Several weeks ago I wrote “Not yet…” an article that acknowledged Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, the Joy of Love – and noted that I was glad people were asking me about it, but I needed time to read it, re-read it, and think about it. I can report that I have now read it, have re-read parts of it, and am still thinking about. What I can offer at this point is some thoughts from here and there – and offer them cautiously at that.
There is a part of such a document following a special synod, where the pope has to acknowledge that he has listened and reflected upon the ideas that the Cardinals, Bishops, and lay leaders in attendance offered. The first three chapters have this flavor, but it all changes in Chapter 4. When citations from the synod discussions cease, Pope Francis seems to find his own voice. What follows is a moving reflection on the beauty of marriage and the practical ways to keep love alive, and indeed make it grow. It is his own reflection on married life, love, and St. Paul’s beautiful passage from 1 Corinthians 12-13: love is patient… If you have attended a wedding you have no doubt heard it.
Chapter 4 is where you hear the voice of Pope Francis. Reading it was like the moment in Philadelphia when he went “off script” and you heard the deep pastoral resonance and experience well up in to his words. I think that long after the debates and controversies have faded into history, we will be returning to Chapter 4. Catholics will still be meditating on the pope’s engaging description of marital love and his gentle promptings of how to keep it fresh.
Chapter 4 could be a plan for a retreat or a marriage encounter, the outline for a pre-Cana conference, or even an examination of conscience. It is a document spouses can read to each other and pray over, or send to young relatives who have just gotten engaged. It is Catholic marital spirituality at its finest. Francis writes, “Marital joy can be experienced even amid sorrow. It involves accepting that marriage is an inevitable mixture of enjoyment and struggles, tensions and repose, pain and relief, satisfactions and longings, annoyances and pleasures, but always on the path of friendship, which inspires married couples to care for one another.”
What results is a personal letter to married couples full of sound, kind, practical advice – no doubt drawn from his pastoral experience and compassion. Francis reminds us of our better, nobler selves and calls us back to the ideals of love that each of us has experienced, but few of us remember in the day-to-day commotion of married life. “The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven. It is a joy and a great consolation to bring delight to others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centered, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give freely to them and thus bear good fruit.”
That is what I can share at this point in time – in the meantime, still working on it…