CNS PHOTO BY L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO Pope Francis greets newly married couples during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in this Sept. 30, 2015 file photo.
CNS PHOTO BY L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO Pope Francis greets newly married couples during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in this Sept. 30, 2015 file photo.

Dear Brother Priest,

As the priests at the service of the Church of Washington, we have welcomed the apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, issued March 19, 2016 by our Holy Father, Pope Francis. Perhaps one reason Amoris Laetitia has been so widely and wholeheartedly embraced is because we recognize in it a loving openness to pastoral ministry attuned to the needs of an increasingly broken world and a statement of consensus that came out of the two synods of bishops in Rome.

This apostolic exhortation follows on the October 2014 and October 2015 synods on the family and that long process of discernment and reflection. With our daylong discussion at the clergy convocation in May and the material that each priest has received, we find support in sharing the teaching of Amoris Laetitia and implementing it in our pastoral ministry. Conversations at recent meetings, including the priest council and the college of consultors, have provided opportunities for more reflection on how the apostolic exhortation helps our ministry and responds to the spiritual and pastoral needs of our day. It was suggested, however, that I find a way to share those observations with all of the priests. 

A helpful starting point is the magisterial continuity of Amoris Laetitia that relies so intuitively on the teachings on marriage and human love of Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  As is the case with all post-synodal apostolic exhortations, this one too is a manifestation of authentic papal magisterium.  In that context, the document sounds important notes of its own and significantly contributes to and applies the hallmarks of post-conciliar renewal. 

You may recall that with the publication of Amoris Laetitia I did four blogs, the first is an overview of the apostolic exhortation (April 8, 2016), the second points out that this is a consensus exhortation (April 11, 2016), the third underlines the magisterial continuity of Amoris Laetitia (April 21, 2016), and the fourth and final blog is on the pastoral implications of Amoris Laetitia (April 22, 2016). 

Love is clearly at the center of Amoris Laetitia. The treatment of love which occupies the central chapters is a magnificent contribution to the modern magisterium’s treatment of the subject. Not only does it beautifully synthesize Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, but also adds a masterful and meditative reflection on the qualities of love discussed by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 (cf. AL, nos. 90-119).  The treatment of love in chapter 4 is for many the heart of the document.

Pope Francis approaches his teaching ministry first and foremost as a pastor of souls. This can be a challenge and an incentive for all of us who seek to do the same thing. There is always the temptation simply to annunciate doctrinal points as if this is the same as engaging in pastoral ministry with a person who is discerning how they can appropriate this teaching. The pastoral ministry of accompanying the discerner benefits over the years from pastoral experience. We hear that voice of experience in this document where, in many places, one recognizes the voice of a pastor speaking directly to members of his flock, sharing his own experience and wisdom formed from many years of service to God’s people.

We agreed we did not need new norms. We have them. We know the Church’s teaching on family and marriage, and the relevant parts of the Code of Canon Law.  None of this has changed. But the two synods and the apostolic exhortation are not just about repeating norms. The focus is on pastoral ministry to those who struggle to understand, appreciate or appropriate the teaching (cf. AL, no. 31). The emphasis is on pastoral discernment and accompaniment.

One way to express the pastoral mission of the Church today and our own pastoral ministry is to attend to the lived expression of mercy and love that can be found in four principal activities: listening, accompanying, discerning and evangelizing.

Amoris Laetitia is itself the fruit of very intensive LISTENING on the part of Pope Francis. The two synods on family were preceded by consultation of local churches throughout the world on the lived situation of families, their challenges, and their experience. The extraordinary synod of 2014 reflected on the challenges to marriage and family and, thus, prepared the agenda for the 2015 ordinary assembly. Pope Francis modeled this listening activity by his attentive presence in the synod assembly hall.  Indeed, he comments on this experience at the outset of the apostolic exhortation (cf. AL, no. 4).

Pope Francis understands this process of listening to the faithful and to his brother bishops to be a key part of his own teaching and pastoral ministry.  It is part of the “synodality” or “journeying together” which he sees as essential to the Church at every level (Address Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, October 17, 2015). The fruit of this listening is reflected in the generous citation and reflection of the reports of the two synods in Amoris Laetitia

As we – priests – spoke together on numerous occasions, it was clear that being open to the pastoral emphasis and impetus of Pope Francis is one way we enter into the joy of the Gospel and help people, once again, renew the joy of love.  Clearly, the Holy Spirit was acting during these two years of synodal reflection and discussion and the fruit is found in this beautiful apostolic exhortation that also calls us to be as open to the action of the Holy Spirit as were the synods.

