Monday, April 11, 2016

Amoris Laetittia on the Ongoing Pastoral Care of Families

Pope Francis begins chapter six of his Apostolic Exhortation (“Some Pastoral Perspectives”) by referring back to the dialogue that took place during the Synod, which he claims raised the need for new pastoral methods (AL 199). What is being emphasized here, however, is not so much novelty as a response to the deepest expectations of the human person (AL 201). 

Since pastoral care occurs primarily in parishes, the Pope (again following the Synod) highlights the need for a more extensive and interdisciplinary, and not merely doctrinal, formation of seminarians in the area of engagement and marriage, and suggests they should combine time in the seminar with time spent in parishes (Al 203). 

Of course, the Pope is writing for the entire world, but I have to doubt that there are many – if any – seminaries in the US (and elsewhere) where seminarians do not spend time in parishes as a requisite part of their training. Actually one of the problems facing seminary education today may be the constant piling on of more and more requirements for this or that additional practical training. The challenge, I suspect, is probably less to add more time doing this or that practical activity but rather somehow to focus attention on better integrating academic theology and pastoral practice in a life which will require facility in both.

The Pope proceeds then to a discussion of preparation for marriage, which the Synod said required greater effort in view of the complexity of today’s society and the challenges faced by the family (AL 206). In actuality, of course, marriage preparation programs vary greatly in length and depth and in their relationship with the overall experience of parish life. None of this is new, of course. What does stand out particularly positively in this section, however, is the emphasis on the significance of the family of origin in preparing couples for marriage. Those best prepared form marriage a e probably those who learned what Christian marriage is from their own parents (AL 208). On the one hand, this is plain commonsense. On the other, it highlights how the widespread breakdown of Christian marriage in contemporary society spreads inexorably from generation to generation and what a challenge it really is to try to undo this.

Parenthetically, the Pope proposes the pastoral value of traditional religious practices. He has gotten some attention for the example he gives of Saint Valentine’s Day and his observation that commercial interests are quicker to see the potential of this celebration than are we in the Church (AL 208). It would only be fair to point out, however, that it wasn’t commercial interests that dropped Saint Valentine’s Day from the Roman Calendar in 1969 but Pope Paul VI’s ill-considered reconstruction of the calendar.

When I was in seminary, marriage preparation was extolled and weddings were presented as opportunities for evangelization. Only later did one experience what weddings are really like and how, in Pope Francis’ words, they drain not only the budget but energy and joy as well (AL 212). The Pope’s preference for a more modest and simple celebration is a challenge not just to brides and grooms but to the entire way we approach weddings in the Church and our widespread capitulation to secular wedding culture of rehearsal dinners, receptions, wedding videos, etc.

More to the point, the Pope challenges us to a renewed emphasis on permanence in marriage. Freedom and fidelity are not opposed to one another; rather, they are mutually supportive, both in interpersonal and social relationships. Indeed let us consider the damage caused, in our culture of global communication, by the escalation of unkept promises (AL 214).

Pope Francis freely dispenses much practical advice about how couples need to approach marriage, seeing life as a common project (AL 220). And, once again, he returns to the contemporary problem of contraception, explicitly invoking Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio in order to counter a mentality th tis often hostile to life (AL 222).

The Pope is aware that many couples, once married, drop out of the Christian community and challenges us to make better use of those occasions when they do return. He mentions the obvious occasions – Baptism First Communion, funerals, weddings – and also some occasions that would require more obvious outreach on our part, such as blessing homes or by bringing a pilgrim image of Our Lady to houses in the neighborhood. The overall point is that pastoral care for families has to be fundamentally missionary, going out to where people are. We can no longer be like a factory, churning out courses that for the most part are poorly attended (AL 230).

The rest of the chapter is taken up with the various sorts of difficulties and crises contemporary families frequently experience. One example that reflects a contemporary kind of awareness concerns what happens when one family member is emotionally immature because he or she stills bears the scars of earlier experiences (AL 239). Many people leave childhood without ever having felt unconditional love. This affects their ability to be trusting and open with others (AL 240).

And, of course, many married people for one reason or other eventually find themselves separated, divorced, or abandoned. Family breakdown becomes even more traumatic and painful in the case of the poor, since they have far fewer resources at hand for starting a new life. A poor person, once removed from a secure family environment, is doubly vulnerable to abandonment and possible harm (AL 242).

The Exhortation stresses that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church and that the community’s care for them, far from being a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage, is rather a particular expression of its charity (AL 243). In particular, Christian communities must include and support divorced parents who have entered a new union in their efforts to bring up their children. That said, the Pope reaffirms that Divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling. Hence our most important pastoral task with regard to families is to strengthen their love, helping to heal wounds and working to prevent the spread of this drama of our times (AL 246).

Here we find ourselves entering some of the areas that have merited the most media attention. The Exhortation reaffirms the teaching of the Catechism that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while “every sign of unjust discrimination” is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence (AL 250). That box having been checked, so to speak, the Exhortation then repeats the Synod’s reassertion that there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter” (AL 251). And that's all the Exhortation has to say on this topic, for all the attention it continues to receive in society at large.

Since the Exhortation aspires to address family life in its totality, this chapter concludes with a reflection on the challenge of death in the family. The Pope proposes a spiritually practical approach to mourning (AL 255) and recalls the Church’s practice of intercessory prayer on behalf of the departed – maintaining fellowship with our loved ones by praying for them. Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective (AL 257). 

Having covered most aspects of the ongoing pastoral care of families throughout the life-cycle, chapter six is followed by chapter seven (“Towards a Better Education of Children”), which focuses on what has usually been understood as the main social function of families and the reason society cares so much about them. Again this chapter could stand alone as a separate treatise on Christian formation and socialization. I will return to that topic on some other occasion. It contains much counter-cultural pedagogy  to consider and reflect on at greater length. Next, however, I want to jump ahead to chapter eight (“Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness”), which the Pope suggests everyone should feel challenged by (AL 7). This is, of course, the chapter on pastoral accompaniment, which is also the chapter that has gotten the most widespread public attention and scrutiny - and is perhaps the one which is most susceptible to conflicting interpretations.

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