The Christian Ideal in Families is “A Love That Never Gives Up”
“Families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity.” (Amoris Laetitia, 7, hereafter AL)
In my own work I have found that one of the most significant obstacles that the engaged face as they prepare for marriage in the Church is that they find it very difficult to really believe that God loves them. Of course, most have a vague sense of God’s love from hearing about his love as a child. Too often it is a superficial understanding that includes reservations about what God really thinks about the mistakes they have made. God is the “perpetually disappointed one” who is never pleased by their behavior. This causes many to have a rather blunt response to God’s invitation to be involved in their daily life because they put him in the category of the rule maker, or disappointed disciplinarian and not the loving Father that he really is. This truth about God makes all the difference because it opens up the possibility of loving and forgiving like God does. In The Joy of Love Pope Francis observes, “if we accept that God’s love is unconditional, that the Father’s love cannot be bought or sold, then we will become capable of showing boundless love and forgiving others even if they have wronged us. Otherwise, our family life will no longer be a place of understanding, support and encouragement, but rather one of constant tension and mutual criticism.” (AL, 108)
Love following the model of God the Father is the kind of love that rejoices in the right. American culture is permeated with criticism and unforgiveness and this cultural norm is dangerous when it takes root in family life. We are called to “rejoice at the good of others, [to] see their dignity and value their abilities and good works. This is impossible for those who must always be comparing and competing, even with their spouse, so that they secretly rejoice in their failures.” (AL, 109) Nobody wins in the family when one person “wins” at the expense of the other.
In this section of Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis continues to examine St Paul’s great hymn of love from 1 Corinthians. He meditates on the theme that “love bears all things.” In Greek this phrase, “panta stégei… can mean “holding one’s peace” about what may be wrong with another person. It implies limiting judgment, checking the impulse to issue a firm and ruthless condemnation: ‘Judge not and you will not be judged’ (Lk 6:37).” (AL, 112) The tongue can be a great cause of hurt in the family. “We often forget that slander can be quite sinful; it is a grave offense against God when it seriously harms another person’s good name and causes damage that is hard to repair.” (AL, 112)
This is one of the more pervasive poisons present in families today, the poison of criticizing one’s spouse. When criticism becomes a regular feature of communication between spouses it usually causes either a coldness to develop between them or a bitterness at being the victim of constant nagging. When one speaks ill about their spouse to others it causes damage to their relationship and a damaging scandal as well. It has the potential to cause additional friction with parents and in-laws and it lowers the opinion of one’s friends not only of your spouse but also of marriage as an institution. Grave harm is caused by this poison. The antidote is for “married couples joined by love [to] speak well of each other.” They can heal the wounds of unjust criticism and slander by trying “to show their spouse’s good side, not their weakness and faults.” (AL, 113)
Love endures all things, “panta hypoménei. This means that love bears every trial with a positive attitude… It is a love that never gives up, even in the darkest hour.” (AL, 118) A good practice for mothers and fathers would be to examine one’s conscience according to the aspects of love described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. Do we live up to the high calling of Christian love? Do we see Jesus in the members of our family? Has our love grown dull or given up because of loss or hurts suffered? “Here I think of the words of Martin Luther King, who met every kind of trial and tribulation with fraternal love: ‘The person who hates you most has some good in him… And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God’, you begin to love him in spite of [everything]’.” (AL, 118) It is always possible with God’s grace to forgive, to endure and to grow in love. This is the great truth of Christianity which changes everything: Christian love is grown not in spite of, but because of suffering endured together and for the good of the beloved. “The Christian ideal, especially in families, is a love that never gives up.” (AL, 119)
By Dino Durando, Director of the Family Life Office.