by Archbishop Joseph Naumann
“The Joy of Love,” the postsynodal apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, was promulgated last Friday, April 8, but actually signed by the Holy Father on March 19, the solemnity of St. Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
During last year’s second Synod of Bishops on the family, there was a question whether Pope Francis would actually follow the tradition of his predecessors by authoring a postsynodal document. I recall that the Holy Father initially indicated that he intended to write a brief exhortation.
In its current format, “The Joy of Love” is 255 pages. However, given that the pope was writing a document for actually two synods and given the challenge of applying the rich and beautiful teaching of the church to the complex and diverse issues confronting marriage and family life in different parts of the world, the length of the exhortation is understandable.
In light of this, Pope Francis encourages readers not to attempt to digest “The Joy of Love” in one sitting but, rather, to do a slow, meditative reading of each of its nine chapters. Personally, I intend through the course of this year to devote several of these columns to different dimensions of our Holy Father’s teaching on marriage and family.
For this column, I wish to highlight key points of context and perspective to help you interpret what you read and hear about “The Joy of Love” in the secular media. Every married couple, engaged couple, parent and actually every Catholic (after all, we are all members of families) will benefit from a prayerful reading of “The Joy of Love.”
There had been a great deal of speculation whether Pope Francis was going to change the church’s teaching on marriage. Even though the pope had assured Catholics that he had no intention of doing so and acknowledged that he did not have such authority, still there was anxiety in some quarters of the church.
It is important to note that an apostolic exhortation is not an encyclical letter. One commentator, in acknowledging this distinction, suggested that “The Joy of Love” should be read more like a homily than a chapter of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Apostolic exhortations, as the name suggests, are intended to be more motivational than a technical explication of doctrinal issues.
That said, those looking for Pope Francis to alter our understanding of marriage and family, will be disappointed, because the Holy Father reiterates the self-evident truth that marriage is between one man and one woman and that an essential purpose of marriage is the openness to generate new life. The pope makes clear that marriage is by its nature to be faithful, permanent and fruitful.
An essential interpretative key for understanding “The Joy of Love” is the Holy Father’s determined effort to hold together the tension between the truth of our teaching and our compassion toward the individual or couple who struggle with the challenges of marriage and family life. Pope Francis exhorts pastors and individual Catholics never to close the doors on those struggling to live the teaching, but to persevere in manifesting our concern for them, never wearying of striving to accompany them.
The Holy Father’s overriding concern for the poor is particularly evident. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer individuals are benefiting from the experience of a stable family life. Certainly, more children in our country are being deprived of the advantage, made clear by the social science data, of living in a home with both their biological mother and father.
It is a sad reality that the lower your economic status, the less likely for children to be raised by both of their parents. Single parenting elevates the likelihood of women and children living in poverty. It is also self-evident that material poverty places great stress on marriages and families.
Pope Francis challenges Catholics not to be content with the status quo. The greater poverty is not the lack of material comforts or even necessities but, rather, the deprivation of experiencing the love of a father and a mother. However, material poverty can overwhelm and crush marriages or make marriage appear unattainable. The Holy Father challenges us to work to relieve the economic stresses placed upon the poor, particularly migrant families.
I was pleased to see that “The Joy of Love” emphasizes the importance of better marriage preparation but, even more, the need for ongoing marriage formation. The entire exhortation supports the second super priority of our archdiocesan pastoral vision, namely strengthening marriage and family life. In particular, the Holy Father supports our goal to invite every married couple to participate in some form of marriage enrichment.
Finally, as the title indicates, it is all about joy! Despite all the challenges and difficulties, the joy of family life is the greatest antidote to so many of our world’s ills. Despite weaknesses and imperfections, the family remains the most effective environment for the cultivation of virtue and the therapeutic community where members find resources for healing and the capacity for resilience from life’s inevitable wounds.
If you want to do something concrete and significant to make the world a better place, then do something to strengthen the bonds of love with your spouse, children, grandchildren, elderly relatives, etc. It is not rocket science. Families that pray, play and eat meals together are much healthier. Authentic and enduring joy is to be found when life and love are shared in family life.
A great initial response to “The Joy of Love” could be simply for married couples to ask: What could I do to make my marriage stronger? For parents to ask: How can I spend more time interacting with my children? For children to ask: How can I better express appreciation to my parents and make their lives easier?
If each of us chose to do just one thing to strengthen our families, northeast Kansas would be an even better place to live and raise a family. The joy of love concretely lived in the family is attractive and infectious. Joyful families are a key to renewing and transforming our culture.
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