home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page

April 28, 2016

Second look at pope's new apostolic exhortation - Divorced-remarried couples and a process of discernment - Marriage, a lifelong project

1. New era in family ministry?
2. Times of crisis in families.
3. Marriage preparation.
4. Accompanying married couples.
5. Quoting the exhortation:
a) Marriage and time together.
b) Marriage as salvation history.
c) Spousal craftsmanship.
6. Divorced-remarried Catholics.
7. Pastoral discernment.
8. The process of discernment.

1. New Era in Marriage and Family Ministry?

Pastoral ministry for divorced people, couples experiencing a crisis, engaged couples, the newly married and others is explored in the sixth chapter of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation on the family, "The Joy of Love." The document represents his response to the world Synod of Bishops' assemblies held in the fall both of 2014 and 2015.

This new papal document is unique in its pointed discussion of the pastoral means of working with couples, helping them to strengthen their marriages and keep love alive. Titled "Some Pastoral Perspectives," Chapter 6 makes clear the pope's call for the church to accompany couples pastorally and to serve as a forceful presence when marriages suffer.

Today, he writes, there is a "need for new pastoral methods" that are "practical and effective" and that "respect both the church's teaching and local problems and needs."

The church wants, "with humility and compassion, to reach out to families and 'to help each family to discover the best way to overcome any obstacles it encounters,'" Pope Francis writes, quoting the final report of the October 2015 synod assembly in Rome.

As I noted April 16 in this space, Pope Francis views "the situations that concern us" in marriage and family life today as "challenges." He insists that in witnessing family life's contemporary challenges "we should not be trapped into wasting our energy in doleful laments, but rather seek new forms of missionary creativity."

It is likely that pastoral ministers in parishes and dioceses will spend months, maybe years, exploring the ramifications of the pastoral perspectives discussed in the sixth and other chapters of this document. Pope Francis highlights not only the general challenges couples and families tend to experience but also offers numerous specific suggestions for guiding couples in the practicalities of their lives together.

Usually I would not devote two complete editions of this newsletter to a single document. I feel, however, that "The Joy of Love" is not just another worthwhile text. It is a summons to transform marriage and family ministry.

I will devote attention in this edition mainly to two chapters in "The Joy of Love" that focus on pastoral ministries, including parts of the document that relate to a matter that received wide attention at the time of the synod assemblies: ministries involving divorced Catholics.

2. Times of Crisis in Families

Every family's life "is marked by all kinds of crises, yet these are also part of its dramatic beauty. Couples should be helped to realize that surmounting a crisis need not weaken their relationship; instead, it can improve, settle and mature the wine of their union," Pope Francis comments in Chapter 6 of "The Joy of Love."

His discussion of crises draws into focus an important goal of the document: to lend support to couples and in a practical, observant way to suggest that a great many marriages that might appear headed for divorce could be saved. He is attempting to renew confidence in the value and the potential of marriage.

Each crisis, he suggests, can become for a couple "an apprenticeship in growing closer together or learning a little more about what it means to be married." When some sort of crisis develops, he adds, "there is no need for couples to resign themselves to an inevitable downward spiral or a tolerable mediocrity."

The pope envisions "experienced and trained couples" offering guidance so that others "will not be unnerved by these crises or tempted to hasty decisions." For, the pope writes, "each crisis has a lesson to teach us; we need to learn how to listen for it with the ear of the heart."

Some crises "are typical of almost every marriage," he observes. Thus, "newly married couples need to learn how to accept their differences and to disengage from their parents. The arrival of a child presents new emotional challenges. Raising small children necessitates a change of lifestyle, while the onset of adolescence causes strain, frustration and even tension between parents."

Moreover, "an 'empty nest' obliges a couple to redefine their relationship, while the need to care for aging parents involves making difficult decisions in their regard."

There are "personal crises" too "that affect the life of couples, often involving finances, problems in the workplace, emotional, social and spiritual difficulties." And, Pope Francis notes, "unexpected situations present themselves, disrupting family life and requiring a process of forgiveness and reconciliation."

Forgiveness and reconciliation in a marriage and family constitute a major step and can benefit from support by others, the pope notes. "Experience shows that with proper assistance and acts of reconciliation, through grace, a great percentage of troubled marriages find a solution in a satisfying manner," the pope observes, quoting the 2015 synod's final report.

Again, the 2015 synod said, "the arduous art of reconciliation, which requires the support of grace, needs the generous cooperation of relatives and friends, and sometimes even outside help and professional assistance."

Pope Francis expresses concern that "it is becoming more and more common to think that, when one or both partners no longer feel fulfilled or things have not turned out the way they wanted, sufficient reason exists to end the marriage." However, he states, "were this the case, no marriage would last."

Those who at a time of crisis "have the maturity needed to reaffirm their choice of the other as their partner on life's journey, despite the limitations of the relationship," are people who "realize, after all, that every crisis can be a new 'yes,' enabling love to be renewed, deepened and inwardly strengthened," the pope states.

"In any event," he adds, "while realizing that reconciliation is a possibility, we also see that 'what is urgently needed today is a ministry to care for those whose marital relationship has broken down.'"

