As we enter the final months of preparation for next August’s World Meeting of Families here in Dublin, it is a good time to revisit Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter on the family, Amoris Laetitia.
What I have done here is to select a key idea from each of the nine chapters. This is not really a summary of the document, but rather a more personal take on the themes which jumped out at from me from the pages of the Pope’s work.
“Against this backdrop of love so central to the Christian experience of marriage and the family, another virtue stands out, one often overlooked in our world of frenetic and superficial relationships. It is tenderness. Let us consider the moving words of Psalm 131… [Here] the union between the Lord and his faithful ones is expressed in terms of parental love. Here we see a delicate and tender intimacy between mother and child: the image is that of a babe sleeping in his mother’s arms after being nursed” (Amoris Laetitia, 28).
Pope Francis has at times called for a “revolution of tenderness.” “And what is tenderness?” he asked in that TED talk he gave last April. “It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands.”
Think of the motherly tenderness of Mary. How tender her concern for the newlyweds of Cana whose celebrations are about to be marred by the wine running out. See how tenderly she accompanies Jesus on the Way of the Cross through the streets of Jerusalem, and then standing by him on Golgotha. We can imagine how, on Holy Saturday, she gently and kindly gathered together the crest-fallen apostles who had abandoned her son the previous day.
We think of ourselves. Are our relationships superficial? Is our lifestyle a bit frenetic? Are we harsh at times with those around us, especially other members of our own families?
“We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye. Narcissism makes people incapable of looking beyond themselves, beyond their own desires and needs. Yet sooner or later, those who use others end up being used themselves, manipulated and discarded by that same mindset. It is also worth noting that breakups often occur among older adults who seek a kind of ‘independence’ and reject the ideal of growing old together, looking after and supporting one another.” (AL, 39)
Francis often warns of our disposable culture – especially insofar as what we dispose of are human beings: friends who are dumped, relatives ignored, or even spouses abandoned. We don’t keep to the commitments we have made, or won’t even make them in the first place.
Admittedly life-long commitments are hard to make. We don’t merely give a gift, but we wrap ourselves up (think of a bride’s wedding dress) and say to another human being: “Here you are. I’m yours – for keeps. And there are no terms and conditions.”
The Pope identifies narcissism as the big enemy of commitment. Remember poor old Narcissus, the handsome Greek son of a river god who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and wasted away there gazing at himself.
Well narcissism is alive and makes us think we’re too precious to give ourselves away: spouses think that the other half did much better in making the match, and younger people think that they are too precious to give just to any old mortal … or even to the immortal God for that matter.
“The family is the image of God, who is a communion of persons” (AL, 71). God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have painted their self-portrait in the human family: the union of a man and woman who say “I do” to the project of staying with each other “forever” and co-operating with God in bringing children into the world.
When we see this we must remember that we looking at an icon of the Blessed Trinity; and if the Blessed Trinity is infinitely beautiful, then his image must also be incredibly beautiful. Do we realise what a marvel the family is, despite all the problems all families tend to have?
Even the IKEA motto is pointing in this direction: “Home is the most important place in the world.” The beauty of our home is not the size of the house, or the great furniture (IKEA or not) inside. Its beauty is only in the love that is shared there. This love is a proclamation of God’s love.
In debates about the family, we must keep this in sight says Pope Francis, so that “Our teaching on marriage and the family cannot fail to be inspired and transformed by this message of love and tenderness; otherwise, it becomes nothing more than the defence of a dry and lifeless doctrine” (AL, 59).
“In a lyrical passage of Saint Paul, we see some of the features of true love: Love is patient, love is kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.” (AL, 90) … We encounter problems whenever we think that relationships or people ought to be perfect, or when we put ourselves at the centre and expect things to turn out our way. Then everything makes us impatient, everything makes us react aggressively. Unless we cultivate patience, we will always find excuses for responding angrily. We will end up incapable of living together, antisocial, unable to control our impulses, and our families will become battlegrounds. That is why the word of God tells us: ‘Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice’ (Eph. 4:31)” (AL, 92).
How easily we grow impatient in the family setting, getting angry, and believing we have every right to be angry! Insisting that things ought be the way I want them to be and getting very annoyed when they are not.
Pope Francis points out that a live and let live approach is key to patience: fellow family members don’t have to be the way I would like them to be: “Patience takes root when I recognise that other people also have a right to live in this world, just as they are. It does not matter if they hold me back, if they unsettle my plans, or annoy me by the way they act or think, or if they are not everything I want them to be. Love always has an aspect of deep compassion that leads to accepting the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like” (AL, 92).
“We often hear that ours is ‘a society without fathers’. In Western culture, the father figure is said to be symbolically absent, missing or vanished. Manhood itself seems to be called into question.” (AL, 176) … “God sets the father in the family so that by the gifts of his masculinity he can be close to his wife and share everything, joy and sorrow, hope and hardship. And to be close to his children as they grow” (AL, 177).
Pope Francis describes how the absence of the father figure in families is due in part to an over-reaction to the excessive authority of the father figure in the family in the past. The father is in a tricky situation as “Nowadays authority is often considered suspect” (AL, 176).
