'Amoris Laetitia' lays out 'a mission to live and love as a family'

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WASHINGTON - Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation on love and the family invites the church to see the daily struggles of families as an opportunity to encounter people the way Jesus encountered people with mercy throughout his life, Catholic observers said.

Because of its length - 256 pages - and the depth to which the pope explores love, marriage and church teaching on the family, the document deserves to be unpacked with patience and careful discernment for mercy to take root in the church's response to real human needs, Catholic leaders said.

The exhortation, "Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), on Love in the Family," was Pope Francis' reflection on the discussion, debate and suggestions raised during the 2014 and 2015 meetings of the Synod of Bishops on the family.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted Pope Francis' repeated calls of the importance of clergy taking time to get to know individual circumstance and discuss with people how they can discern God's teaching for their lives.

The pope points to "dialogue, which requires both speaking and listening, and discerning to help people see what their next step is" as key to his call for mercy, Archbishop Kurtz, a member of both synods, said in an interview after participating in an online news conference at USCCB headquarters.

The archbishop said the pope is attempting to help people encounter Jesus and through that encounter feel the love of God. "There is that sense of being very intentional because we carry with us the capacity to walk with people to Christ. And he's saying husbands and wives, you also have that potential," Archbishop Kurtz said.

"We all share that responsibility to conversion about what does it mean to deepen our sense and let Christ shine more clearly through so people don't see the rule (of the church), they see the person of Jesus coming through," he explained.

During the news conference, Archbishop Kurtz described the exhortation as a "love letter to families" that invites all people to "never stop growing in love."

"It is also a love letter calling the church, the family of God, to realize more and more her mission to live and love as a family," he said.

Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., chairman of the bishops' Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family, Life and Youth, said the exhortation invites the church to heal wounds that families experience because of poverty, human trafficking, immigration, domestic violence and pornography.

"We also have room to grow and improve and we welcome the pope's encouragement for the renewed witness to the truth and beauty of marriage of a more tender closeness and families who are experiencing real difficulties," Bishop Malone said.

Both prelates said the exhortation builds on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council as well as Pope Francis' post-conciliar successors, Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and invites ministers to welcome people who may have turned away from the church because they feared their status - as single parents, those with same-sex attraction, or being divorced and civilly remarried - would mean they are unwelcome in the church.

"I think the call is for the whole church, the bishops, the priests, the lay leadership, but also each family to be able to say 'God has given me such beauty in my family and things with his help can be much more.' I think that's what he is talking about the grace that is at work in each one of our lives," Archbishop Kurtz said in response to a question.

Helen Alvare, professor of law at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, who was the third news conference participant, described the document as balancing the natural longing for marriage in society with a "raw appreciation for how bad the situation can be on the ground."

The pope acknowledges misperceptions about church teaching on sex, that some perceive marriage as evil so avoid it, the fear of raising children, and ideas that marriage has become an "empty ritual," Alvare said.

She also identified the pope's deep concerns for children, whose rights often are overlooked because of the challenges facing many families.

Meanwhile, Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, a member of both synods, said that with the huge number of references in the document to the two synods, "it's clear that Pope Francis is trying to insert in the mainstream of Catholic theological thought and tradition the expressions of the challenges that the bishops say they are facing and what the bishops brought to this whole discussion."

"I don't find anything surprising" in the document, he said during a break from meetings in Rome, "but I welcome its welcoming tone addressed to everyone. He's saying: 'This is the faith of the church. Yes, it's difficult to live. Yes, we know we don't all live it as fully as we should. But we are still all part of God's family, God loves us and we have to be making our way together."

"It's a beautiful apostolic exhortation because it doesn't say, 'Here are the answers to everything.'"

On the situation of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, the document "starts with this beautiful reminder, 'You're still part of the family.'"

The document, he said, invites the divorced and civilly remarried to acknowledge church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and to honestly examine their situation and discover how they can grow closer to Christ.

"I don't see anything in the document that changes much of what we're already doing in pastoral practice and that is you meet with people, you try to help them address their lived situation," he said. "We're not changing anything (in church teaching), but we're not saying, 'because you're not perfect, this is no longer your home.'"

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016