In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke tells the story of how Paul and Barnabas on one of their missionary journeys went about “putting fresh heart among the believers” (Acts 4:21). Encouragement is an essential dimension of the mission of the Church and this morning Pope Francis has published what could be described as a ‘letter of encouragement’ (an ‘Apostolic Exhortation’) to the whole Church on the theme of love in the family.
‘Amoris Laetitia’ is the fruit of Pope Francis’ own reflections on two recent Synods on Marriage and the Family in 2014 and 2015. Many of us had the opportunity, for the first time, to contribute to those discussions, through the submissions we made personally or as parish groups, so the questions discussed in the letter are, in a very real sense, our questions. It is a long letter by any standards and the first thing to say about it is that it will take some time and some reflective reading to unpack it.
As most people will expect, there are no fundamental changes in the essential teaching of the Church about marriage, because that is rooted in natural law and in the teaching of Jesus himself. What is very noticeable, however, is the strongly pastoral tone of the letter. The focus is on how the Church can support men and women in living the commitments of their marriage and especially how the Church can walk with them in difficult moments, helping them to “reach the fullness of God’s plan for them”.
I very much welcome the strong emphasis on helping couples to prepare for marriage. Pope Francis clearly sees this as being far more than simply attending a pre-marriage course. “The complexity of today’s society and the challenges faced by the family,” Pope Francis says “require a great effort on the part of the whole Christian community in preparing those who are about to be married”.
Pope Francis has given us in Ireland the privilege, in 2018, of hosting an international gathering – the ‘World Meeting of Families’. This invitation, together with ‘Amoris Laetitia’ provides us with a valuable opportunity which should not be missed, to deepen our understanding of the vocation of Christian marriage and to renew the pastoral energy of the Church for supporting family life. In the coming weeks, I will be establishing a Diocesan Council for Marriage and the Family. I hope that, by September, we will be able to develop a set of resources which will help parish communities to reflect prayerfully and practically on the message of Pope Francis, and its implications for pastoral practice in our diocese.