by Adam Burns

If, like me, you follow enough "churchy" pages or accounts on social media, you've by now been inundated by opinions and synopses of Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. It seems that everyone's having their say, from Catholic agencies to media outlets. But what is an Apostolic Exhortation, why does it matter, and what does it actually mean for us?

An Apostolic Exhortation is a message of encouragement from the Pope. They carry a lot of weight and importance, but don't define Church teaching (or Doctrine). This Exhortation in particular is special because it's Post-Synodal, that is, it's Pope Francis' response to the two year Synod (or meeting of Bishops) that discussed the theme of marriage and family life.

That's a pretty big theme with a heap of subject matter. In Western Society alone, we're looking at a broad range topics like divorce and single-parent families, abortion, contraception, same-sex relationships and co-habitation. In other cultures there still exists arranged marriages. Amidst this context of topics, our Church (and us its members) understand marriage in the light of faith and have to relate it to our cultural and historical contexts. The on-going debate is how far does the Church go to relate to culture, or how strongly should it maintain its Doctrines. At the heart of this question is the reality of human beings juggling faith and relationship and the meanings of both. This was the focus and questioning of the Synod, and it's the content of the Pope's Exhortation.

Why should something like this matter to us little people sitting in the pews? Because it's our faith, because as lay people (i.e. those in the Church who are actually allowed to be in exclusive romantic relationships) we are most affected by the Church's understanding of marriage and family and how the Gospel relates. And perhaps most simply, because the Pope has addressed this document: "TO BISHOPS, PRIESTS AND DEACONS, CONSECRATED PERSONS, CHRISTIAN MARRIED COUPLES AND ALL THE LAY FAITHFUL".

So, the big question is: what does Pope Francis conclude in Amoris Laetitia (which is Latin, meaning The Joy of Love). Read carefully: the teaching's of the Church aren't changing. This might seem disappointing for some, but remember an Exhortation doesn't introduce or change doctrines in the first place. What Pope Francis does exhort is that the conversation on these topics doesn't end, that with fuller understanding of our culture (in each geographical context) and pastoral sensitivity with our faith, we can approach these topics with the heart and mercy of Christ. 

It's a little simplistic to say that this document amounts to: be like Jesus; but that's Pope Francis' heart for mercy, which he sees as central to the way individuals relate to those they're in relationship with, to how those in relationship relate to the Church and to how the Church relates to the rest of the world.

Chapter One explores poetic and insightful passages of love and relationship in the Scriptures. Chapter Two considers the experiences of family today, and considers the brand range of topics mentioned above, in light of the global context. Chapter Three summarises the Church's doctrines on marriage and the family, but these are seen not just as rules, but rather explores the relations between humans, Church and God in the context of marriage and love. Chapters Four or Five offer a reflection on love in all its forms in the marital relationship. Chapter Six is where Francis offers his pastoral considerations, which is followed by a whole chapter on the education of children. Chapter Eight further breaks down pastoral approaches and Chapter Nine reflects on a spirituality of marriage and family.

I'm still only up to the fourth chapter of the Exhortation, but already I'm struck by several elements. Firstly, as an aspiring theologian and an aspiring husband, it's rare to find a Church document that's language and ideas are grounded in the lived reality of marriage or relationship. Yet, in this document, in the centre of scripture and doctrine is an honest presentation of the reality of human relationship in our current historical context. And there's an honest confession that the Church doesn't always relate well to this reality. It's really quite refreshing.

Secondly, in calling for a more pastoral approach to the struggles of marriages, Pope Francis himself models this pastoral care. In presenting the vocation of marriage, Francis doesn't hide human struggles in the shadows, he openly considers them and offers hope and encouragement to Christian couples. Having myself grown up in a single-parent household, I saw in my parents a lot of those relational struggles; so this pastoral tone is redeeming to not see experiences like that of my parents' swept under the rug, but rather acknowledged and addressed in hope rather than condemnation.

Third, its relatable. Though it's written in response to the Synod of Bishops, it seemingly captures the voice of the whole of humanity: Christian and non-Christian, male and female, adult and child, all around the world, addressing the cultural situations beyond Europe, such as in Africa, South America and even Korea. In doing so, Francis affirms that relationship is very much a part of who we are in Creation, and that we've come to understand it in a particular way through the Christian faith.

Having said all of that, I do realise I'm a theology student, which frames my excitement for this document. For others, maybe only parts of it will be relevant or interesting. In any case, it is worth reading a few articles (from the right sources) to get a good grounding in what Pope Francis has written, and reading a section or two for yourself. Personally, I think this will be the defining document of our generation; and undoubtedly it will shape the language that we use as we dialogue faith with culture in the realm of love and relationships moving forward.

Pope Francis affirms that the vocation of marriage is sacred, and is prayerfully discerned and entered into. And so we pray with the Holy Family:

Prayer to the Holy Family

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendour of true love; to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer, authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again experience violence, rejection and division;
may all who have been hurt or scandalised find ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Graciously hear our prayer.

Amen.