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Amoris laetitia and the Synod. The pastoral care of engaged and married couples is not the pastoral care of exceptions

A concrete, substantial, varied and multifarious document: once again, Pope Francis, with the heart of the Shepherd, enters the daily situations of family life in a simple, yet profound way, with poetic and romantic nuances. The main challenge of ecclesial communities is encompassed in the three verbs that denominate the eighth chapter: “Accompanying, discerning, integrating.”

The pastoral care of engaged and married couples is not the pastoral care of exceptions. This slogan could indeed summarise one of the main – perhaps the most anticipated – message of Pope Francis’ post-Synodal Exhotation Amoris laetitia, on love in the family. It is useful to start from here in approaching the text, in order to temper enthusiasms or leaps forward, and to mitigate complaints and criticism for what was not or what could have been. The reason is stated clearly in n.307 of the document.

“Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown.”

It’s a question of sensitivity whereby is viewed marriage and family life, which, given its complexity, rejects vain and futile discussions between “winners and losers”, that do not pertain to the very nature of the Church. Moreover, a constructive contribution is given by a profound vision of family life, marriage, the People of God, called to live their vocation at difficult and complex times.

Presentazione dell’Esortazione apostolica postsinodale “Amoris laetitia” (Roma, 8 aprile 2016)For this, the title chosen for the Exhortation – “Amoris laetitia” (“The joy of love”) – suggests a positive, proactive spirit. As known, the opening words of major papal documents normally indicate the general purpose of the text, its preeminent focus. This is the case for “Amoris laetitia”: “The Joy of Love experienced by families”, states n.1. It does not refer to ideal abstractions or projections but rather to the beauty of marriage and family life, despite all the challenges it entails. Hence the text is remarkably concrete. Let it suffice to read nos. 32-57, or chapters four, five and six. Once again, with the heart of the Shepherd, Pope Francis enters the daily situations of family life in a simple, yet profound way, with poetic and romantic nuances. Like in no. 163, when he talks about the “transformation of love” and “that they daily reaffirm the decision to love, to belong to one another.”

A concrete, yet substantial, varied and multifarious document, marked by remarkable, lengthy reflections (nine chapters and 325 paragraphs).

“Given the rich fruits of the two-year Synod process, this Exhortation will treat, in different ways, a wide variety of questions”, Francis states at n. 7. “This explains its inevitable length. Consequently, 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, or if attention is paid to the parts dealing with their specific needs. (…) It is my hope that, in reading this text, all will feel called to love and cherish family life.”

In the words of the Pope recur two powerful emphases: the gaze according to Ignatian spirituality (=taking care) and the pastoral care sensitive to the concrete aspects of family life. But not only. “Amoris laetitia” bears witness, in an indelible way, in clear letters, to the Synodal process carried out in 2014 and 2015, with two assemblies dedicated to the same theme: the family.

Without any fear of contradiction, it could be stated that “Amoris laetitia” is a post-Synodal Exhortation in the authentic sense of the word. It is the expression of “coming together” (= Synod) – laity, pastors, Bishop of Rome – generating that very “dynamism of communion” which should be the foundation of all ecclesial decisions.

This is not theoretical, it represents the original, profound reality of the Church (mystery of communion) that should be manifested in every ecclesial community and should operate as a rule of life.

Synodality and collegiality also emerge in the so-called critical appreciation, i.e. the “footnotes” of the text. There are the traditional ones in a document of this kind: the former papal Magisterium and the other interventions of the Holy See; along with important references to Thomas Aquinas and Ignatius of Loyola; citations from renowned “ecumenical” figures such as Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and those of outstanding personalities, including psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, the poets Jorge Luis Borges and Octavio Paz, philosophers Antonin Sertillanges and Josef Pieper. Of particular interest is the quote from the movie “Babette’s Feast” to explain the concept of gratuitousness. And, as in other texts of Francis, there are the contributions of the various Episcopal Conferences of the world: Spain, Korea, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Australia, CELAM (Latin American Episcopal Council), Italy, Kenya.

It’s the breath of Catholicism,

which, having incorporated the lesson of the Second Vatican Council, opens up more and more to its authentic, global dimension. This carries relevant, challenging consequences at ecclesiological level, which Francis is fully aware of. For that reason, at n.3 “Since “time is greater than space”, not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.” Further on, at n.300 is clarified: “it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases”, also because, is stated in n.304, “it is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule…”.

Moreover, the main challenge for ecclesial communities is encompassed in the three verbs that give the title to chapter eight: “Accompanying, discerning, integrating.” These are underlying attitudes that complete and refer to one another, thereby transforming the approach towards “fragilities”: “the Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements” (no. 308). It’s the “logic of pastoral mercy”, the only one capable of giving an answer to the quest for salvation present in the heart of each one, of every family.

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