Posted On October, 21 - 2016
Pastoral Reflections on Amoris Laetitia
Amoris Laetitia is a document which addresses an extraordinarily wide and varied scenario. It is the fruit of a unique process wished for by Pope Francis himself and which included worldwide consultations and the consideration of two sessions Synods of Bishops.
Amoris Laetitia itself is then Pope Francis effort in drawing together the main strands of this process and presenting them to the universal Church. Pope Francis has offered us the gift of a remarkable, challenging and insightful document. Our task today is to determine how we, Church in Ireland, wish to respond to that gift and to that challenge that Pope Francis has proposed.
My first hope for this event is that you, who represent families from across Ireland, will challenge the Church leadership and structures to take Amoris Laetitia seriously and to come up with concrete ideas for the renewal of marriage and family in our Irish Church and society.
Amoris Laetitia is an encyclopaedic document and like all encyclopaedic documents much of its most valuable content runs the risk of being by-passed by a preoccupation with just some of its aspects. Admittedly there is a worse scenario: that of not really addressing the document at all or simply paying lip service to it. This gathering is vital in ensuring that this does not happen.
I was thinking the other evening of how to address today’s gathering, when I came across recent comments of the Archbishop of Quebec City in Canada, Cardinal Gerard Lacroix, which struck many of the very same notes that I had been reflecting on.
Firstly he said that he was disappointed that so much media focus on the Amoris Laetitia was only about questions of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried and homosexuality. “I am sad”, he said, “because we are missing the most beautiful aspects of this exhortation if we just focus on that.”
I would add – and this is a point that we could easily miss – focussing on those issues in an isolated way, much comment – not just by the media but also by many bishops – has ended up in people not seeing the creative pastoral approach within which Pope Francis wishes us to deal with these two important issues which require urgent, intense and caring attention within the Church. Pope Francis’ thought always moves outside the conventional box. We owe it to him to look more attentively at the pastoral approach of Pope Francis.
One problem is that the Church has not always been good at presenting its own teaching effectively. The challenge is, as Cardinal Lacroix reflected, that the Church has a long history and tradition, wonderful doctrine, but today “what we really need to do is find a way to reach our brothers and sisters and the young couples and families so they will discover this [doctrine and tradition] as a way of living – that love and marriage is a way of living that is a way to happiness”.
Pope Francis frames his reflection on marriage and the family around the concept of mercy. Amoris Laetitia has not been an un-controversial document. Bishops and Cardinals have publicly criticised the document or have tried to place their own interpretation on it in such a way as to fail to grasp the insights of Pope Francis. They fear that the emphasis on mercy will weaken the promulgation of the truth. One commentator, the Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, noted how many synod bishops were uneasy with the emphasis on mercy. They said that people need much more to rediscover a sense of sin. There is certainly truth in that.
But he adds: “The Gospel proclamation that the Lord has died for us, has died for me, is not the proclamation of sin. The proclamation of the Gospel is that of mercy: in the light of the mercy of the Lord’s forgiveness, I understand my sin, I comprehend my sin. If there is no perception of a merciful God, the sense of sin is merely a sense of guilt, which is often useless.”
“The name of God is Mercy” is the title that Pope Francis gave to a recent book. It is not just a catchy title; it says something about the very essence of being a Christian. If we have difficulty in understanding that God’s name is mercy, or if we have some name of our own for God, then we may well have ended up with a false God.
We have then to ask: “If the name of God is mercy, how did we end up, especially in Ireland, with the idea of a harsh condemnatory God who seems to wish to judge us in our sinfulness and humiliate us?” If we have created such a God then we misunderstand both God and sin. Sinfulness is not about breaking arbitrary rules: sinfulness is failure to love and failure to be merciful.
When I was in the seminary we learned much about sexual sins. Amoris Laetitia talks above all about paths to spiritual growth to help couples and families find true fulfilment and freedom in the Gospel and the Church’s rich teaching on marriage.
There is another challenge for the Church in Ireland. The Church in Ireland for far too long started out from the position that the majority of Irish men and women understood and accepted the Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage. As time went on and the culture of Ireland changed, the numbers decreased and the cultural factors which affect all western countries are just as active in Ireland as elsewhere. The responses to the Synodal consultations showed how this is a problem not just in Ireland but worldwide. We tend to underestimate just how much, despite affection for their faith, many parents and indeed even children are deeply affected by the secularisation of culture. Faith-language may not be easily or directly accessible to their vision of life.
