I woke up early with a lot of the Catholic world on this past Friday to catch the earliest possible glimpse of Pope Francis' exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). The pope wanted to challenge people, and he did. But he also penned some remarkably wise and beautiful words on how to have an enduring marriage. Here's my article for Aleteia on the chapters of Amoris Laetitia that Pope Francis wrote directly to married couples.
After nearly eighteen months of speculation, the other shoe has dropped and Pope Francis has finally issued his apostolic exhortation on the 2014-15 Synod of the Family. In true Francis fashion, he has issued a document that he hopes will challenge everyone (para. 7). Against calls for “general rules” or “immoderate … change”, he instead articulates a philosophy of accompaniment, which depends not on rules but on relationships (para. 2). In particular he urges us to cherish the good in every family situation, no matter how irregular (paras. 77, 292).
Apart from sparking an inevitable firestorm of controversy around hot-button issues, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) also directs stirringly beautiful words of encouragement and inspiration to married couples in line with the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II. Commentators have long wondered and worried if the thoughts of John Paul II would be reflected in this newest Church pronouncement on the family. The reading guide for bishops, presented earlier this week, reassured clerics that Amoris Laetitia was heavily inspired by the Theology of the Body, the former pontiff’s ground-breaking discourses on marriage and sexuality.
Amoris Laetitia combines brilliant Scriptural analysis akin to John Paul II’s with a healthy dash of Francis’ plain-spoken, homespun wisdom. Its praise of sexual and erotic love echoes Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). Pope Francis’ Chapter One on the Biblical basis of marriage tracks the journey of Adam and Eve from solitude to togetherness, and then to suffering and finally redemption through Jesus Christ (paras. 9-22), just as John Paul did II in the opening addresses of the Theology of the Body.
The two “central chapters” of Amoris Laetitia, and the ones in which Pope Francis speaks most directly to married couples, are Chapters Four and Five (paras. 6-7). Chapter Four leads us line by line through St. Paul’s much-beloved Hymn to Love in 1 Corinthians 13, while Chapter Five focuses on the fruitful love that is “a symbol of God’s inner life” (para. 11). These chapters offer the following strikingly practical insights on how to live the married vocation to the fullest.
See each other (para. 128). “We often hear in families: ’My husband does not look at me’” or “’My wife no longer looks at me, she only has eyes for our children,’” notes Pope Francis. Husbands and wives must not withhold a “look of appreciation,” a gaze of “contemplative love,” even when our spouse has become “infirm, elderly or physically unattractive,” he continues. “Much hurt and many problems result when we stop looking at one another.”
Listen to each other (paras. 100, 137, 139). “How often we hear complaints like: ‘He does not listen to me,’” adds Pope Francis. Husbands and wives show love when we “listen patiently and attentively,” exercising “the self-discipline of not speaking until the time is right.” Our ability to listen depends on whether we cultivate “interior silence” and an ability to acknowledge the worth of the other person and their perspective. “The combination of two different ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches both,” he wisely observes.
And when we finally speak, “words should be carefully chosen,” he says. “Those who love are capable of speaking words of comfort, strength, consolation, and encouragement ... not words that demean, sadden, anger or show scorn.”
Touch each other (paras. 148, 157). Authentic married love will “welcome with sincere and joyful gratitude … a caress, an embrace, a kiss and sexual union,” says Francis. The search for sexual pleasure should not resemble an obsessive insatiability, however. “Excess, lack of control or obsession with a single form of pleasure can end up weakening and tainting that very pleasure and damaging family life,” the Pope warns.
Let nothing rob you of the joy of parenthood (paras. 168, 171, 179). “Don’t let fears, worries, other people’s comments or problems lessen your joy,” Pope Francis encourages us. Children are a gift from God, and the conception of each child marks a moment when “the Creator’s eternal dream [of that child] comes true.” The Pope urges married couples, particularly those who struggle with infertility, to adopt or provide foster care, “offering the gift of a family to someone who has none.”
These nuggets of practical wisdom are a small fraction of the treasures to be found in Amoris Laetitia. The broad sweep of the document covers theological issues like the sacramentality and indissolubility of marriage, economic issues like migration and unemployment, and pastoral issues like marriage preparation, the training of priests, and care for the divorced and remarried. With reason, Pope Francis refers to the Synod proceedings as a “multi-faceted gem” and asks us to devote more than “a rushed reading” to his post-Synodal exhortation (paras. 4, 7).