3. Marriage Preparation

Preparing engaged couples for marriage is an important responsibility in the Christian community, Pope Francis believes.

"It is important that marriage be seen as a matter of love, that only those who freely choose and love one another may marry," the pope states. For, "when love is merely physical attraction or a vague affection, spouses become particularly vulnerable once this affection wanes or physical attraction diminishes."

An additional "great challenge of marriage preparation is to help couples realize that marriage is not something that happens once for all." Pope Francis explains that while a couple's "union is real and irrevocable, confirmed and consecrated by the sacrament of matrimony," at the same time, "in joining their lives, the spouses assume an active and creative role in a lifelong project."

Now the couple's gaze needs "to be directed to the future that, with the help of God's grace, they are daily called to build," he explains, adding that "for this very reason neither spouse can expect the other to be perfect. Each must set aside all illusions and accept the other as he or she actually is: an unfinished product, needing to grow, a work in progress."

When a couple marry, "they embark on a journey that requires them to overcome all obstacles standing in the way" of their goal, says the pope.

In addition to other essential factors in marriage preparation, Pope Francis wants "the timely preparation of engaged couples" by parishes to help "them to recognize eventual problems and risks." He believes that "in this way they can come to realize the wisdom of breaking off a relationship whose failure and painful aftermath can be foreseen."

It is sad, he suggests, that "many couples marry without really knowing one another. They have enjoyed each other's company and done things together, but without facing the challenge of revealing themselves and coming to know who the other person truly is."

The pope views marriage preparation as "a kind of 'initiation' to the sacrament of matrimony, providing couples with the help they need to receive the sacrament worthily and to make a solid beginning of life as a family."

4. Accompanying Those Already Married

It has become "all the more essential that couples be helped during the first years of their married life to enrich and deepen their conscious and free decision to have, hold and love one another for life," Pope Francis says in the sixth chapter of "The Joy of Love."

Experienced couples can play an important role in this pastoral work, he states, and "pastoral workers and groups of married people should think of ways to help young or vulnerable couples."

The church needs to reach out to married couples, the pope believes. He writes:

"Given the pace of life today, most couples cannot attend frequent meetings; still, we cannot restrict our pastoral outreach to small and select groups. Nowadays, pastoral care for families has to be fundamentally missionary, going out to where people are. We can no longer be like a factory, churning out courses that for the most part are poorly attended."

Pope Francis acknowledges that "many couples, once married, drop out of the Christian community." But often, he says, "we ourselves do not take advantage of those occasions when they do return to remind them of the beautiful ideal of Christian marriage and the support that our parishes can offer them."

He adds: "I think, for example, of the baptism and first holy Communion of their children or the funerals or weddings of their relatives or friends. Almost all married couples reappear on these occasions, and we should take greater advantage of this."

There are many ways "parishes, movements, schools and other church institutions can help" families grow, Pope Francis notes. "These might include meetings of couples living in the same neighborhood" or "brief retreats for couples."

Some other possibilities include "marriage counseling," or "home missionaries who help couples discuss their difficulties and desires," or "social services dealing with family problems like addiction, infidelity and domestic violence," or "programs of spiritual growth."

Parish staff "should be prepared to deal helpfully and sensitively with family needs and be able to make referrals when necessary to those who can help," Pope Francis writes.

In discussing married couples, Pope Francis offers a number of down-to-earth recommendations. He says:
  • "In the life of married couples, even at difficult moments, one person can always surprise the other, and new doors can open for their relationship, as if they were meeting for the first time. At every new stage they can keep 'forming' one another. Love makes each wait for the other with the patience of a craftsman, a patience which comes from God."

  • "At each new stage of married life, there is a need to sit down and renegotiate agreements so that there will be no winners and losers, but rather two winners."

  • "Once a couple no longer knows how to spend time together, one or both of them will end up taking refuge in gadgets, finding other commitments, seeking the embrace of another or simply looking for ways to flee what has become an uncomfortable closeness."

  • "The pleasure of belonging to one another leads to seeing life as a common project, putting the other's happiness ahead of my own and realizing with joy that this marriage enriches society."

5. Quoting "The Joy of Love"

Marriage and Time Together: "Love needs time and space. . . . Time is needed to talk things over, to embrace leisurely, to share plans, to listen to one another and gaze in each other's eyes, to appreciate one another and to build a stronger relationship. Sometimes the frenetic pace of our society and the pressures of the workplace create problems. At other times the problem is the lack of quality time together, sharing the same room without one even noticing the other." (Pope Francis, "The Joy of Love," No. 224)

Marriage as Salvation History: "Each marriage is a kind of 'salvation history,' which from fragile beginnings -- thanks to God's gift and a creative and generous response on our part, grows over time into something precious and enduring." (Pope Francis, "The Joy of Love," No. 221)

Spousal Craftsmanship: "Married life is a process of growth in which each spouse is God's means of helping the other to mature. . . . Fostering growth means helping a person to shape his or her own identity. Love is thus a kind of craftsmanship." (Pope Francis, "The Joy of Love," No. 221)

6. Divorce and Divorced-Remarried Catholics

The assemblies of the Synod of Bishops in 2014 and 2015 addressed a broad range of concerns related to marriage and family life. However, these synods in the minds of many who followed them only through the media were summed up by the attention devoted to questions involving divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment of their first marriage.

