Archbishop Aquila: Pope’s Invitation to Families—Live the Gospel

Archbishop Aquila

Two weeks ago I issued a statement saying that I would study Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love.” As I’ve made my way through it, I have been struck by his intimate awareness of the beauty of marriage in the Scriptures, the desire people have to live out Christian marriage, the struggles of modern family life, and finally, his deep desire to renew marriage in the light of the Gospel. Beyond any of the debates that have been taking place about the exhortation, promoting this renewal seems to be the essential message of the Pope.

Pope Francis covers a lot of ground in the 250-plus pages of “Amoris Laetitia.” He encourages people to read it carefully and patiently. He begins with a reflection on the nature and gift of marriage found in the Word of God and then moves to an analysis of the present situation of marriage. His examination includes a consideration of the reasons why many young people are turning away from marriage, why marriages are experiencing difficulty, and what is happening in marital law around the world.

At the root of these changes, in the assessment of the Synod Fathers and the Pope, is an individualistic culture that promotes self-centeredness and a lack of generosity or self-sacrifice for others. This results in an experience that I hear of often. The Synod Fathers described it as “loneliness, arising from the absence of God in a person’s life and the fragility of relationships” (AL, 43).

Today’s self-centered, “me first” orientation breaks off relationships as soon as they seem burdensome or no longer useful. This worldview, in turn, encourages relativistic attitudes that wound relationships, especially marriage and family life – the most fundamental component of society. Relativism convinces people that perhaps nothing is universally true. The Holy Father sees this belief as giving momentum to several destructive forces, including the “legal deconstruction of the family,” the failure to help the vulnerable, and the unequal treatment of women (cf. AL 47, 53, 54).

Once he has offered this cultural analysis, Pope Francis spends chapter 3 presenting the Church’s teaching on marriage, drawing on the teachings of his predecessors. In chapter 4, the Holy Father gives families everywhere a Bible study on 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul’s famous reflection on love. As many others have said, this reflection is beautiful and contains insights that can deepen the faith life of every member of the family.  I encourage every married couple to prayerfully read the fourth chapter together.

Over the next three chapters, the Pope delves further into the role of love in the family. In chapter 5 he reflects on the gift of children. In chapter 6 he offers ways to improve preparation for engaged couples, support marriages in their early years, and how to accompany the divorced and single parents. In chapter 7 he addresses the need to provide children with an education rooted in our Catholic faith and to form their hearts so they can live moral and ethical lives in Christ. All parents should read this chapter with great care.

Chapter 8 has generated the most discussion among theologians, on blogs, and in the media. Scholars and the faithful have been analyzing this chapter on helping those who have experienced divorce or other tragedies in their marriages, and they have come up with widely differing interpretations. This outcome points to a weakness in this chapter, namely, a lack of precision in its language that people could use to wrongly justify sinful behavior.

However, it would be a mistake to read this chapter as a break with the Church’s teaching, equating the Pope’s compassionate spirit with a license to ignore the truth. The way to interpret it correctly is in continuity with previous magisterial teaching, especially Vatican II and Pope St. John Paul II’s “Familiaris Consortio.” Seen in this context, Chapter 8 offers an explanation of one possible way to accompany people on their journey from the slavery to sin to the freedom of God’s children.

The Holy Father first speaks about consciences, saying that they need to be formed not replaced (cf. AL, 37). In light of this principle, pastors should present the truth about marriage in a loving and transformative way, beginning with an introduction to the saving love of Christ, rather than laying out norms. This type of encounter begins the right kind of pastoral dialogue and creates an openness in people to the Gospel of marriage in its fullness (cf. AL 293, 297).

Pope Francis also speaks about the importance of moral truths not being “merely an ideal to be achieved in the future” (FC, 34; cf. AL 295, 300). He clearly states that, “if someone flaunts an objective sin… [s]uch a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion” (AL, 297). The discernment that accompanies the weak “can never prescind from the Gospel’s demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church” (AL, 300; emphasis added).

One example of where these principles are used is the case of divorced and remarried couples. It is possible that a person has objectively committed a sin but is not guilty of it, given their lack of awareness of Church teaching and other mitigating factors. I have found this myself in working with divorced and remarried people and young people who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ, the Gospel, or why the Church teaches what she does. I have known young people who have shared with me their experience of one priest telling them some behavior was perfectly fine, while another priest called their actions sinful.

Pope Francis reminds bishops and priests that it is important in these situations for them to take a pastoral approach, beginning with where the person is coming from and leading them to the truth in the way that Jesus did with the Samaritan woman. Only in that face to face conversation, with patience, love, mercy and truth will the heart and conscience be awakened to embrace the truth in charity, to hear the voice of God. Few priests or bishops would argue against such a pastoral approach to these difficult situations.

At the same time, a priest or bishop can never condone sin, for as the Lord tells us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments (Jn. 14:15).” Furthermore, the proper formation of conscience must always be guided by Sacred Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and testing the voice heard against the voice of God given in revelation and the teaching of the Church.

