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April 16, 2016

Pope releases apostolic exhortation on marriage and family -
Papal advice for making marriages work -
The pope's thoughts on planning a wedding -
A spirituality for couples and their families

In this edition:
1. New apostolic exhortation.
2. The tenderness of love.
3. Advice for couples, families.
4. Quoting the exhortation:
a) Wedding planning.
b) Families and socialization.
c) Problems are challenges.
5. Dialogue in marriage.
6. Spirituality for the family.

1. "The Joy of Love," Francis' New Exhortation

Love may be difficult to define, but Pope Francis certainly does not shy away from the topic in his new apostolic exhortation responding to the world Synod of Bishops' 2014 and 2015 sessions on marriage and family life today.

Did you know that one entire chapter of this exhortation, a lengthy one, is titled "Love in Marriage." Including its endnotes, this is a chapter of more than 12,000 words!

Most news reports on "The Joy of Love" ("Amoris Laetitia") focus on what many refer to as hot-button issues, for example questions related to the reception of Communion by divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment of a first marriage or the church's relationship with couples who cohabit without marrying.

Fewer are the reports that mention Pope Francis' earnest effort in this document to highlight the importance of love in marriage and to explain what is required over the long years of a marriage to keep love alive. This apostolic exhortation may be unique in its extended exploration of tactics, habits and virtues for making marriage work.

Another chapter, this one on family spirituality, also does not tend to earn a central place in reports on this document. But this one clearly will interest pastoral ministers in the church.

Pope Francis offers some pointed advice on how to read his new document. "I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text. The greatest benefit, for families themselves and for those engaged in the family apostolate, will come if each part is read patiently and carefully or if attention is paid to the parts dealing with their spe-cific needs."

With that guidance in mind, I want in this edition of our online newsletter to focus principally on the apostolic exhortation's chapters about love in marriage and family spirituality.

The exhortation's chapter on love in marriage constitutes a sort of handbook for married couples. Who knows? This document may gain real popularity among the laity and be put to good use by them.

Moreover, church ministries that prepare couples for marriage or that serve couples in the years after they marry will want to know about this document's recommendations for improving marriages.

"We cannot encourage a path of fidelity and mutual self-giving without encouraging the growth, strengthening and deepening of conjugal and family love," Pope Francis states in "The Joy of Love." It is important to recognize, he proposes, that "no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love."

His exhortation is timely during the church's current Year of Mercy, Pope Francis insists. For one thing, it "seeks to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy."

This, then, is a pastoral document on marriages and families, which always remain works in progress. Pope Francis wants people to see that God's word for families "is not a series of abstract ideas." Rather, it is "a source of comfort and companionship for every family that experiences difficulties or suffering."

2. The Tenderness of Love

Tenderness is a virtue in marriage and family life, Pope Francis says in "The Joy of Love." But this virtue often is overlooked in a "world of frenetic and superficial relationships," he believes.

The word "tenderness" appears 13 times in the new apostolic exhortation, not counting the subheads. The document offers countless points of advice to couples and their children for keeping love alive in their home. It is safe to say that the pope considers tenderness an essential factor in achieving this goal.

"In a consumerist society the sense of beauty is impoverished, and so joy fades. Everything is there to be purchased, possessed or consumed, including people," he writes. "Tenderness, on the other hand, is a sign of a love free of selfish possessiveness."

Tenderness, says Pope Francis, "makes us approach a person with immense respect and a certain dread of causing them harm or taking away their freedom." Love for another person, he explains, "involves the joy of contemplating and appreciating their innate beauty and sacredness, which is greater than my needs."

We constantly are "reminded that each of those who live with us merits com-plete attention, since he or she possesses infinite dignity as an object of the Father's immense love," the pope observes. This gives rise to a tenderness that can stir in another "the joy of being loved."

What the church teaches about marriage and the family must be "inspired and transformed" by the Gospel message "of love and tenderness," the pope suggests. "Otherwise it becomes nothing more than the defense of a dry and lifeless doctrine."

3. Advice for Couples and Families

"Love that fails to grow is at risk," Pope Francis advises couples in a major chapter of "The Joy of Love," his apostolic exhortation responding to the sessions of the world Synod of Bishops on the family held in 2014 and 2015.

Anyone involved with preparing couples for marriage or working with couples after they marry is likely to find the document's fourth chapter, titled "Love in Marriage," beneficial.

The growth that is necessary in marriage "can only occur if we respond to God's grace through constant acts of love, acts of kindness that become ever more frequent, intense, generous, tender and cheerful," this chapter says.

