Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
In my previous column, I said two things about Pope Francis’ recent post-synodal exhortation “The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetita).” First, I insisted, Pope Francis is not trying to change the church’s teachings about marriage and family; and second, Pope Francis is calling the whole church to better pastoral care for families in the cultural crisis of the modern West. The crisis of families is deep and pervasive; our care for families must therefore also be deep and extensive. So then, we should ask ourselves, what does good pastoral care for families look like?
“Pastoral care for families needs to make it clear that the Gospel of the family responds to the deepest expectations of the human person: a response to each one’s dignity and fulfillment in reciprocity, communion and fruitfulness. This consists not merely in presenting a set of rules, but in proposing values that are clearly needed today, even in the most secularized of countries.” (Joy of Love, #201).
God’s plan for marriage and family is clearly taught by our Lord Jesus Christ. Marriage is the path of holiness in which one man and one woman join together (Gen 2:24), fully and for the whole of life (Jn 2:10), in a union which is exclusive and faithful (Mt 19:8), fruitful in children and in virtue (Mt 19:14), and endures until death (Mt 19:6). This is the plan that “responds to our deepest expectations.” For those called to the vocation of marriage and family life, this is the most solid foundation, precisely because this total, permanent, exclusive, fruitful love corresponds to God’s love for us.
“The pastoral care of engaged and married couples should be centered on the marriage bond, assisting couples not only to deepen their love but also to overcome problems and difficulties. This involves not only helping them to accept the church’s teaching and to have recourse to her valuable resources, but also offering practical programs, sound advice, proven strategies and psychological guidance. All this calls for a pedagogy of love…. It is also important to remind them of the availability of the sacrament of Reconciliation…” (Joy of Love, #211).
The marriage bond is that same union, having the characteristics of Christ’s perfect love (total, permanent, fruitful and exclusive). Good pastoral care helps people to accept these truths and to build their new married life on them. The church sets before married couples the example of Christ’s perfect love to help us see how much God truly loves us. Husbands and wives should aspire to self-sacrificing love, just as Christ loves us (his spotless bride). Especially, good pastoral care remains in touch with the sacraments, above all the sacrament of confession, which we all need throughout our life as we struggle against the reality of sin.
“This calls for a pedagogical process that involves renunciation” (Joy of Love, #147). Not everything that the world offers is consistent with Christ’s perfect love, and God’s plan for marriage and family. To follow God’s plan, we must learn how to say “no” to sin, and sometimes even to good things, for the sake of the best things. “This conviction on the part of the church has often been rejected as opposed to human happiness” (Joy of Love, #147).
Pope Francis goes on to quote Benedict XVI’s encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est.” The church, indeed, does not say “no” to human happiness or human flourishing, but the world falsely claims many things lead to those ends, which in fact do not. Good pastoral care offers these truths and practical guidance for how to say “yes” to the best that God offers, and therefore to say “no” to whatever is a different path.
Pope Francis offers some of that practical wisdom in this exhortation. “The importance of the virtues needs to be included. Among these, chastity proves invaluable for the genuine growth of love between persons” (Joy of Love, #206).
Two of the most pervasive, and most destructive, lies of the culture about marriage are that artificial birth control is necessary and good, and that pornography is natural and harmless. Both of these are huge lies and essential for accepting the “culture of death.” Both become extremely destructive of the virtue of chastity, and therefore of the vocation of marriage itself. Good pastoral care helps people to understand the negative consequences of these practices, and to choose better ones for their and their family’s health.
The fruit of chastity is openness to life. “The family is the setting in which a new life is not only born but also welcomed as a gift of God” (Joy of Love, #166). This gratitude is fundamental to faith and to family life. It’s rooted, of course, in humility. The more we strive to be humble and grateful before God, the more room we have for loving others and therefore, the more open we will be to allowing others to share our life. In marriage, this means openness to children, precisely because love like Christ’s always overflows.
Another practical virtue is good communication between family members. “Dialogue is essential for experiencing, expressing and fostering love in marriage and family life. Yet it can only be the fruit of a long and demanding apprenticeship… This means being ready to listen patiently and attentively to everything the other person wants to say. It requires the self-discipline of not speaking until the time is right… cultivating an interior silence that makes it possible to listen to the other person without mental or emotional distractions. Do not be rushed, put aside all of your own needs and worries, and make space. Often the other spouse does not need a solution to his or her problems, but simply to be heard…” (Joy of Love, #136-7).
Good pastoral care helps family members listen to each other in love and respect. We need to learn and practice this in moments that aren’t critical, in order to be able to practice such listening in moments that are.
“It is becoming more and more common to think that, when one or both partners no longer feel fulfilled, or things have not turned out the way they wanted, sufficient reason exists to end the marriage” (Joy of Love, #237). Part of our culture’s crisis of marriage is this shallowness of commitment. Good pastoral care cultivates a deeper understanding of commitment, not rooted in mere emotional or physical satisfaction, but in the imitation of Christ’s perfect, sacrificial love, which is the source of joy.
When Christ is our foundation and teacher, we can strive to be more faithful, committed and persevering, no matter what life may throw at us. Please continue to pray for all married couples, no matter what situation they find themselves. May God’s grace and mercy sustain them in love.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City