Scholars will surely debate the meaning of aspects of this exhortation, and rightly so. But as that debate occurs, I urge you to imitate St. Teresa of Avila, who said: “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, all things are passing away: God never changes.”

The world is in desperate need of beautiful, uplifting witnesses of faithful marriage. I see this being lived by young couples today who have been formed by a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, a love for the Gospel and the teachings of the Church, and an open heart to the sacramental life of the Church, most especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation, which sustain their married love.

The relentless search for new and different relationships is a sign of the real hunger people have for the communion of Trinitarian love for which they were created. This can only be totally satisfied by an authentic, total gift of self to Christ and in sacramental marriage that is open to the fruit of children. May the outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and a renewed commitment by the Church to bring Christ’s love and truth to families bring about the fulfillment of this desire.

COMING UP: Five Hispanic-American saints perhaps you didn’t know

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The American continent has had its share of saints in the last five centuries. People will find St. Juan Diego, St. Rose of Lima or St. Martin de Porres among the saints who enjoy greater popular devotion. Yet September, named Hispanic Heritage Month, invites a deeper reflection on the lives of lesser-known saints who have deeply impacted different Latin-American countries through their Catholic faith and work, and whose example has the power to impact people anywhere around the world. Here are just a few perhaps you didn’t know.

St. Toribio de Mogrovejo

Born in Valladolid, Spain, Toribio was a pious young man and an outstanding law student. As a professor, his great reputation reached the ears of King Philip II, who eventually nominated him for the vacant Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, even though Toribio was not even a priest. The Pope accepted the king’s request despite the future saint’s protests. So, before the formal announcement, he was ordained a priest, and a few months later, a bishop. He walked across his archdiocese evangelizing the natives and is said to have baptized nearly half a million people, including St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres. He learned the local dialects, produced a trilingual catechism, fought for the rights of the natives, and made evangelization a major theme of his episcopacy. Moreover, he worked devotedly for an archdiocesan reform after realizing that diocesan priests were involved in impurities and scandals. He predicted the date and hour of his death and is buried in the cathedral of Lima, Peru.

St. Mariana of Jesus Paredes

St. Mariana was born in Quito, modern-day Ecuador, and not only became the country’s first saint, but was also declared a national heroine by the Republic of Ecuador. As a little girl, Mariana showed a profound love for God and practiced long hours of prayer and mortification. She tried joining a religious order on two occasions, but various circumstances would not permit it. This led Mariana to realize that God was calling her to holiness in the world. She built a room next to her sister’s house and devoted herself to prayer and penance, living miraculously only off the Eucharist. She was known to possess the gifts of counsel and prophecy. In 1645, earthquakes and epidemics broke out in Quito, and she offered her life and sufferings for their end. They stopped after she made her offering. On the day of her death, a lily is said to have bloomed from the blood that was drawn out and poured in a flowerpot, earning her the title of “The Lily of Quito.”

St. Theresa of Los Andes

St. Theresa of Jesus of Los Andes was Chile’s first saint and the first Discalced Carmelite to be canonized outside of Europe. Born as Juana, the future saint was known to struggle with her temperament as a child. She was proud, selfish and stubborn. She became deeply attracted to God at the age six, and her extraordinary intelligence allowed her to understand the seriousness of receiving First Communion. Juana changed her life and became a completely different person by the age of 10, practicing mortification and deep prayer. At age 14, she decided to become a Discalced Carmelite and received the name of Theresa of Jesus. Deeply in love with Christ, the young and humble religious told her confessor that Jesus told her she would die soon, something she accepted with joy and faith. Shortly thereafter, Theresa contracted typhus and died at the age of 19. Although she was 6 months short of finishing her novitiate, she was able to profess vows “in danger of death.” Around 100,000 pilgrims visit her shrine in Los Andes annually.

St. Laura Montoya

After Laura’s father died in war when she was only a child, she was forced to live with different family members in a state of poverty. This reality kept her from receiving formal education during her childhood. What no one expected is that one day she would become Colombia’s first saint. Her aunt enrolled her in a school at the age of 16, so she would become a teacher and make a living for herself. She learned quickly and became a great writer, educator and leader. She was a pious woman and wished to devote herself to the evangelization of the natives. As she prepared to write Pope Pius X for help, she received the pope’s new Encyclical Lacrymabili Statu, on the deplorable condition of Indians in America. Laura saw it as a confirmation from God and founded the Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart and St. Catherine of Siena, working for the evangelization of natives and fighting or their behalf to be seen as children of God.

St. Manuel Morales

Manuel was a layman and one of many martyrs from Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s. He joined the seminary as a teen but had to abandon this dream in order to support his family financially. He became a baker, married and had three children. This change, however, did not prevent him from bearing witness to the faith publicly. He became the president of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, which was being threatened by the administration of President Plutarco Elías Calles. Morales and two other leaders from the organization were taken prisoners as they discussed how to free a friend priest from imprisonment through legal means. They were beaten, tortured and then killed for not renouncing to their faith. Before the firing squad, the priest begged the soldiers to forgive Morales because he had a family. Morales responded, “I am dying for God, and God will take care of my children.” His last words were, “Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe!”