by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laeticia (The Joy of Love), will be released on Friday, 8 April. There are many factors that Francis will need to weigh up in deciding what to write, including widely divergent views on some of the more contentious issues. Having considered the Synod’s Relatio (the document the Synod participants voted on at the end of the meeting), he is nonetheless free to write whatever he wishes.

My hope is that his pastoral instincts and his vision of the church as a field hospital and a place of mercy will inspire him to continue to prioritise the pastoral care of families over issues of dogma and doctrine.

As a spiritual director and Catholic psychologist, I am saddened by the fact that I frequently encounter people for whom the church is not a place of healing, new life and a community from which they can draw support. Rather it is a place where they experience on-going pain, alienation, and exclusion.

As I listen deeply to people on a daily basis I hear stories like these:

A woman whose husband divorced her after having an affair with her friend is still living what she experiences as a stunted life ten years later. She is only in her early thirties but is desperately afraid of falling in love again and being denied the Eucharist if she chooses to re-marry. So she does not allow herself to risk the possibility of love again. Her integrity will not allow her to seek an annulment as for her it was a real marriage.

A Zimbabwean man working in Johannesburg as a gardener tells me he cannot get back to see his children because there is not enough money to make the journey home. He sends money back for them each month but he hasn’t seen his wife and small children in over two years. He is a regular church-goer but has found little practical or emotional support in the parish community.

A lesbian woman in her early forties, who has a deep relationship with God, is adopting a little girl with her partner of five years. As a teenager she played an active role in the church, reading at Sunday mass and teaching catechetics. It is now too painful for her to attend mass as she does not feel welcome at the Eucharist with her family.

As I listen again and again to good people, struggling to live their lives as best they can, often under very difficult circumstances, I want to be able to tell them that the Church is a place where they will find the support they need. I don’t want to have to try to reassure them that despite their often deeply painful experiences of church, they are nevertheless totally loved by God.

Family life should be a place where the joy of love is experienced. However, often the pressures of life – or the tilted uncontrollable events and structures – make it difficult. For many people when their family life is in crisis the Church does not help. Sadly it sometimes makes the situation even more painful. People often either end up feeling perpetually on the fringes, burdened by guilt, or simply give up on both church and God.

We need to ask ourselves whether the Church is a place where people experience encouragement and support or judgement and condemnation? Do we make it easier or harder for people to experience God’s love and acceptance?

Francis has always appeared to be less interested in dogma and doctrine and more interested in helping people to encounter the God of love and mercy. His hands-on pastoral experience as a priest and as an Archbishop in Argentina confronted him daily with the reality of the burdens that people carry.

My prayer is that Francis’s words in this Apostolic Exhortation may be words which lift burdens. I hope that they will perhaps soften hard-line church positions on issues such as communion for the divorced and remarried and the inclusion of gay and lesbian people so that they feel welcome.

I pray too that his words will recognise the challenges faced, among others, by newly married couples, refugees, single-parents, abused women and children. I hope that he encourages parishes to be places of welcome and support so that the Church may become the first place people turn to when they experience the inevitable challenges of family life.