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Pope Francis and The Joy of Love in a merciful church

Pope Francis exhorts the faithful to accompany each other on their life journey, and help each other be free in love. Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), provides important direction for the Catholic Church, presenting the joy and meaning of love, marriage and family.

Francis expresses the church’s perspective in a refreshing way, but also expands on his vision of a merciful church – particularly for those whose lives appear to be inconsistent with church teaching.

What does the pope say about families?

Pope Francis should be commended for opening up a process of dialogue that allowed the church to speak openly about a crucial issue of our time – the family – that is undergoing enormous change and strain, particularly in the West.

In Amoris Laetitia, there are beautiful, insightful and sharp reflections on the family, its problems, and the nature of love, which draw on this process of dialogue.

Despite this, Francis has been criticised for pushing at the margins of church teaching. Yet much of the exhortation expresses the church’s perspective in a systematic but down-to-earth way. He wants the everyday person to read and contemplate what he says, particularly for their lives.

His reflections go to the heart of what love and marriage are:

Lovers do not see their relationship as merely temporary. Those who marry do not expect their excitement to fade. Those who witness the celebration of a loving union, however fragile, trust that it will pass the test of time. Children not only want their parents to love one another, but also to be faithful and remain together. These and similar signs show that it is in the very nature of conjugal love to be definitive. The lasting union expressed by the marriage vows is more than a formality or a traditional formula; it is rooted in the natural inclinations of the human person.

Francis goes on to discuss how this natural bond of love between a man and a woman forms the basis for a family. He affirms that children have a natural right to a father and mother, and speaks of the meaning of being a father, mother and child:

Children, once born, begin to receive, along with nourishment and care, the spiritual gift of knowing with certainty that they are loved. This love is shown to them through the gift of their personal name, the sharing of language, looks of love and the brightness of a smile. In this way, they learn that the beauty of human relationships touches our soul, seeks our freedom, accepts the difference of others, recognises and respects them as a partner in dialogue … Such is love, and it contains a spark of God’s love!

There also are stronger statements on pastoral practices that were previously more discreet, such as discernment of conscience around “irregular situations” (such as being divorced and remarried), and the need for the church to improve marriage preparation.

The merciful church in action

Later in Amoris Laetitia, Francis shifts to think about how the church can respond to and integrate those whose:

… family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy.

He is making his vision of the church as “field hospital” more concrete. He wants the church to accompany people in the midst of difficulties, suffering and sin.

While criticisms of Francis’ teaching will be assessed in time, the strength of his approach is that he shows how the church can practice what it preaches – that is, the merciful love of God – especially to those who are outside of or on the margins of the church.

In particular, Francis is seeking a cultural and religious renewal in the church, so that its members can accompany others along their life journeys. This teaching is not new in itself but it is a challenge – to live God’s mercy more authentically.

Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, was a statement of this aim: to renew the church in its mission of mercy and love. He reminded the church that it is meant to be looking outward, not gazing at its own self-righteousness, by offering Christ’s love in dialogue to a world in need of mercy.

This message of reaching out to the lost and being aware of one’s own need for repentance is present in Jesus’ parable of the self-righteous Pharisee and the repentant tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).

This parable is quoted at the beginning of Francis’ recent book, The Name of God is Mercy. The parable shows Jesus’ focus on reaching out to the lost, not the perfect and saved. In Amoris Laetitia, Francis emphasises that God is present to all people, bringing grace and goodness out in the messiest situations. The church needs to do the same, with the awareness that its members were first lost.

Francis’ description of himself in his first media interview as pope was:

I am a sinner.

This language may sound strange to modern ears, but it is crucial to understanding the parable’s other important element. The parable shows that Jesus values truthful repentance over self-righteousness. Repentance comes from an encounter with God, who knows all things and loves us.

This encounter allows us to know our own sin and our need for forgiveness. Francis wants to facilitate this encounter, knowing that one cannot be forced into it and that often one can only gradually change (discussed in terms of “gradualness” in Amoris Laetitia).

Mercy means sharing the distress and chaos of another’s life. Francis is challenging the church to live as Christ lived: to share the distress of others in love. This does not mean hiding the truth of what Jesus and the church teaches (Jesus himself had a demanding moral teaching), but sharing it in love and forgiveness to the extent that people are ready for it.

Jesus’ peculiar message is that God wants to liberate and forgive us, not leave us suffering or impose his will or power on us. This is the vision that Francis wants to bring to the world, and he wants the church to live it, by being “ambassadors for Christ” in the “ministry of reconciliation” (as St Paul put it) – to accompany people, dialogue with them, share their pain, and help them to be free in love.

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