A couple weeks ago Pope Francis released his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortaton on the Family, The Joy of Love. I have already been getting some questions about it, particularly from people who are married civilly but not married in the Church about whether what the Pope wrote means that they can receive Holy Communion. I believe some clarifying comments are in order.
After reviewing communications from the diocese and reviewing the document as best I can in the midst of a busy schedule, I have concluded that it is safe to say that what you have seen on facebook, twitter, television, the radio or the newspaper about what Pope Francis wrote is quite possibly not going to be terribly helpful in understanding what the Pope actually said and what it means for the average Catholic in the pew.
One key concept in the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation is the idea of pastoral accompaniment. As I know well from my own family, family life is complicated. We live in a world in which there is a wide gap between the vision that the Church proposes for the family and what polite society accepts. Every Christian family feels this tension. When dealing with people who have publicly failed to conform to the Christian vision of marriage, we must avoid anything that smacks of judgmentalism and rather stress God’s mercy.
Doing so without compromising on essential points is not an easy task. My own experience has taught me that a great deal of gentleness and patience are required in order to accompany others well. Sometimes one must refrain from stating the obvious for weeks or even months in order to avoid crushing the bruised reed. In other cases, accompaniment means simply being present to people in difficult situations and seeking to love them. We should be very thankful to Pope Francis for reminding us just how important it is to accompany others in the midst of suffering and confusion.
Many of divorced and remarried Catholics carry with them deep wounds and perhaps even a sense of rejection from their own Church. We should accompany such persons with compassion, tenderness and honesty. We note that the normal way for divorced and remarried persons to return to the sacrament of Holy Communion remains through obtaining a decree of nullity and validation of their civil marriage. Thankfully, Pope Francis just made obtaining a declaration of nullity much, much easier.
We do very well to remember that close to 90% of the Pope’s document has nothing to do with what you will read about it because it a reiteration and deepening of the traditional Catholic teaching on family life.