The pope writes, "Love opens our eyes and enables us to see, beyond all else, the great worth of a human being."

The best defense of marital love, according to Pope Francis, is delivered "not by repeating doctrine." Rather, it comes of helping marital love "to grow ever stronger under the impulse of grace."

In this very lengthy chapter, the pope offers innumerable points of quite concrete advice. By way of offering a sort of overview, allow me to look briefly at many of these points of advice for couples and their families.

1. "Develop the habit of giving real importance to the other person," the pope urges. "This means appreciating them and recognizing their right to exist, to think as they do and to be happy. Never downplay what they say or think, even if you need to express your own point of view."

2. Also, "keep an open mind. Don't get bogged down in your own limited ideas and opinions, but be prepared to change or expand them. The combination of two different ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches both."

3. "Love abhors making others suffer," the pope states.

4. He says that "to be open to a genuine encounter with others, 'a kind look' is essential. This is incompatible with a negative attitude that readily points out other people's shortcomings while overlooking one's own."

5. In fact, "true love values the other person's achievements. It does not see him or her as a threat. It frees us from the sour taste of envy. It recognizes that everyone has different gifts and a unique path in life."

6. "Those who love not only refrain from speaking too much about themselves, but are focused on others; they do not need to be the center of attention," Pope Francis points out.

7. He says that "in family life the logic of domination and competition about who is the most intelligent or powerful destroys love."

8. Christians also "cannot ignore the persistent admonition of God's word not to nurture anger," the pope writes, adding: "My advice is never to let the day end without making peace in the family."

9. He stresses that "the family must always be a place where, when something good happens to one of its members, they know that others will be there to celebrate it with them."

10. Finally, the pope considers it necessary "to realize that all of us are a complex mixture of light and shadows. The other person is much more than the sum of the little things that annoy me. Love does not have to be perfect for us to value it."

4. Quoting the Apostolic Exhortation

Planning a Wedding: "Short-term preparations for marriage tend to be concentrated on invitations, clothes, the party and any number of other details that tend to drain not only the budget but energy and joy as well. The spouses come to the wedding ceremony exhausted and harried, rather than focused and ready for the great step that they are about to take. The same kind of preoccupation with a big celebration also affects certain de facto unions; because of the expenses involved, the couple, instead of being concerned above all with their love and solemnizing it in the presence of others, never get married. Here let me say a word to fiances. Have the courage to be different. Don't let yourselves get swallowed up by a society of consumption and empty appearances. What is important is the love you share, strengthened and sanctified by grace. You are capable of opting for a more modest and simple celebration in which love takes precedence over everything else. Pastoral workers and the entire community can help make this priority the norm rather than the exception." (From "The Joy of Love," by Pope Francis; No. 212)

The Family, a Setting for Socialization: "The family is the primary setting for socialization since it is where we first learn to relate to others, to listen and share, to be patient and show respect, to help one another and live as one. The task of education is to make us sense that the world and society are also our home; it trains us how to live together in this greater home. In the family, we learn closeness, care and respect for others. We break out of our fatal self-absorption and come to realize that we are living with and alongside others who are worthy of our concern, our kindness and our affection. There is no social bond without this primary, everyday, almost microscopic aspect of living side by side, crossing paths at different times of the day, being concerned about everything that affects us, help-ing one another with ordinary little things. Every day the family has to come up with new ways of appreciating and acknowledging its members." (From "The Joy of Love," by Pope Francis; No. 276)

Viewing Problems as Challenges: "The synod's reflections show us that there is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of many different realities, with all their joys, hopes and problems. The situations that concern us are challenges. We should not be trapped into wasting our energy in doleful laments, but rather seek new forms of missionary creativity. . . . If we see any number of problems, these should be, as the bishops of Colombia have said, a summons to 'revive our hope and to make it the source of prophetic visions, transformative actions and creative forms of charity." (From "The Joy of Love," No. 57)

5. Dialogue and Equal Dignity in Marriage

Dialogue has an essential role to play in marriage and family life, Pope Francis makes clear in the chapter titled "Love in Marriage" found in his new apostolic exhortation.

The chapter also takes up the issue in Ephesians 5:22, which speaks of wives being subject to their husbands. The pope flatly rejects "all improper interpretations" of this passage.

To express and foster love in marriage and family life, "dialogue is essential," Pope Francis states. But such dialogue only comes as "the fruit of a long and demanding apprenticeship." For, the pope explains, "men and women, young people and adults, communicate differently. They speak different languages and they act in different ways."