The question arises today: how do we spread this logic of mercy in a changing society where the overall impact of faith in God within our society seems to be diminishing? Secularisation may or may not be hostile, but when it no longer understands faith as relevant, then our faith-language becomes a foreign language to many. Pope Benedict said that our challenge today is “to speak about God to people who no longer know where to find him”.
Pope Francis pastoral method wishes us to address problems directly. Let me quote Father Spadaro once again: “One cannot enlighten reality without first having heard it”. We have to listen. It is not the case that we should retreat into a closed culture or into a safe comfort zone and hide.
Father Spadaro continues: “The human being is not an element extraneous to the Gospel. The Gospel is not an abstract doctrine that strikes people from the outside like a stone. It must be incarnated in lived lives, in experiences.”
You see that there is no such thing as the ideal family. There are many problems which we must address. But this does not mean that we renounce presenting an ideal, which men and women and young people can aspire to and hope to achieve.
Cardinal Lacroix notes that we are not called to dilute the Church’s teaching or diminish it but we have to find a way to interest and help our brothers and sisters to grow in it. We do this, he stresses, by accompanying people, by helping them to discern what is fragile in their lives, what is difficult, what is not up to par with what the Gospel is asking and then invite them to grow in the understanding of and fidelity to what Jesus demands. “We have nothing to impose, we have something wonderful to propose,” he said.
What we have to propose is Jesus Christ and he is the Way, the Truth and the Life. “Bringing people to a personal relationship with Christ”, the Cardinal said, “will open them to this grace and this abundant and new life. That is what we need to do. Only then will we be able to share with them all the doctrinal, bio-ethical and moral issues.” In our catechesis and preaching we have too often begun with what are the consequences of faith, with the rules and norms, without first of all leading people towards the person of Jesus himself. Indeed we have often begun by condemning those who fail, when we know that none of us comes to live the fullness of the Gospel right away.
Pope Francis recognises the difficulties we have in understanding the teaching of Jesus in our current cultures. He says that: “at times we have proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete and practical possibilities of real families” He admits that: “We find it difficult to present marriage as a more dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment rather than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful… We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.
One of the problems is that we live in a world where we judge things in black and white. We would like the Pope to say a simple yes or no on subjects which are much more complex than we wish to admit. The secular world can be just as black and white in seeking answers as are the fundamentalists on the right or the left within the Church. Pope Francis, in another text, has said that Christian morality is not “a never falling down”, but “an always getting up again, thanks to this hand which catches us”.
What can the World Meeting of Families do to help us in our path? It depends on how we wish to look on the Meeting. It could be a seven day wonder, a week of buzz and glitter and possibly even the joy of meeting with the Pope. But the World Meeting of the Families is not a sort of spiritual travelling Circus which moves around from city to city simply repeating the same performances.
Pope Francis spoke to me about the World Meeting of Families as a gift to the Irish Church. It should be a high point but a high point within a process: a process which should help us dispassionately to look to at the inadequacies of our pastoral work for families. You will remember that phrase: “We cannot enlighten reality without first having listened to it”. But we cannot be satisfied with simply listening: we have to enlighten also. Our listening should not be just at the negative.
Let me say something about which I feel strongly: do not allow ourselves to be become entangled in trying to produce definitions of the family. Family is such a transcultural value that it cannot be defined simply. We may find it hard to define, but we all recognise what is family. We should not be rushing in telling people what to do, without first of all recognising what is great and beautiful and courageous in so many Irish families.
Family is about love, no matter how imperfect and failing: it is about a love which enriches lives. I am thinking about the love of spouses, the love of parents for children. We have great families who would never think of themselves a great: they simply do their best. Where would any of us be without the love and generosity we received from our parents? That is not something old fashioned: it is something more necessary than ever. As we begin to get ready for the World Meeting of Families we should above all recognise what we ourselves and society owes to our families.
Pope Francis said to me that he considered the World Meeting of Families as a gift to the Irish Church. But his idea is not that we will receive a gift to be placed in a glass-case for ourselves. He looks on the World Meeting of Families as a gift which the Irish Church can then share with others.
When I think of the organizational challenges which the Word Meeting of Families places at my doorstep I shiver. But when I find myself at a gathering like this – yes I still shiver – but I realise also that together we will accept this gift and challenge of Pope Francis in such a way that he will be proud of us.
Archbishop of Dublin
President and host of the World Meeting of Families 2018