Bishop's Interview: Pope’s exhortation focuses on love in the family
Editor: Bishop, on April 8, Pope Francis released his latest Apostolic Exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia.” To begin with what is the difference between an exhortation and an encyclical?
Bishop Vásquez: An encyclical is a letter written by the pope to strengthen a particular teaching of the church. Typically an exhortation is the result of the work that has been done through the Synod of Bishops; it is written as the Holy Father reflects on the discussions, debates and suggestions that were raised during the meetings of the Synod of Bishops.
“Amoris Laetitia” – The Joy of Love is based on the two synods of the family, which Pope Francis convoked in 2014 and 2015 to address issues having to do with family life. “The Synod process allowed for an examination of the situation of families in today’s world, and thus for a broader vision and a renewed awareness of the importance of marriage and the family. The complexity of the issues that arose revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual and pastoral questions,” Pope Francis writes in the exhortation (2). Bishops, clergy, religious and lay people from around the world participated in the Synod on the family, and Pope Francis listened attentively to what is going on in families around the world. In this exhortation he brings together his reflections on the discussions and presentations during the synod.
Editor: To whom is the exhortation addressed?
Bishop Vásquez: The exhortation is addressed to bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated religious, married couples and all the lay faithful as well. It is a comprehensive letter given to the whole church to present the fruit of what Pope Francis discerned, prayed about and synthesized from those synod discussions. “Amoris Laetitia” or “The Joy of Love” is about the family which has always been very close to the Holy Father’s heart. From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has been concerned about family life, and when people read this exhortation, I think they will find the pope’s words on the family to be pastoral and inspiring.
The pope begins with the biblical understanding of marriage and of the family and then he progresses to the experiences and challenges found in modern families. Having been a priest and then a bishop in Argentina, he is aware that families struggle. He knows there are divorced couples and single parents raising children. He is very clear in saying that the church opens her doors to anyone who is suffering and hurting in these particular circumstances. He says that all families who experience pain and suffering are welcome to the church and the church should be the place where people find solace, strength, mercy, patience and understanding.
Pope Francis also sees the challenges of what it means to be married in today’s complex world, and he is aware that in many countries marriage rates are declining. “We need to find the right language, arguments and forms of witness that can help us reach the hearts of young people, appealing to their capacity for generosity, commitment, love and even heroism, and in this way inviting them to take up the challenge of marriage with enthusiasm and courage,” the pope writes (40).
With this he is saying that the church — bishops, priests, clergy and laity — need to accompany families. We have to walk with them on their journey, for this is the true encounter — whether it is in their times of great joy or it is in times of great pain and suffering. Pope Francis desires that families be welcomed in the church and that no one be excluded or made to feel left out because they have experienced separation or divorce.
Throughout the exhortation, Pope France talks about discernment. This is why in the very beginning of his exhortation, he tells people not to “rush” through the document. “It is my hope that, in reading this text, all will feel called to love and cherish family life, for families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity,” he writes (7).
The Holy Father expects priests and deacons to walk with families who are hurting to help them find reconciliation, stability and understanding. He says this should be done in the spirit of discernment and reflection on a family by family basis. It is important to note that Pope Francis does not water down the teachings of the church on the sanctity of marriage; however, he is very careful and pastoral in his approach to families who are struggling with divorce, separation or abandonment. “To turn our backs on a grieving family would show a lack of mercy, mean the loss of a pastoral opportunity, and close the door to other efforts at evangelization,” he writes (253).
Editor: Who do you think should read this document?
Bishop Vásquez: I encourage everyone to read it (find the full text at www.vatican.va). It’s addressed to all in the church. Primarily as bishops and clergy, we need to become familiar with this document. I know as a pastor and having been a priest now for more than 30 years that there are many stressors on family life. There are so many competing voices in our society that want the attention of the family. This document helps us as a church be more welcoming to all, and I hope it helps people understand that in the church they will have someone to walk with them when/if they find themselves in these difficult situations.
I especially encourage couples who are engaged to be married to read this document, and married couples might consider reading this document together and discussing it. It is a lengthy document and again the Holy Father encourages us not to rush through it, but to take our time and understand the beauty of the family and married life.
Editor: What are some of your favorite parts of the document?
Bishop Vásquez: I think one of my favorite parts is when he talks about married life. He offers beautiful reflections as he says marriage is a precious sign for when a man and a woman celebrate the sacrament of marriage God is mirrored in them. He impresses in them his own features and the indelible character of his love. In this the pope is telling married couples they reflect God to us in the world and the love between a husband and a wife is sacred, which is why the church considers this vocation so important. “Marriage is a vocation, inasmuch as it is a response to a specific call to experience conjugal love as an imperfect sign of the love between Christ and the Church. Consequently, the decision to marry and to have a family ought to be the fruit of a process of vocational discernment,” he writes (72).
I also find the parts where Pope Francis reflects on sacred Scripture and develops the theme of the importance of family life and family living to be very pastoral. Beginning with paragraph 90, he reflects on love as it is described by St. Paul in First Corinthians: Love is patient; Love is at the service of others; Love is not jealous; Love is generous; Love forgives. These are just a few of the titles of the paragraphs in which the pope reflects on love in the context of family life, which is indeed a true blessing and a beautiful vocation.
Editor: This document doesn’t change anything in terms of church teachings?
Bishop Vásquez: No. The Holy Father having reflected upon the many questions that were raised during the synod does not make any changes to church teaching with this document. He maintains church doctrine on the essential teachings regarding divorce and remarriage, the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, and defending life as a precious gift from God that we must continue to protect. In “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis provides a fresh look at families and how we can help those who are struggling.
Editor: What is your prayer for all families; small and large, traditional and nontraditional?
Bishop Vásquez: My prayer for all families is that all of us find a home in the church; and that we are all welcomed. May we experience the presence of others walking with us in our joys and in our sadness. As the Holy Father says at the end of the exhortation, may families continue to grow and mature in our ability to love (325). I invoke the intercession of the Holy Family, as I pray “that our families too may be places of communion and prayer, authentic schools of the Gospel and small domestic churches” (page 256). May families be free from violence, division and rejection and may we continue to defend the sacredness of the family and its beauty in God’s plan.
Download the pdf of Amoris Laetitia here: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia.html.