God’s Indulgent Love Meets Real Life
“Families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity.” (Amoris Laetitia, 7, hereafter AL)
Jesus proposed a new dynamic for marriage, one that addresses the real problems families face in maintaining their integrity and unity. The new dynamic is the cross and the grace it makes available to natural marriage making it a sacrament. The “Christian family can be fully understood only in the light of the Father’s infinite love revealed in Christ, who gave himself up for our sake and who continues to dwell in our midst.” (AL, 59) St. Paul teaches on marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33 and describes this new dynamic as loving service lived out by the spouses for each other (and their children) “as to the Lord.” No matter what problem a Christian marriage faces the answer is always Jesus and responding to the grace and mercy he offers. “God’s indulgent love always accompanies our human journey; through grace, it heals and transforms hardened hearts, leading them back to the beginning through the way of the cross.” (AL, 62) While marriage and the family face many challenges and attacks in our modern world we must not lose hope nor turn our back on the wisdom of God to rely merely on worldly solutions or ways of living that are in opposition to the gospel of Jesus.
Pope Francis identifies what is perhaps the greatest threat to the family today, “the growing danger represented by an extreme individualism which weakens family bonds.” (AL, 33) He notes that there are many “cultural factors which militate against permanent decisions.” (AL, 33) Making and following through on decisions is precisely what makes them permanent. In the modern context too often “freedom of choice makes it possible to plan our lives and to make the most of ourselves. Yet if this freedom lacks noble goals or personal discipline, it degenerates into an inability to give oneself generously to others.” (AL, 33) It is “easy nowadays to confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily as if there were no truths, values, and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible. The ideal of marriage, marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability, is swept aside whenever it proves inconvenient or tiresome.” (AL, 34) The answer to this challenge is the freedom Christ offers, a freedom to be able to choose the good, the lasting, and the permanent. “The indissolubility of marriage – ‘what God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Mt 19:6) – should not be viewed as a ‘yoke’ imposed on humanity, but as a ‘gift’ granted to those who are joined in marriage…” (AL, 62) Inviting Jesus to one’s wedding and also every day of marriage with all its joys and difficulties makes all the difference in the world.
Pope Francis has been misunderstood from almost every side. The news media and even some in the Church have painted him as a revolutionary who perhaps thinks the Church should stop talking about sex, marriage, and family issues so much. However, a different picture emerges in Amoris Laetitia. “As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer. It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils as if this could change things. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them.” (AL, 35) He is asking us as ordinary Christians to encourage “openness to grace,” provide “sufficient support to families [to] strengthening the marriage bond and give meaning to marital life.” (AL, 37) He is concerned that “many people feel that the Church’s message on marriage and the family does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery.” (AL, 38) Interestingly here Pope Francis is warning us that we must first focus on showing mercy to the wounded we encounter which then allows us to accompany them as they respond to Jesus’s call to conversion and the new life of freedom. Both of these passages reveal Jesus’ ministry to those whose lives contradict the truth about married love. He tells them the truth about their situation including “God’s indulgent love” for them and the call to holiness which follows the reception of his healing mercy.
Finally, in addressing those who are hurting Pope Francis decries the modern tendency to run from problems and to respond with selfish solutions when only grace, patience, and sacrifice can provide a real solution. “Marital problems are “often confronted in haste and without the courage to have patience and reflect, to make sacrifices and to forgive one another.” (AL, 41) The solution he proposes may be found by looking to the “many families, which far from considering themselves perfect, live in love, fulfill their calling and keep moving forward, even if they fall many times along the way.” (AL, 57)
May we all respond to the pope’s call to take more responsibility to support and build up marriage because “the welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church.” (AL, 31)
By Dino Durando, Director of the Family Life Office