"The Joy of Love" includes discussions of divorced Catholics and divorced-remarried Catholics in Chapter 6, titled, "Some Pastoral Perspectives," and Chapter 8, titled "Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness."

"The synod fathers noted that 'special discernment is indispensable for the pastoral care of those who are separated, divorced or abandoned,'" Pope Francis says in Chapter 6.

He quotes the 2014 special synod assembly as saying that "respect needs to be shown especially for the sufferings of those who have unjustly endured separation, divorce or abandonment, or those who have been forced by maltreatment from a husband or a wife to interrupt their life together."

Echoing the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis stresses that divorced Catholics are not excommunicated and should not be treated as if they are. "It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the church," the pope writes.

He adds, citing the 2014 and 2015 synods, that "language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided." Moreover, "they should be encouraged to participate in the life of the community."

Care for divorced-remarried people by the Christian community should not be regarded as a weakening of faith in the indissolubility of marriage, "The Joy of Love" makes clear.

The consequences of separation and divorce for children ought to be a great concern in the church, this document emphasizes. "Apart from every other consideration, the good of children should be the primary concern and not overshadowed by any ulterior interest or objective," says Pope Francis.

The church, he writes, "cannot fail to speak out of behalf of those who are most vulnerable: the children who often suffer in silence." In fact, the pope says that concern for children is one reason why "Christian communities must not abandon divorced parents who have entered a new union and should include and support them in their efforts to bring up their children."

The large number of divorces today prompts the pope to write that the church's "most important pastoral task with regard to families is to strengthen their love, helping to heal wounds and working to prevent the spread of this drama of our times."

7. Pastoral Discernment of Unique Situations

The situation of divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment of their first marriage are addressed at some length in Chapter 8 of "The Joy of Love." Undoubtedly this chapter will be studied carefully by church leaders and pastoral ministers, as well as by theologians.

It isn't that the pope changes church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage here, but what he says will bear many ramifications for the way marriage and divorce are spoken about in the church and even the way pastoral discernment is understood.

Pope Francis not only discusses divorced-remarried couples in this chapter, but other couples who marry civilly or who cohabit and may have children.

Not very surprisingly in this Year of Mercy, he cautions against emptying mercy of all actual meaning, writing:

"We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God's truth."

Readers will not find precise answers in this chapter to questions surrounding the reception of Communion by divorced-remarried Catholics. The pope makes clear that there are a variety of ways to participate in the church's life and that a process of discernment can help to clarify what participation in the church ought to mean for particular people.

In encouraging a process of discernment related to couples in what often are termed "irregular" situations, Pope Francis takes up the question of the internal forum and its role in discerning unique situations.

Given "the immense variety of concrete situations" in which couples live, "it is understandable that neither the synod nor this exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases," Pope Francis states. "What is possible," he continues, "is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases."

Showing "understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being," he makes clear.

The pope encourages "the faithful who find themselves in complicated situations to speak confidently with their pastors or with other lay people whose lives are committed to the Lord."

He also encourages the church's pastors to listen to these people "with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the church."

8. The Process of Discernment

Any pastoral minister working with divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment of their first marriage is going to want to read Chapter 8 in "The Joy of Love." Here Pope Francis explains the discernment process that he encourages for determining how these couples and others -- like those who cohabit without marrying -- should participate in the church's life.

In this limited space I want to call attention to a few of this chapter's pertinent statements on discernment.

"I am in agreement with the many synod fathers who observed that 'the baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal,'" Pope Francis says.

Quoting the 2015 synod's final report, his exhortation observes that these people "are baptized; they are brothers and sisters; the Holy Spirit pours into their hearts gifts and talents for the good of all. Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services, which necessarily requires discerning which of the various forms of exclusion currently practiced in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework can be surmounted."

Pope Francis says that divorced Catholics who enter a new union "can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment."

For example, he points to "a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self-giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins."

The pope speaks also of "the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned" and of other examples.

He writes, quoting the 2015 synod's final report, that "priests have the duty to 'accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the church and the guidelines of the bishop."

The pope explains that "what we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment" designed to guide people toward awareness of their situation before God. At this point, "The Joy of Love" speaks of the use of what is known as the "internal forum," quoting the 2015 synod's final report.

"Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow. . . .

"This discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the church. For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the church and her teaching in a sincere search for God's will and a desire to make a more per-fect response to it."

Pope Francis comments that "when a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the church, meets with a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him, there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the church maintains a double standard."

One thing that "must always be taken into account" in the process of discernment -- and "lest anyone think that the demands of the Gospel are in any way being compromised" -- is that "the church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations," Pope Francis says.

"Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits," he states.

While insisting "that in no way must the church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage," Pope Francis also states that "by thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God."