Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) is a deep and important document.

Pope Francis has asked us to read his new apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family slowly and patiently. And I have been trying to do that since it was published late last week.

There has been almost a frenzy of reaction in the media, much of it confusing as different groups try to “spin” the document to their own personal perspective. 

The pope is clear that he has no intention of changing Church doctrine or teaching. Instead he wants to change our hearts so that we can better know and live what he calls “the primordial divine plan” for our lives and our society. 

“The Joy of Love”is a passionate, personal statement.

The pope draws insights and inspiration from saints and poets, even from films. He urges a “return” to two pillars of modern Church teaching — Blessed Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”) and St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (“The Family in the Modern World”). He includes a long quotation on love and endurance from the American civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The document is a reflection on last year’s Synod of Bishops, which gathered bishops for every nation to consider how to strengthen marriages and families in our times.

I was privileged to be one of the four delegates elected to represent the United States. And what I saw during the monthlong synod, I see in this new document: Pope Francis is deeply engaged in these issues. The pope knows that marriage and family are central to God’s plan. He also knows that the meaning of these institutions is now confused, disputed and threatened in our times.

The pope writes about the material challenges to the family — including poverty, migration, abuse and human trafficking, and changes in the global economy. But he sees the gravest threats coming from “anthropological-cultural changes” that call into question the very nature of the human person.

At the heart of modern life, the pope sees an “extreme individualism” that “makes people incapable of looking beyond themselves.” Our consumer society and media only deepen our selfishness and encourage a “culture of the ephemeral.”

People have come to believe “along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected or disconnected at the whim of the consumer, and the relationship quickly ‘blocked,’” the pope writes. “Everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye.”  

The pope is highly critical of some of the directions that America and other societies in the West are heading.

He has strong words to say about abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and “the legal deconstruction of the family.” He is deeply troubled about the “ideology of gender” — that is fast becoming “absolute and unquestionable, and even dictating” in our societies.

Again and again in “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis reminds us that marriage and family are God’s “way” for creation and a “vocation” for the human person.

He writes as a wise pastor about the meaning of married love, the joys of motherhood and fatherhood, and the gift of children. He has tender words of appreciation for couples whose married love lasts a lifetime: “Just as a good wine begins to ‘breathe’ with time, so too the daily experience of fidelity gives married life richness and ‘body.’… The love present from the beginning becomes more conscious, settled and mature as the couple discover each other anew day after day, year after year.”

The pope’s chapter on “love in marriage” should be read in every Catholic home and by every pastor and minister in the Church.

This chapter reads like a “how-to guide” to being married and staying married when the times get tough. It is filled with rich practical insights and advice on relationships and love.

“We encounter problems whenever we think that relationships or people ought to be perfect, or when we put ourselves at the center and expect things to turn out our way,” the pope writes.

There is a wisdom in these pages that has been gained from years in the confessional, and years as a pastor of souls and a counselor to spouses and families.

“True love values the other person’s achievements,” he writes. “It does not see him or her as a threat. It frees us from the sour taste of envy. It recognizes that everyone has different gifts and a unique path in life. So it strives to discover its own road to happiness, while allowing others to find theirs.”

Pope Francis is a realist. He knows about human weakness, imperfections, limitations and sin. He understands how the pain of past experience can play out in relationships.

I was touched by our Holy Father’s call for all of us in the Church to reach out with compassion to wounded families and persons whose marriages have ended in separation or divorce.

Throughout “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis affirms that marriage is more than a human ideal; it is a divine sacrament — a sign and instrument of God’s grace.

The Church must proclaim “God’s plan in all its grandeur,” he writes. And he affirms the “indissoluble exclusivity” of marriage in the Church’s teaching and pastoral practice.

The marriage union is “real and irrevocable, confirmed and consecrated by the sacrament of matrimony,” he writes. And God intends marriage to be the means by which spouses grow in holiness and to bring children into the world and to raise them.

But the pope recognizes, as we all do, that relationships can become broken and marriages can fall apart. And we need to respond with mercy and sensitivity in caring for those in pain and difficult situations.

Our Holy Father writes directly: “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.”

Personally, I was inspired and encouraged by what the pope has to say about preparing men and women for marriage and about our need to accompany couples, especially during those early years when couples are just starting out on the path of their life together.

We have been talking about that here since before the synod, with the help of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council and our Office of Family Life. We have a lot to learn from “The Joy of Love” and that will give us even more to talk about and to reflect upon in our pastoral plans and work.

As the pope writes: “Learning to love someone does not happen automatically, nor can it be taught in a workshop just prior to the celebration of marriage. For every couple, marriage preparation begins at birth.”

He cautions against an idealistic view of marriage with “unduly high expectations.” He urges us to teach young people that every marriage is a living thing — that “in joining their lives, the spouses assume an active and creative role in a lifelong project.”

“Change, improvement, the flowering of the good qualities present in each person — all these are possible,” the pope writes. “Each marriage is a kind of ‘salvation history,’ which from fragile beginnings — thanks to God’s gift and a creative and generous response on our part — grows over time into something precious and enduring. Might we say that the greatest mission of two people in love is to help one another become, respectively, more a man and more a woman?”

This week, let’s pray for one another and for all married couples and families, especially couples just starting out in marriage and those couples who are facing difficulties.

And let’s keep looking for new ways to inspire people to see marriage and family as God’s way for their lives, and to call them to this adventure in lifelong love that grows deeper through the sharing of joys and trials and the bringing of new life into the world.

Let us ask our Blessed Mother Mary and St. Joseph, who knew the joys of married love and children, to help all of us to grow deeper in our understanding of what God intends for our true happiness as men and women.

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