PHOENIX — The synodal process that resulted in Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (Love in the Family), informally known as “The Joy of Love,” took place at the highest levels of the Church — but local pastors will be responsible for sharing his message with the faithful, including those who have divorced and remarried.

“The exhortation calls us to accompany Catholics, to clearly present the truth, challenge them with the message of the Gospel and repentance, and help them set their lives straight,” said Father Bryce Sibley, pastor and chaplain of Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

The exhortation “confirms what I am doing and what a lot of priests are doing.”

Father Sibley’s statement may surprise Catholics who have scanned headlines that trumpet a new era of dramatic accommodation for divorced-and-remarried Catholics and others who have drifted to the margins of the Church. But the priest’s initial reaction reflects strong enthusiasm for the document from many pastors interviewed by the Register, even as some worry that ambiguous language in parts of the exhortation could stir confusion.

The excitement comes from the completion of a two-part synodal process that sparked intense controversy, but also spurred the search for new solutions to the decline of marriage, weak preparation for engaged couples and outreach to alienated Catholics.

“I tell people, ‘The exhortation has not created new laws or new dogmas, but it is appropriate for our time,’” Father Ernesto Reynoso, adjunct judicial vicar of the Diocese of Phoenix, told the Register.

“There is so much confusion in the world regarding marriage and family, and the apostolic exhortation is a good way for us to see what the universal Church is doing to address these problems. It helps us appreciate the beauty of the faith and the challenges of the modern world.”

 

Pastors With Disparate Flocks

Fathers Reynoso and Sibley minister to Catholics from disparate regions and demographic groups. A native of Mexico with a degree in canon law from The Catholic University of America, Father Reynoso helps Latino Catholics address impediments that bar them from marrying in the Church. Father Sibley, a college chaplain, prepares engaged couples for the sacrament of matrimony and often confronts the issue of cohabitation.

Both priests applauded the exhortation’s strong treatment of issues related to marriage preparation, and they are inspired by the Pope’s discourse on love, which offers a powerful antidote to a culture that questions the value of an “exclusive and indissoluble union” between a man and a woman.

Father Reynoso emphasized the need to improve religious formation for Hispanic immigrants, a large and growing portion of the Church in this country. And when he works with couples to investigate obstacles to a sacramental marriage, he learns that some were under pressure to marry as teenagers, and so never freely consented to the union, while others had grown apart from the spouses they left behind and hoped to start fresh.

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis advises pastors to clearly state Church teaching, but also “avoid judgments that do not take into account the complexity of various situations.”

Pastors must be “attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition.” The Pope also suggests that some pastors find “it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.”

As Father Reynoso sees it, “Pope Francis is inspiring and inviting us to take time and listen.

“If it is not possible for a Catholic to marry in the Church, we need to consider the best way to welcome and guide him or her toward a conversion of heart.”

 

Alternative Response Rejected

During the synod, the German bishops floated an alternative response to help Catholics in such predicaments. This plan would involve a priest confessor guiding the penitent on a “path of reflection and penance” that could lead them back to reception of the Eucharist.

The German bishops said this so-called “internal forum” (forum internum), conducted in private, would “contribute to the personal formation of conscience and to a clarification to what extent access to the sacraments is possible.”

While some commentators have suggested that the exhortation implicitly approved the internal-forum option, Father Reynoso said the Diocese of Phoenix has no plans to adopt that approach “because this does not reflect Christ’s view. We are confusing [the penitents] and not helping them to live a holy life.”

That said, most pastors fully agree with the Holy Father’s recognition of the diversity and “complexity of various situations” that come to their attention. While some practicing Catholics may imagine a straightforward situation in which the person consciously chose to enter a civil marriage in violation of Church teaching, many stories are more complex and require the pastor’s careful attention.

 

‘Grace Is Being Given’

Father Jeffrey Gubbiotti, a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn., has accompanied many Catholics who cannot return to the sacraments and must decide whether and how they will continue to be part of the parish community.

“Some come to Mass, they hear the readings, and while they cannot receive Communion, grace is being given,” said Father Gubbiotti, who now serves as vocations director for the archdiocese.

Long hours spent in the confessional and in counseling sessions at the rectory have made him more attuned to the struggles of such Catholics, including those who were left behind by an unfaithful spouse and entered a second marriage, in part, to give stability to their children.

Father Gubbiotti is pleased that the exhortation follows in the wake of the annulment reforms introduced last year. Perhaps the most relevant change is the elimination of the need for a second tribunal's ratification of the decision, so long as there is no appeal. That shift has sped up the process.

With the voluntary dropping of fees and a simplified packet for applicants developed by the Hartford Archdiocese, annulments are now “more accessible,” he said, crediting Pope Francis with these changes.

 

Measure of Apprehension

But the controversy that accompanied the two-step synodal process and the headlines framing the exhortation as a “game changer” that permits the relaxation of Church discipline on the Eucharist have also provoked apprehension from some pastors.

When the Register contacted one Washington-based pastor for this story, he replied that he had no plans to read the document and questioned its overall value.

Meanwhile, Catholic pastors who enjoy a strong following on Catholic news outlets and social media offered dueling judgments of the exhortation and its message.

In an April 13 column posted on Crisis, Father George Rutler, the pastor of St. Michael’s Church in New York City and a well-known author, outlined his misgivings regarding the exhortation, including “a lack of clarity in the text” and harsh comments on pastors’ treatment of penitents in the confessional.

“Any parish priest should wonder at the description of the confessional as a ‘torture chamber,’” said Father Rutler. “While it is only human when conflicted by guilt and uncertainty to approach the sacrament of reconciliation with trepidation, the radiance of that sacrament is inestimable in the life of the typical priest and penitent alike, and the agony of many souls and of the Church in our day can be traced in great measure to neglect of the gracious confessional.

“Speaking only of my own parish, in my confessional is a picture of the Prodigal Son and not the Grand Inquisitor.”

 

‘Pastoral Exhortation’

But Father Dwight Longenecker, the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., and an author, had a different response to the exhortation.

“What strikes me about this document is that it is first and foremost a pastoral exhortation,” noted Father Longenecker in an April 9 column on Patheos.com. “While it fully affirms the traditional teaching of the Church regarding marriage, it also makes a valiant attempt to deal with the messiness of real life.” 

The Pope’s willingness to grapple with real-life problems deeply resonated with Father Longenecker. He noted that faithful pastors follow the path of Jesus and help the faithful “match up their lives with the teachings of the Church.”

His column outlined a range of scenarios that pastors tackle, including divorced-and-remarried Catholics who were told they could receive the Eucharist, only to learn otherwise, many years after they started a family.

“I am an orthodox pastor. I would never tell someone who is divorced and remarried, ‘You can come to Communion,’” Father Longenecker told the Register. “I would say, ‘The way we should work on this is through the Church’s annulment procedure, and I would encourage them to receive a blessing” during Communion.

The important first step, he said, is that the pastor takes time to talk with troubled Catholics and guide their path.

“It was Jesus who knelt in the dust with the woman taken in adultery. It was the scribes and Pharisees who stood at a distance accusing her of breaking the law,” Father Longenecker explained in his column.

“His response to them and his response to her, it seems to me, is exactly what Amoris Laetitia is all about.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.