The second activity on which the document focuses is ACCOMPANYING, the pastoral accompaniment of families by the community of the Church. In many ways this is an extension of listening and of the synodality to which it gives rise.  The journeying together of all of the members of the Church implies this accompaniment. But it also calls for a change in pastoral style and intensity.

Pope Francis calls pastors to do more than teach the Church’s doctrine – though they clearly must do that.  Pastors must “take on the ‘smell of the sheep” whom they serve so that “the sheep are willing to hear their voice” (EG, no. 24).  This requires a more careful and intensive formation of all who minister to families—lay ministers, catechists, seminarians, priests, and families themselves (cf. AL, nos. 200 - 204).

In chapter 6 he also draws attention to stages of life where this pastoral accompaniment of families is particularly important:  in preparing for marriage, in the first years after marriage, during times of crisis, in cases of marital breakdown, and when families are touched by death.

The Church’s pastoral ministry to families is intended to help them to grow in the art of DISCERNING. A key part of discernment is the formation of conscience.  The Holy Father insists that the Church’s pastors must “make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are ca­pable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL, no. 37).

Part of this formation includes presenting the teaching of the Church in its fullness and without compromise (cf. AL, no. 307) though in language which is welcoming rather than defensive or one-sided (cf. AL, nos. 36, 38). But it is families themselves who must be invited to understand how to apply and begin to live out this teaching in the particularity of their situations. Those who find themselves in situations beyond the norms, such as the divorced and civilly remarried, should be invited to deeper inclusion in the life of the Church, but the Holy Father is clear that he is in no way changing the Church’s doctrine nor making general changes to its sacramental practice or Canon Law (cf. AL, no. 300). He is inviting such families and the pastors who accompany them to discern what it means for them to walk the path of conversion. 

Even in the midst of their challenges and imperfections, families are called to respond to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. Admittedly, this individual process of discernment may not be easy. A person may know full well Church teaching, Pope Francis notes, yet have great difficulty either in understanding its inherent positive value, or in being able to fully embrace it right away because of circumstances (AL, no. 301). Yet, the underlying moral principle which should inform both that personal discernment and the priest’s ministry is that a person whose situation in life is objectively contrary to moral teaching can still love and grow in the faith, and he or she can still take steps in the right direction and benefit from God’s mercy and grace while receiving the assistance of the Church (AL, no. 305). 

What so many priests experience in their work with people in broken marriages or in other difficult situations is a personal spirituality struggling to cope with so many inadequacies and challenges, many of which have not been caused by the person who still wants to be a living part of a loving Church.

Pastoral dialogue, accompaniment and integration involve the development of conscience and also the expression of a level of support or confirmation for the judgment that the individual is making about the state of his soul or her soul. That judgment is the act of the individual and is the basis for his or her accountability before God.

Amoris Laetitia is not a list of answers to each individual human issue. Nor is it directed solely to the question of the reception of the Eucharist. The apostolic exhortation calls for a compassionate pastoral approach to many people – married, single, and divorced – who are struggling to face issues in life, the teaching of the Church, and their own desire to reconcile all of this. The exhortation is a call to compassionate accompaniment in helping all to experience Christ’s love and mercy. 

Our priestly task is to teach and minister pastorally to those entrusted to our care.  We are to present clearly the teaching of the Church rooted in Sacred Scripture and expressed in the living magisterium of the Church. We should do this with wisdom, compassion and fidelity, but we cannot replace the action of individual conscience in reaching personal conclusions. By definition, this is what conscience does (cf. CCC 1778).

To the extent that our ministry includes listening, accompanying and discerning it is also an EVANGELIZING action. As we recall the challenge to go out, to encounter, and to accompany, we also recognize that this is at its heart an act of the evangelizing disciple.

In the action of going, encountering, sharing and accompanying, we also recognize that in the journey, we – ourselves – are also drawing closer to the Lord. In all of our evangelizing, teaching, catechizing, counseling, admonishing, and instructing, we also remember both God’s liberating truth and saving mercy. None of us can claim yet to be perfect as is our heavenly Father.  But we can grow closer to the Lord who will by his grace heal us so that we can have the life he wants for us.

One reason why – I believe – so many priests have greeted this apostolic exhortation with joy and satisfaction is that we are grateful for this guidance as we do what we have always tried to do – walk with our people as shepherds guiding the flock while we all try to come closer to Jesus – the Good Shepherd and our Risen Lord.

As we carry out our pastoral responsibilities, we thank God first of all for the call and then for the guidance we receive from his Holy Church and particularly from our Holy Father, Pope Francis.  

Faithfully in Christ,

Archbishop of Washington