Maybe dads don’t really feel their place is in the home, or don’t know what role they have there, so feel more comfortable playing the role of the hunter-gatherer and stay all evening at work, or all weekend on the golf-course, or even on the computer in his room. This is a serious situation; for as is well known child and teen delinquency is largely due to “a shortage of love from the father” (Pope Francis, General Audience, Paul VI Audience Hall, Jan. 28, 2015).
Mothers too have an important role to play in affirming, not supplanting nor undermining, the authority of the father in the family.
6. Crisis management
“The life of every family is marked by all kinds of crises, yet these are also part of its dramatic beauty. Couples should be helped to realise that surmounting a crisis need not weaken their relationship; instead, it can improve, settle and mature the wine of their union … when marriage is seen as a challenge that involves overcoming obstacles, each crisis becomes an opportunity to let the wine of their relationship age and improve ” (AL, 232).
Nearly all marriages have crises associated with navigating the differences between spouses, coping with in-laws, bringing up children (as someone observed: “Every year civilisation is invaded by hordes of wild barbarians … they’re called infants.”); dealing with adolescents; facing the empty nest syndrome ; as well as a host of personal worries regarding health, finances etc.
The Pope’s advice is not to run away from a crisis, nor pretend that it is not happening nor just hope it will go away. Never face a crisis alone: speak heart to heart with someone; seek help.
A crisis is in fact a moment of potential growth in your marriage. The word “crisis” comes from the Greek for “decision” and so a marriage crisis is a moment in which a spouse has the opportunity to say: “I’m sticking at this, I’m making this work.”
And remember real love is itself a decision, not a sweet feeling.
“In our own day, dominated by stress and rapid technological advances, one of the most important tasks of families is to provide an education in hope” (AL, 275).
Education children in hope is closely related to teaching children the value of waiting for good things: of delaying gratification. Today a large part of delayed gratification centres on the proper use of mobile phones: “This does not mean preventing children from playing with electronic devices, but rather finding ways to help them develop their critical abilities and not to think that digital speed can apply to everything in life” (AL, 275).
The character of the adult in large part depends on the ability, learnt in childhood, to restrain one’s impulses. The great World War I army chaplain, Fr Willie Doyle SJ, when he was only a child at his home in Dalkey, Dublin, was seen by the housemaid in front of a mirror berating himself for over-doing it at a meal, saying “Willie, you’re not getting one more biscuit!”. His ability to forego satisfying his immediate needs was one of the qualities which made him a great saint, able to give his lives for soldiers on the battle fields of Flanders in 1917.
“We cannot forget that ‘mercy is not only the working of the Father; it becomes a criterion for knowing who his true children are. In a word, we are called to show mercy because mercy was first shown to us’” (AL, 310).
All of us, and particularly priests hearing confessions, are faced occasionally with the task of balancing two things which sometimes appear to be diametrically opposed or contradictory: truth (or justice) on the one hand and love (or mercy) on the other. Some of us can err on the side of truth/justice – a bit like a stern father. Others err in the opposite direction – and in this they are more like indulgent mothers.
However both elements are needed and complement each other – as do mothers and fathers. As St Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:15, we must learn to assert the truth in love (veritatem facientes in caritate).
One to the exclusion of the other may do more harm than good (too much justice and we get discouraged, too much mercy and we get lax!). The Pope applies this to the situations where moral weakness makes itself all too apparent in marriage: marital infidelity, divorce, second unions and so.
Even such failings must be met with mercy and “This is not sheer romanticism or a lukewarm response to God’s love, which always seeks what is best for us, for ‘mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness which she shows to believers; nothing in her preaching and her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy’” (AL, 310).
“The Council stated that lay spirituality ‘will take its particular character from the circumstances of… married and family life’, and that ‘family cares should not be foreign’ to that spirituality” (AL, 313). Pope Francis concludes Amoris Laetitia calling to mind what Vatican Council II had taught about marriage, namely that the vast majority of men and women grow to maturity and holiness in and through family life.
He goes on to say that “The Lord’s presence dwells in real and concrete families, with all their daily troubles and struggles, joys and hopes” (AL, 315), and in three things in particular: prayer, self-giving, and care.
Regarding prayer he says that “A few minutes can be found each day to come together before the living God, to tell him our worries, to ask for the needs of our family, to pray for someone experiencing difficulty, to ask for help in showing love, to give thanks for life and for its blessings, and to ask Our Lady to protect us beneath her maternal mantle.” (AL, 318).
The second feature – “the experience of belonging completely to another person” – (AL, 319), is unique to a married couple and represented by their wedding rings which say very proclaim that they have already given themselves to another person.
Finally, “the family has always been the nearest ‘hospital’” (AL, 321), by which he meaning it is special place of love, care and hospitality: for the spouses, the children, relatives and even strangers and the poor.
Pope Francis concludes the letter with these words which we can apply to our journey to the World Meeting of Families in August: “Let us make this journey as families, let us keep walking together. What we have been promised is greater than we can imagine. May we never lose heart because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us” (AL, 325).