From Pope to Page to People

Many popes have contributed to Church writing in response to the moral crises of their times. But their words are often lost in translation. The message never reaches the majority of us because it isn’t circulated to average people. Or the message is inaccessible because its language is theological and removed from daily life. 

The Joy of Love has the potential to be different. This is truly a papal “exhortation”—an encouragement to do something. Through several years of information gathering, Pope Francis has taken the pulse of twenty-first century family life and responded with an inspired letter to all of the faithful. He wants us to re-examine the gospel vision of family relationships and stretch ourselves to new heights of merciful love.

As I paged through Amoris Laetitia, I found myself taking screenshots of excerpts that applied to my friends so that I could text or email them the passages. The chapters also lend themselves to becoming study materials for small groups, parish retreats, or marriage prep courses. But if The Joy of Love is really going to impact the Church, it will also have to be digested in 2016 “bytes.” People will need to create memes, write blog posts, and tweet their favorite lines. Hopefully this will lead others to connect more deeply and prayerfully with the text itself, as they encounter its wisdom.

Here are eight “gifts” that Amoris Laetitia offers the Church of 2016, to help pique your interest.

  1. Accessible language. The Pope uses familiar sayings like “the family that prays together, stays together” (227). He quotes Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti to illustrate the social dimension of marriage (181). He gives relatable examples, like when he highlights St. Valentine’s Day as a celebration where the Church’s motivation seems to lag behind commercial interests’ (208). This is one piece of Church writing that you don’t need a dictionary to read. Enjoy it…
  2. The power of positivity. The exhortation focuses on the attractive qualities of the Gospel and the Christian vision for families. If you’re tired of hearing people complain that marriage is going down the drain without giving a solution, you will appreciate the “positive ammunition” found in the second half of Chapter Four.
  3. Under-referenced scriptures. In his Chapter One scriptural foundation of marriage and family, Pope Francis dips into nearly every part of the Bible. He cites Wisdom literature—Proverbs and Sirach—and Psalm 128 in a description of ideal home life. He counter-balances this with examples of suffering and family brokenness in the scriptures, using passages from the gospels, Genesis, and Job. The treatment shows his personal relationship with Scripture, and the breadth of the Bible’s insight for families.
  4. Twenty-first century catechesis. Even if you feel uneasy about Chapter Eight, on “Accompanying, Discerning, and Integrating Weakness,” you can’t deny that it is a pastoral response to moral confusion about gender, sex, and love that has accelerated in recent decades in the wake of the sexual revolution. The Pope’s “logic of pastoral mercy” (238) is tethered firmly to modern—and new—realities. With discernment and sensitivity, he is guiding the Catholic Church to meet these challenges with patience, mercy, and engagement: responses that reveal the love of Christ. He is not compromising Church teaching, but helping us apply the gospel to modern, complex situations.
  5. Models for relating. Need some practical suggestions for improving your relationship with your spouse, an elderly relative, your children, a divorced parishioner, or others? Pope Francis devotes space to each of these relationships, giving ideas for how to approach them. Couples, for example, can let crises become opportunities to “let the wine of their relationship age and improve.”(232) Parents can discover where their children “stand in terms of their convictions, goals, desires, and dreams,” (261) instead of merely worrying about their whereabouts and friends. Francis is not short on ideas!
  6. Tools for evangelism. Chapter Five on “Love made fruitful,” reminds us of the missionary purpose of marriage and family. For Christian families that are tightknit and looking for ways to turn their love for God outward, this section is especially helpful. And for those couples that view marriage mainly as a means to personal fulfillment, this is a dose of medicine.
  7. Post-modern approach. In a post-modern world, it doesn’t help to use traditional logic and headstrong idealism. Pope Francis leaves a welcome opening for people’s questions and consciences. He sets a precedent in The Joy of Love whereby we walk with people on a journey toward deeper understanding. The approach works for a generation that doesn’t see anything in black and white, but values personal experience and journey. He gets bonus points for cultural sensitivity and avoiding assumptions about gender roles.
  8. A study tool on love. The first half of Chapter Four lays out the dimensions of love, using the iconic “Love is patient…” passage from 1 Corinthians 13. Pope Francis is handing us a tool to reclaim true, restorative love in our families, marriages, and other relationships. Highly recommended reading.

In a very practical way, this letter is direction for this moment in history. It takes into account a changing landscape in which marriages worldwide are in decline, children are more often raised in unconventional settings, and technology is redefining both pace of life and social intimacy. These new challenges demand fresh approaches, and The Joy of Love is a relatively swift response in Church time.

Pastors and highly engaged Catholics have an opportunity before them. They can find creative ways to put its teachings into practice and pass along its wisdom to their friends: Catholic, Christian, and non-Christian alike. In other words, “Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22).

Amoris Laetitia can be downloaded here for free. The document is divided into 325 numbered paragraphs; references above are to paragraphs, not pages, of the document.