The Spirituality of Marriage and the Family

The Joy of Love - Chapter Nine

We now come to the last chapter in The Joy of Love. Here, the Holy Father does not present us with any new themes. Rather, he pulls out themes that have appeared here and there throughout this document and summarizes them, as a way of drawing this extended reflection on and celebration of marriage and family life to a close. Once we have read this final chapter, we would do well to reread the entire document from start to finish. We will be in a better position to appreciate this document and understand what Pope Francis is trying to teach us through it. 

Although this is a short chapter, it, too, is spiritually rich and repays slow, careful reading. In this essay, I will focus on three themes that seem central - not only to this chapter but to the Holy Father’s argument throughout The Joy of Love.

  1. Marriage and family life is a true and valid way to God. The writings that monks, nuns and others have left us on the spiritual journey have been a great gift to the Church. However, one need not live in a cloister to follow the Lord. Pope Francis reminds us that marriage and family life will unmask lies and call forth honesty. All the pains of family life, small and great, are true sharings in the cross of Christ. All the joys and pleasures of family life are true sharings in the power of Christ’s resurrection. Pope Francis affirms that the family is the path that the Lord uses to lead most Christians to mystical union with Him.
  2. Spouses belong entirely to each other – yet belong even more to the Lord! Each married couple gives themselves to one another exclusively for life. They lovingly accept the challenge of growing old together and supporting one another. Conjugal love can do no less, as “a person who cannot choose to love forever can hardly love for even a single day.” There comes a point, however, when each spouse realizes that the other is not ultimately his or her own but has a far greater Master, the Lord. Only God can be the ultimate center of each person’s life Accordingly, even the most committed and loving spouse will never completely satisfy all the needs of the other spouse. This realization can lead to a healthy “disillusionment” which is, in fact, an invitation to the couple to place trust ultimately in the Lord.
  3. The family is the first “hospital” and the beginning of mission.  The Lord calls married couples to bestow life and to care for life. Accordingly, the family has always been the first and nearest “hospital.” It is in the family that gifts are first recognized and nurtured and that needs and limitations are first seen and met. Each family member encounters his or her own limitations and thus learns to have compassion on the limitations and needs of the others. Family life calls for a “shepherding in mercy,” where each member merits our complete attention as a child of God. Having become, then, a “hospital” and a “school of mercy” for its own members, the Christian family, led by the Spirit, spreads life by caring for others and seeking their happiness. This is done in a powerful way through hospitality – especially when a family welcomes the poor and neglected and embraces them with its love.  When a family embraces its vocation as a “fisher of persons” in this way, then children can more easily hear the Lord’s specific call to each of them.

Pope Francis ends this chapter with one final point. No family drops down from heaven fully formed or perfect. Families always need to grow and mature in their ability to love. Moreover, family members should not demand of one another “a perfection, a purity of intentions, and a consistency which we will only encounter in the Kingdom to come.” This realization will help us to not judge harshly those who live “in situations of frailty,” for we are all weak and in need of the Lord’s merciful love every day.

The Holy Father assures us that what we, as faithful Christian families, have been promised is greater than anything we can imagine. Let us never lose heart because of our limitations, then, and let us never cease to seek that fullness of love and communion that the Lord hold out to us!