn but to reach out to everyone needing help to find his or her way of participating in the ecclesial community so that they too can experience being ‘touched by an unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous mercy’(297).
The exhortation speaks of a process of accompaniment and discernment designed for an awareness of the individual’s situation before God. The Pope sees discernment as a dynamic process and offers five conditions for this process of discernment to happen: humility; discretion; a love for the Church and her teaching; a sincere search for God’s will; and a desire to make a more perfect response to God’s will. In accompanying an individual through this process fraternal charity must be the first law because ‘by thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God’ (305).
For Pope Francis pastoral discernment provides a framework ‘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 on the outermost fringes of society’ (312).