Last Friday, the Vatican published Pope Francis' eagerly-awaited Apostolic Exhoratation on the family, drawing together almost three years of consultations with Catholics in countries around the world.

The lengthy document, entitled 'Amoris Laetitia', or The Joy of Love, affirms the Church's teaching that stable families are the building blocks of a healthy society and a place where children learn to love, respect and interact with others.

At the same time the text warns against idealizing the many challenges facing family life, urging Catholics to care for, rather than condemning, all those whose lives do not reflect the teaching of the Church.

In particular the document focuses on the need for "personal and pastoral discernment" for individuals, recognizing 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".

The full, unabridged text of the Apostolic Exhortation 'Amoris Laetitia' or The Joy of Love, can be downloaded here on the Vatican website.

The official summary can be found here.

Fr Rich's reflection on Pope Francis' summary of the Synod on the Family, "The Joy of Love"

When Pope Francis encourages all of us to meet families where they are at -- not wait until they are "perfect," I believe this is a corrective long over-due and desperately needed. As he has often reminded us, we are a church of real people, which means we are sinners, none of us is perfect. Jesus didn't come, as the Gospels tell us, for the healthy people, but for those who were sick.

Many years ago, when I was an adolescent, one of my older sisters was dating a man who had been married and divorced. When she told my parents they were going to be married, my parents wished them well, but also told them they couldn't be coming by any more because there were still young children in the house and they should not be exposed to this relationship which was in violation of church teaching.

Fast forward some number of years and my parents, along with most of society, while remaining faithful Catholics, going to church every Sunday, etc., also stopped letting Church law keep them separated from their family members. They may have wished all their children were in stable, loving relationships with marriages blessed by the Church. But that simply wasn't the case and they realized they weren't going to change that reality by alienating their children and their significant others.

In a sense, my feeling on Pope Francis is to let out a sigh and say, "Thank God! We're finally going to deal with reality!" Sure we would all like every relationship to follow all the Church's teachings for the good of the couple and society. But none of us is perfect. So we can either deal with reality as we find it, or we can live in a kind of la-la land pretending it is something other than it is.

At this point it also is only fair to point out that while holding married couples and couples in other relationships to this perfect standard, as we saw (and continue to see) in the horrible and painful crisis of sexual abuse by clergy and cover-ups by bishops, the same ones insisting upon perfection from others refused to hold themselves to those unrealistic standards. And even far worse behaviors were allowed and hidden while generation after generation was left vulnerable.

But does this mean, therefore, we simply toss out all the teachings and the laws about marriage and relationships? Obviously the answer is an emphatic, No! But we always need to be reminded that mercy trumps justice. Or, as Pope Francis also is fond of pointing out, mercy IS justice. Because we are talking about God, who is love. And love never stops at what is "fair."

So we can keep all our laws and teachings, all our aspirations and ideals. We just shouldn't pretend they are how we operate in every day life. Or, to put it another way, we all make mistakes. And we all need forgiveness. That's why they put erasers on the end of pencils!

When we check this against the Gospels, it seems pretty clear Jesus was never tired of forgiving. But his intolerance for arrogance and hypocrisy and legality by religious leaders was amazingly strong and consistent.

I suspect hardened cynics and perfectionists will think this will bring a quick and ruinous end to the Church and marriage and society as we know it. And there are probably some people who will use this call for compassion as a license to do whatever they want without any serious consideration of what that might mean. But I also think most people understand they aren't perfect and their families aren't perfect, and it was never about perfection anyway. It's about caring for one another, loving one another, supporting one another. Which means when we make mistakes we help pick each other up and learn from those mistakes and try to do better the next time.

Fr. Rich

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