He points out that "our way of asking and responding to questions, the tone we use, our timing and any number of other factors condition how well we communicate." Thus, he advises, "we need to develop certain attitudes that express love and encourage authentic dialogue."

In light of this concern, he encourages couples and families to "take time, quality time," which means they should be "ready to listen patiently and attentively to everything the other person wants to say." He notes that this "requires the self-discipline of not speaking until the time is right."

Rather than "offering an opinion or advice," people need to be sure that they "have heard everything the other person has to say," the pope says. This will require "cultivating an interior silence that makes it possible to listen to the other person without mental or emotional distractions."

If dialogue is to be fostered at home, it is important not to be rushed and to "put aside all of your own needs and worries, and make space," says Pope Francis. He observes that "often the other spouse does not need a solution to his or her problems but simply to be heard, to feel that someone has acknowledged" the pain, disappointment, fear, anger, hopes and dreams that he or she is experiencing.

In his discussion of the relationship of husbands and wives, Pope Francis rejects "every form of sexual submission." This, he says, "includes all improper interpretations of the passage in the Letter to the Ephesians where Paul tells women to 'be subject to your husbands' (5:22)."

The pope comments that this biblical passage "mirrors the cultural categories" of its time, "but our concern is not with its cultural matrix but with the revealed message that it conveys. As St. John Paul II wisely observed: 'Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the husband. . . . The community or unity which they should establish through marriage is constituted by a reciprocal donation of self, which is also a mu-tual subjection."

Thus, St. Paul will say that "husbands should love their wives as their own bodies."

Pope Francis writes, "The biblical text is actually concerned with encouraging everyone to overcome a complacent individualism and to be constantly mindful of others."

In marriage, moreover, "this reciprocal 'submission' takes on a special meaning and is seen as a freely chosen mutual belonging marked by fidelity, respect and care." The pope states that "sexuality is inseparably at the service of this conjugal friendship, for it is meant to aid the fulfillment of the other."

6. Spirituality of Marriage and the Family

Christ "dwells in real and concrete families, with all their daily troubles and struggles, joys and hopes," Pope Francis writes in his apostolic exhortation on the family. A full chapter, the final one, explores a spirituality for couples and families based on the conviction that ordinary family life is a setting for the action of God.

"Those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit," the pope says. Rather, the family is "a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union."

Pope Francis insists that "moments of joy, relaxation, celebration, and even sexuality can be experienced as a sharing in the full life of the resurrection." The love within a family is "made up of thousands of small but real gestures," he observes.

In his eyes, "a positive experience of family communion is a true path to daily sanctification and mystical growth, a means for deeper union with God."

Naturally, "no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed." Pope Francis knows that "families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love." He refers to this as "a never-ending vocation."

He writes, "All of us are called to keep striving toward something greater than ourselves and our families, and every family must feel this constant impulse."

In a family "it is a profound spiritual experience to contemplate our loved ones with the eyes of God and to see Christ in them," Pope Francis says. But "this demands a freedom and openness which enable us to appreciate their dignity."

In fact, he adds, "our loved ones merit our complete attention," and in this "Jesus is our model." For whenever people approached Jesus in order "to speak with him, he would meet their gaze, directly and lovingly." In Jesus' presence, "no one felt overlooked," the pope states. Jesus' "words and gestures conveyed the question, 'What do you want me to do for you?' (Mk 10:51)."

A family's spirituality prompts it to reach out to others beyond the walls of its own home, the pope makes clear. He says that "the family lives its spirituality precisely by being at one and the same time a domestic church and a vital cell for transforming the world."

A spirituality of marriage "is a spirituality of the bond, in which divine love dwells," the pope states. He views "life as a couple" as "a daily sharing in God's creative work." And in this, he says, "each person is for the other a constant challenge from the Holy Spirit."

Marital commitment "would be spiritually meaningless were it simply a mat-ter of following a law with obedient resignation," the pope comments. Instead, this commitment "is a matter of the heart."

He views marriage as "the experience of belonging completely to another person. Spouses accept the challenge and aspiration of supporting one another, growing old together and in this way reflecting God's own faithfulness."

A wife and husband become "mutual reflections of that divine love which comforts with a word, a look, a helping hand, a caress, an embrace," Pope Francis says. In his eyes, the spouses are for each other "a sign and instrument of the closeness of the Lord, who never abandons us."