Looking to Jesus: The Vocation of the Family

"The Joy of Love" - Chapter Three

Pope Francis devotes Chapter III of The Joy of Love to a summary of Church teaching on marriage and the family. For the Holy Father, this teaching is no “dry and lifeless doctrine.” Rather, this teaching, like every other, is inspired and transformed by the very heart of the Gospel message.

Pope Francis expresses elsewhere the heart of the Gospel message in these words: “Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others. Under no circumstance may this invitation be obscured! All of the virtues are at the service of this response of love” – Evangelii Gaudium, 39.

The Holy Father begins to explore this with the coming of Jesus into the world. The Son becomes incarnate by the power of the Spirit in Jesus of Nazareth, that He might reveal the Father’s infinite love and reconcile all things in himself. This includes marriage and family life. Jesus is born within a family and grows up not only with Mary and Joseph but among their extended families in Nazareth. His public ministry began with His miracle at the wedding feast of Cana – a sign of how He has come to redeem and restore marriage and family life and transform it in the joy of the Kingdom. Jesus shared moments of friendship with the family of Peter and with Lazarus and his sisters. He showed compassion to grieving parents and restored their children to life. He encountered people living in imperfect situations – such as the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery – and offered them forgiveness and new life by the gift of His gratuitous love. In these and other moments in His ministry, Jesus demonstrated the true meaning of mercy, which is the restoration of the covenant the Father had made with His people, a covenant defaced by sin.

Jesus comes not only to restore the covenant but to reconcile all things in Himself. This includes marriage and family life. Jesus redeems and restores marriage and family life in the image of the Holy Trinity, the mystery from which all true love flows. It would not be too much to speak of marriage and family life as an icon of the Holy Trinity.

Here we come to the heart of Church teaching on marriage and family life and to the central point of this chapter. Church teaching affirms that the Holy Trinity is pure gift, the perfect realization of love. God is love, as St. John affirms. The Father’s gift of self is so complete, so perfect, that the gift is a Person, the Son. The Son, the perfect representation of the Father, gives of Himself perfectly and completely in return. The resulting union of self-gift is itself so perfect that it, too, is a Person, the Holy Spirit, through whom the love of the Trinity overflows to give life and joy to all of creation.

No human being, however good, can imitate such love without grace. We are wounded by sin. We cling to too many things. We need help to learn what it means to give of ourselves. Hence, marriage between baptized persons is a sacrament. It is a gift given for the sanctification and the salvation of the spouses. When a woman and man marry and accept one another, they promise each other total self-giving, faithfulness, and openness to new life. In married life, the spouses learn “endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous and repeated forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and in the offering of one’s life.” In other words, the spouses help one another, through God’s grace, to let go of selfishness and to learn what it means to “see God in others and to go forth from themselves to seek one another’s good.” In so doing, they also witness to their children the deepest meaning of the Gospel message and how conversion to a life of self-giving love is the path to knowing the joy of the Gospel in one’s life. This is why marriage is called a vocation. A couple should marry only when conscious of such a call from the Lord in their lives and, then, desire to respond to it wholeheartedly.

This love naturally overflows, as does that of the Trinity, into the giving of new life. In many cases, this will mean the birth of children. Pope Francis affirms that children deserve to be born from this marital love which has been renewed in Christ. He adds that, through reception of the sacrament of marriage, parents become the ministers of their children’s education. The Holy Father also gives a strong defense of the right to life of the unborn child.

Pope Francis acknowledges that, like the Samaritan woman, many people and families today live in “imperfect situations” according to the teaching of the Church. He calls on pastors to carefully discern their situations. The degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases. Moreover, pastors are called to encourage them to do good, to look for signs of grace and repentance, and to lead them to marriage in the Church whenever possible.

In this chapter, you will find Church teaching on marriage and family life, summarized accurately but in simple and direct language. Pope Francis gives us an example of how Church teaching on marriage and family life can be presented in a way that is faithful to the tradition, easily understood by anyone who is open to it, and that will inspire and challenge all who seek to live by it.  Spend time with it. It will be a blessing for you. 

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 www.theanchorite.net/.