Brothers and sisters in Christ:
Following the celebrated Fourteenth Ordinary Synod on the Family in 2015 convened by the Holy Father and the frank, open, inspired discussions and exchanges by the attendees and participants, Pope Francis has issued an apostolic exhortation that he has so felicitously titled Amoris Laetitia…The Joy of Love. The Holy Father explains himself best, and so the purpose of this letter is to provide us all with the proper context within which the letter is to be received, in faith and in joy, by us all.
Foremost among Pope Francis’ concerns has been to make the Church a more resplendent image of the Mercy of Father, incarnate in the Merciful Son. That means that the Church, in her teaching, her stewardship of goods, her pastoral programs and priorities, her institutions and practices, even her involvement in secular affairs gets her bearings from this basic pastoral concern: to manifest more clearly to a world fatigued from so many forms of cruelty and heartlessness the mercy of God.
The Apostolic Exhortation therefore challenges pastors and their communities to work for the transformation of families into seats of mercy, primordial loci for the members of families for the encounter with the mercy of God. Understandably then, the Exhortation is written with an awareness of the many challenges, difficulties, even threats to families, and the different reasons why they sometimes sadly are dysfunctional!
Clearly, the clergy, while, by their charism, are to inspire the laity and to order the talents, capacities and gifts of the members of the community in such wise as to be helpful to the apostolate to families, cannot bring about this renewal of families. Such an endeavor must be inclusive and dialogical – the members of the families themselves with none excluded should be agents of transformation, and a new evangelization for the domestic church!
What will be striking to many – and most certainly beguiling especially to secular media – is the treatment that the Exhortation gives to difficult situations: divorce and irregular unions among them. It should be made clear that the Holy Father does not in any way depart from the teaching of the Church as contained in the Creeds, the conciliar documents and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is certainly wrong to maintain the position that Catholic teaching in this respect has changed. Not that we fear change, but that there are some areas of Catholic doctrine where stability is of utmost importance.
It is in the treatment of persons that the Pope wishes to see significant change. Above all, he wants the Church to be the universal sign of mercy: mercy that does not overlook sin, but that looks lovingly on the sinner, and prays for him, aids him and embraces him that he may abandon sin and receive wholeheartedly the grace that is constantly offered him.
When the Pope therefore asks for more hospitality, welcome, friendship, even communion and solidarity with divorced and separated couples, with persons in irregular unions, he is by no means condoning whatever may be wrong or worse, sinful. He is asking us to be like the Merciful Redeemer who tells all sinners: “Neither do I condemn you.”
After collective discernment, your bishops will come up with more concrete guidelines on the implementation of the Apostolic Exhortation. But mercy cannot wait. Mercy should not wait. Even now, bishops and priests must open welcoming arms to those who have kept themselves out of the Church because of a sense of guilt and of shame. The laity must do no less. When our brothers and sisters who, because of broken relations, broken families and broken lives, stand timidly at the doors of our churches – and of our lives – unsure whether they are welcome or not, let us go out to meet them, as the Pope urges us to, and assure them that at the table of sinners at which the All-Holy Lord offers himself as food for the wretched, there is always room. O res mirabilis manducat Dominum pauper, servus et humilis…O wonderful reality that the poor, the slave and the lowly should partake of the Lord. This is a disposition of mercy, an openness of heart and of spirit that needs no law, awaits no guideline, nor bides on prompting. It can and should happen immediately.
At the same time, our parishes and dioceses should be schools of true Christian love: the love to which the community arising from the conviction that the Lord was indeed risen bore eloquent witness to! None was in need. All were attended to with care and with devotion. When families fail, we must all strike our breasts in contrition, for every Catholic community, every parish, for every diocese has a stake in the cohesion, love and constancy of a family.
It is a parish alive, a diocese alive that can boast not of magnificent infrastructure, tremendous financial resources, not even numbers, whether of clergy, religious or lay leaders, but that takes comfort in laetitia amoris…the joy of loving.
From the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, April 9, 2016
+ SOCRATES B. VILLEGAS
Archbishop of Lingayen Dagupan
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