Encouragement and Joy

“Jesus left Galilee and went to the district of Judea across the Jordan. Great crowds followed him, and he cured them there. Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” Matthew 19:1-3

Contemporary life challenges any married couple or family who seeks to live by the way of Christ. As this Scripture quote reminds us, however, every generation has found the teaching of Christ challenging. Yet, those who follow Christ have found this way uniquely rewarding. What Christian families often need is encouragement to follow the way of Christ in their lives.

We, as a community of believers, are called to encourage one another in being open to the word of the Lord and in remaining faithful to it. This ministry of encouragement is entrusted in a special way to the Pope. At the Last Supper in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus addresses Peter in this way: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). From this moment on, the pope, as the successor of Peter, has received the commission to strengthen and encourage the faith of his brothers and sisters. Anyone who has attended any event at which the pope was present can attest that even the presence of the pope is a source of great encouragement and renewal in faith.

Popes in recent decades have frequently offered encouragement and guidance to married couples and families. At Vatican II, the constitution Gaudium et Spes contains a section on marriage and family life that summarizes previous Church teachings and addresses contemporary challenges (nn. 47-52). Paul VI offered a beautiful meditation on married love in the first part of his encyclical Humanae Vitae. Saint John Paul II, in many ways (Familiaris Consortio, the theology of the body), continued this encouragement and guidance to such an extent that, at his canonization, Pope Francis called him “the pope of the family.” Benedict XVI added to this, especially in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est.

Pope Francis, for his part, has received this same call. During an interview early in his papacy, he gave a moving reflection on Caravaggio’s painting The Calling of St. Matthew. The Holy Father identified with Matthew, a sinner in need of grace who has been given that gift. Like Peter, Pope Francis knows that the Lord has “turned him back” and that, subsequently, he has the call to, in turn, “strengthen his brothers and sisters.”

Pope Francis has also taken on the call to encourage and strengthen marriage and family life. He took the unusual step of calling two synods of bishops to discuss marriage and family life, one in 2014 and the other in 2015. As a response to the discussions of the world’s bishops at these synods and their recommendations, Pope Francis issued an apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, in 2016.  The Holy Father, early on in this exhortation, noted the significance of its being published during the Year of Mercy and explicitly stated his intention that it be a means of encouragement:

This Exhortation is especially timely in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. First, because it represents an invitation to Christian families to value the gifts of marriage and the family, and to persevere in a love strengthened by the virtues of generosity, commitment, fidelity, and patience. Second, because it seeks to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy.” (AL 5)

This article is intended to be an introduction to Amoris Laetitia, the first of several that will explore this exhortation over the next 18 months or so. This is, in part, because of the obvious importance of the subject matter itself. It is also in harmony with the Holy Father’s expressed wish: “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” (AL 7).  This “patient and careful reading” is what I hope to offer in these articles.

Amoris Laetitia is organized into nine chapters. The first offers a meditation on marriage and family life based on Psalm 128. The second outlines the experiences and challenges of families in the world of today. In the third chapter, Pope Francis recalls some essential aspects of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. The heart of Amoris Laetitia is clearly chapters 4 and 5, which focus on love and its fruitfulness. Chapter 6 describes some pastoral approaches “that can guide us in building sound and fruitful homes in accordance with God’s plan” (AL 6). The following chapter is devoted to the raising of children. Chapter 8 is “an invitation to mercy and the pastoral discernment of those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us.” The final chapter is a brief meditation on family spirituality. Each chapter will be explored in upcoming articles in this series.

Since Amoris Laetitia draws heavily from previous Church teachings on marriage and family life, especially those texts I mentioned above, I encourage you to read some of these if possible before you begin to read it.  They can be found on the Vatican’s website for free. This will give you a better sense of where the Holy Father is coming from.  Then, read the first chapter of Amoris before you read the next article in this series. If we all engage in a prayerful, patient reading of this text, it can bear much fruit for us as individuals, as families, and as a diocesan community.

Finally, a word on “laetitia,” which means “joy.”  Joy is a theme that appears often in the writings of Pope Francis. But what is this “joy”? It is Christian joy, announced by the angels to the shepherds upon the birth of Jesus and experienced by the apostles at the appearance of the Risen Lord. It is the joy that Mary sings of in her Magnificat. Christian joy is defined as “a basic disposition and a fundamental attunement to the self-giving of God in Christ” (The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality). Joy flows from the knowledge, through faith, that we are already given salvation in Christ. It flows, though hope, in the salvation of all creation, promised and yet to be fully realized. It flows, through love, as we, as individuals, families, and communities, reflect the self-emptying love of Christ in our own lives. Joy exists in painful times as well as in pleasant ones, as the Beatitudes assure us. One can sense this joy emanating from the heart of anyone who is close to the Lord. Ponder Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Saint John XXIII, Saint John Paul II, or Pope Francis.  It is the Holy Father’s wish that married couples and families may be renewed by this joy which is a gift of the Holy Spirit to all who walk the way of Christ.

By: Father Mark P. Nolette

For Further Reading:

Gaudete in Domino, Paul VI (on Christian joy)

Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 2196-2233 (on family life)