Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of Love – A reflection – Part II
2016 – Cycle C
Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14: 23-29
Last week I asked you to reflect on what brings you joy and fulfillment in life. Because who or whatever causes you joy is God’s desire for you.
Have you ever considered what causes God joy?
Pope Francis opens his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of Love, with the statement: “The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church”. And I would add, is the joy of God. For the whole history of salvation in the Bible is told through stories about families, births, love stories and family crisis. [AL #8] Pope Francis writes, “[Families] are first and foremost an opportunity”; opportunities that God recognizes and uses. [AL #7]
From the very first pages of creation we are introduced to a family: Adam and Eve, and their sons Cain, Abel and Seth. Sadly, this new family becomes burdened by jealousy and unspeakable violence. Yet a promise is made to Adam and Eve of salvation and redemption and the story of God’s joy and love continues and an opportunity arises. Regretfully, families are stilled marked by the taking of life in various forms and jealousies. Too many parents bury their children, like Abel or lose them to forces beyond the family as Cain wanders into the land of Nod.
The story of salvation, redemption and a promise continue through the family of Noah, his wife and extended family who in being faithful to God, though they do not fully understand, face the ridicule and opposition of the people (a boat in the desert?) and the forces of nature. How can we not be mindful of the families who have perished and survived the tsunamis, earthquakes and monster hurricanes of a changing climate? If not, the emotional storms and earthquakes within families?
The life giving story of Abram and Sarah. An elderly couple would seem to be a dead end for family – except for God. Life irrupts where life should not be able to occur in the birth of Isaac. A family who internally struggles with the commands of God to snuff out the life promised to them. We might question, was it an angel that stopped Abram from slaughtering his son or was it the voice of mother Sarah, who like women through the ages have raised their voices against male violence of all kinds? …women who often suffer the most from family violence? Another opportunity for life…and the story continues.
It is said the brothers, Esau and Jacob, the sons of Isaac and Rebecca, fought each other throughout their lives beginning within the womb. Because of their rivalry this family experienced the betrayal of a wife/mother and son as together they work to deceive the husband/father to steal a birthright from the elder brother. The fight that began in the womb continued. How often do families fight over what is not theirs by right? How often is sibling rivalry a reality in our families?
Jacob, Leah and Rachel are the parents of a nation, the twelves tribes of Israel. Yet out of jealousy the brothers sell the youngest, Joseph, into slavery. God may have used this situation to save the Middle East from an ancient famine but at what price to the family? Yet God’s saving of Joseph for high office brings salvation and joy and the story of redemption continues.
There is Hannah and Elkanah and their child, the prophet Samuel; the prophet Hosea and his unfaithful wife, Gomer; the joy-filled family of Elizabeth and Zechariah and their son, John the Baptist; King David and Michal; a love story that ended in contempt, betrayal, adultery and murder; Moses and his wife Zipporah and his jealous siblings the priest, Aaron and prophetess, Miriam and the wonderful love story of Ruth and Boaz. Family after family marks the story of God.
Do you see yourself and your family in these stories; real and imperfect yet loving families striving to do the best they can?
Jesus was born into a modest family whose life begins wrapped in the suspicions of adultery and talk of divorce; a family, like present-day Syrians, forced from their home becoming refugees in a foreign land; a family who experiences a child arrested, charged, jailed and executed. Another mother buries her child. Was Joseph, as at Jesus’ birth, silently in the background?
Jesus knows the anxieties and tensions experienced by families. He weaves them into his parables: the adventurous prodigal son who leaves behind home and his jealous elder brother (Luke 15:11-32), or children who prove troublesome not doing what they say they will (Matthew 21:28-31). Jesus is sensitive to the embarrassment caused by the lack of wine at a wedding feast (John 2:1-10), the failure of guests to respond to a dinner invitation (Matthew. 22:1-10) or the anxiety of a poor family over the loss of a coin or sheep (Luke 15:1-10). [AL #21]
Like Jesus, Pope Francis expresses the awareness Catholic bishops have of the challenges to marriage and family life faced daily by husbands and wives, mothers and fathers and children today. He notes that our idyllic images and expectations of families (Think here of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers, Christmas card images and Thanksgiving, Christmas and wedding day expectations) are often at odds with the bitter truth found throughout sacred Scripture, that is, the presence of pain, evil and violence that mingle, challenge and often cause the break up families with their communion of life and love. [AL #19] What are your images and expectations of family life? Are they honest and real?
Francis observes less and less support from social structures, extreme individualism and the tensions created by a culture caught up in possessions and pleasures weaken family bonds. Families encounter the fast pace of life, widespread uncertainty, loneliness and ambiguity. He asks, how many people view life as the achievement of a person’s personal goals so that committed relationships are feared as an entrapment? Thus the ideal of marriage, marked by commitment, exclusivity and stability is often swept aside as inconvenient or tiresome. Everything is disposable, even people, and then we say, goodbye. [See AL #33, 34, 39] Unemployment, economic constraints, drug use, alcoholism, gambling, lack of affordable housing, illness, unavailability to adequate healthcare and poverty compound the breakdown of the family.
In the light of, and in response to, contemporary family life throughout the world, Francis discusses two areas of church life: pastoral discernment and the role of a formed personal conscience.
Francis speaks to pastors. When faced with difficult situations and wounded families…pastors are obliged to exercise careful discernment of a situation and to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations. [See AL #79] Francis is saying that the church needs to meet people where they are. To acknowledge the grace of conversion already present in people’s lives. Not everything is black and white. Or as Gilbert and Sullivan tuned in their operetta, H.M.S. Pinafore, “Things are seldom what they seem.”
He gives the following example: When a couple in an irregular marital union attains a noteworthy stability through a public, civil bond that is characterized by deep affection, responsibility towards the children and the ability to overcome trials – this can be seen as an opportunity. This can be seen and must be acknowledged as God’s grace active in their lives and an opportunity to lead such a couple to celebrate the sacrament of Marriage. [See AL #78]
We are all to first seek, discover and confirm the good in people’s lives upon which a stronger life of grace can be built.
Secondly, Francis acknowledges that the church has found it difficult to make room for the conscience of the people, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations (Consider our biblical families.) and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We [the teachers, bishops, theologians and pastors] have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. [See AL #37]
Every effort, Francis teaches, should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by responsible and serious discernment. This discernment, conscience, needs to be formed by church teaching. But conscience does more than to judge what does or does not agree with church teaching. Conscience can also recognize with “a certain moral security” what God is asking in a particular situation. Pastors need to help people not simply follow rules, but to practice “discernment,” a word that implies prayerful decision making. [See AL #303] I addressed the issue of conscience on the Third Sunday of Lent.
Francis is seeking a Church that recognizes the complexity of family life. He is seeking pastors who will walk with families and together seek understanding and the will of God. Francis is acknowledging the spiritual maturity of our people who are to always be encouraged to live by the demands of the Gospel, but should also be welcomed into a church that appreciates their particular struggles and treats them with mercy.
Here is found the joy of God in his sons and daughters.