In the Light of the Word

"The Joy of Love" - Chapter One

On February 14, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI gave his final address to the clergy of the Diocese of Rome before “leaving the Petrine ministry.” In it, he offered a remarkable reflection on the central themes of the Second Vatican Council.  This address would be fruitful reading for anyone who ministers in the Church.

Near the end of his address, Pope Benedict made a distinction between the ‘Council of the Fathers’ – “the real one” – and the ‘Council of the media,’ the one that became the paradigm that most people used to interpret the Council’s meaning. The media looked for what might be controversial, since controversy sells. However, they were often blind to the context and the deeper meaning of the conciliar texts.

This same distinction can be made with any Church document. There is the actual document, and there is the “spin” that some media give it. This is also true of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Our challenge is to let go of that “spin” and be open to what Pope Francis is saying to us.

In the first chapter of The Joy of Love, Pope Francis shows us how to do just that. Here, the Holy Father presents us with a lectio divina, or sacred reading, of Psalm 128. He looks contemplatively at the psalm, drawing out its image of the family and connecting it with other Scriptural texts and Church teachings on marriage and family life. He lays out some of the broad topics that he will explore in greater detail in later chapters. He speaks of the family as “a true, living icon… capable of revealing God the Creator and Saviour.” He describes how a married couple’s fruitful relationship “becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son, and Spirit of love.” If we ‘read’ the family with a contemplative heart – a “lectio divina” of the family – we will discover something about the nature of God himself.

In this first chapter, the Holy Father invites us to contemplate the married couple pictured in Psalm 128. He recalls the early chapters of Genesis, where the man “anxiously seeks ‘a helper fit for him’… The original Hebrew suggests a direct encounter, face to face, eye to eye, in a kind of silent dialogue, for where love is concerned, silence is more eloquent than words.” It is an encounter which becomes the “magnificent profession of love and mutual self-bestowal” we find in the Song of Songs: “My beloved is mine and I am his.”

The focus then shifts to the children in the psalm who appear at the couple’s side “like olive shoots.” Using the same phrase that 1 Peter uses for members of the Church, Pope Francis calls children the “living stones” of the family. Working with this connection between building up the family and building up the Church, the pope notes that the New Testament speaks of “churches that meet in homes” and how “a family’s living space could turn into a domestic church, a setting for the Eucharist.” Connecting this aspect with the feast of Passover – with its passing on of the story of the Exodus to the next generation – the Holy Father shows how the family is presented in the Bible as “the place where children are brought up in the faith.” Parents have a serious responsibility in passing on the faith to their children, while children are called upon to honor their parents.

Pope Francis is aware that this idyllic picture of the family isn’t the full story. The Scriptures themselves give many examples of family strife, suffering, and bloodshed. The Holy Father points out how the deep love that God intended for husband and wife was distorted by sin into domination. Many of Jesus’ miracles were intended to heal family situations. Jesus showed a familiarity with the “anxieties and tensions experienced by families” in his parables. The word of God, then, is “a source of comfort and companionship for every family who experiences difficulties or suffering."

The pope observes that the father in Psalm 128 is portrayed as a laborer who, by his work, “sustains the physical well-being of the family.” What follows is a brief reflection on the value and dignity of human labor, and the challenges to family life caused by lack of employment and our tendency to “tyrannize nature, selfishly and even brutally ravaging it.”

In the last paragraphs of this chapter, Pope Francis speaks of how fathers and mothers often embody Jesus’ teaching that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” One expression of family love that is often overlooked is tenderness. The Pope turns to Psalm 131 and the image of the child “sleeping in its mother’s arms after being nursed” and calls this “a closeness that is conscious and not simply biological.”

Finally, in keeping with the icon image that he began with, Pope Francis encourages all families to look to the icon of the Holy Family with this same contemplative spirit, for “the treasury of Mary’s heart also contains the experiences of every family, which she cherishes. For this reason, she can help us understand the meaning of these experiences and to hear the message God wishes to communicate through the life of our families.”

Father Mark P. Nolette, a priest/hermit of the Diocese of Portland, resides in Pittsfield and also does part-time ministry at Our Lady of the Snows and Saint Agnes parishes. Father Nolette also writes a regular blog which can be found at