by Frances Correia

“After the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the “greatest form of friendship”. It is a union possessing all the traits of a good friendship: concern for the good of the other, reciprocity, intimacy, warmth, stability and the resemblance born of a shared life” (AL 123).

At the very beginning of Amoris Laetitia (AL) the pope outlines who he is writing to. In a break with traditional openings he specifically states that this Apostolic Exhortation (in addition to being addressed to Bishops, Priests and Deacons, Consecrated Persons and all the Lay faithful) is also addressed to ‘Christian Married Couples’. Having read the document and seen how accessibly Pope Francis writes, I think he really means it. That he has a desire to speak directly to those of us who are married.

One of the criticisms of Catholicism is often that we are a split church. The people who learn theology, who know about spirituality, who would read papal exhortations are the clergy and religious. Ordinary Catholics are far more likely to simply ‘pay, pray and obey’. This is not because there is some terribly difficult barrier dividing lay people from the teachings of the church, but I think – for the most part –because we simply don’t know about them, or realise how easily accessible they are.

In writing this document, and in addressing it to married people, Pope Francis, it seems to me, is wanting to speak directly to us. In the age of the internet, there is nothing stopping him from reaching every person who is able to google the words: ‘Amoris Laetitia’.

So what is the pope trying to say to us as married people? Firstly he says something that is, I feel, really important. He talks about how often in the church marriage is mis-represented. It is presented in such an idealised way that it cannot draw people to want the sacrament, but rather it seems to be excessively burdensome.

I am particularly struck by his statement that the church should be presenting marriage “more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden” (AL 37).

This, it seems to me, is a profoundly hope-filled expression of what the sacrament should be. As I reflect on my own marriage I am aware that it has been a place in which I have grown and developed. The astonishing gift of motherhood, for which no reading or courses or conversations adequately prepared me, is something that I have pondered and grappled with, both interiorly and in deep conversation in daily life with my husband. This strange gift of parenthood has seen change with both of us.

Likewise, for me, marriage has been a place of maturing, of growing in inner freedom. The whole dynamic of aging, of establishing a home, of becoming the generation who are the primary bread-winners, of watching our parents age, and realising the shortness of life have all happened for me within the marital relationship.

Marriage has been a place of stretching. My husband’s family comes from a different culture and has had different cultural expectations. At this moment, now more than a decade into my marriage, I am aware of how comfortable I have become with his family’s culture, and I think how comfortable he is with my family’s culture. I see in my children an unconscious synthesis of much of both of our cultures, and in this microcosm see also how in the lived experience of family life the wounds of society may be healed.

Perhaps, most profoundly, I have found in my marriage a place of dealing with, and to a degree, resolving and healing some of the scars that I carried from my childhood. Not everyone enters their marriages with major psychological, physical or emotional wounds. I did. In the experience of being loved for who I was, damaged as I was and am, I have found much healing and resolution of those early wounds. I have found in the friendship of my husband a safe place to talk about and explore how my own brokenness gets in the way of my life. I have also been challenged not to reproduce in my children’s lives the same wounding I experienced in my own childhood.

All of this growth and healing is possible only when my husband and I are living from a mutual understanding that we are fragile people, with our own wounds and vulnerabilities. It is not possible if we are tied to idealised images of marriage as promulgated by the church or popular culture.

The pope writes that “there is no need to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church, for marriage as a sign entails a dynamic process…, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God” (AL 121).

As I look back on my marriage, just over a decade now, I already see signs of this dynamic process at work. The single tool which has helped my husband and me most in becoming aware of what was happening in our marriage is the prayer of the examen. In this way of praying we share with each other our joys and sorrows, our gratitude and our frustrations with the day, and then together think of what specific grace we ask of God for tomorrow. The openness and vulnerability needed to enter into the prayer with each other has helped us both to grow in maturity, and in co-discernment.

In Pope Francis’ desire to ground our idea of marriage in the lived reality of the world, and his deep reminder that we are called through marriage to grow, to develop, to become the persons God created us to be, there is a profoundly hope-filled call to the married life.

The second particularly significant emotion I felt in reading this Exhortation was one of challenge.

In the chapter entitled “Love in Marriage” the pope uses St Paul’s great hymn to love as a starting point for a series of profound meditations on the nature of love as we married couples are called to live it out.

In many ways there is nothing startlingly new in what he writes, it flows out of the stream of Christian ideas about marriage that I have heard over the whole of my life. Yet, at the same time, to read this chapter is to be drawn back again into considering the real nature of the vocational call to marriage.

Just as the Paul’s hymn to love is itself, whenever I read it, a challenge to rethink the nature of how I live and love in the world, so the pope’s insightful and stirring words sound for me as a challenge to rethink how I am living.

The first thing that strikes me is again how counter-cultural Christianity really is. In reading this text the pope reminds us that an excessive interest in my own life, in my own success, or even an over focus on the nuclear family of my husband and children is not the call of the gospels. Living as I do in South Africa, between two very different cultures, I hear the clear criticism of the western obsession with individualism and personal success being profoundly challenged.

Yet at the same time, the pope is also clear about the call for the husband and wife to leave their parents, to cleave to each other, and grow equally in the marriage. To remember that they are both created with equal dignity. In this I see some challenges also to the traditional patriarchal attitudes towards women in South African society (in a number of South African cultures some of African and some of European or Asian origin, patriarchy, with its message that women are somehow inferior or subservient to men, is still a reality.) In addition, often it seems to me that in more traditional African society I have sometimes seen overwhelming familial demands by the extended family on young couples. Certainly in my context it seems to me that the pope is offering a counter cultural image of marriage to all cultures. One that is best chewed over by the individuals themselves.

How the pope writes about sex itself feeds into this different attitude, he writes that “every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected. This includes all improper interpretations of the passage in the Letter to the Ephesians where Paul tells women to be ‘subject to your husbands’….the biblical text is actually concerned with encouraging everyone to overcome a complacent individualism and be constantly mindful of others: ‘Be subject to one another’ (Eph5:21)” (AL 156).

I remember reading once that the only true point of agreement between the early missionaries and traditional African beliefs lay in their patriarchal approach to women. The Pauline text has often been used to diminish the rights of women, to ‘put them in their place’ in the history of the church. Francis offers now a very different attitude towards sexuality, saying that it “is inseparably at the service of this conjugal friendship, for it is meant to aid the fulfilment of the other.”

I remember in preparing for marriage having a conversation with an elderly Jesuit who spoke to me of sex as a profound expression of self-giving love. In my own marriage I am aware of this desire to give myself to my husband as something that waxes and wanes and yet over time has grown consistently deeper and more substantial. However for it to be authentic it must be mutual, it must be us both being ‘subject to one another’ (Eph 5:21).

Another deeply counter cultural message is that of life long fidelity and linked with it the demands of compassion and forgiveness. Writing of a love that believes all things, hopes all things and bears all things, the pope is asking us to step beyond the narrow margins of a kind of leger book approach to marriage into one of great generosity and hope. He explores the importance of trust in marriage. Writing that it is trust that “enables a relationship to be free….Love trusts, it sets free, it does not try to control, possess and dominate everything” (AL 115).

Love that hopes all things, is a love that tries to see the other as God sees them. In marriage “this realization helps us, amid the aggravations of this present life to see the person from a supernatural perspective”(AL 117).

Love that bears all things is a love “that never gives up” (AL 118). It is an “endurance of the spirit”, a “certain dogged heroism” that resists negativity, and is committed to goodness.

These three fundamental attitudes are, it seems to me, completely at odds with the messages about love and sex that we most often hear. Those messages are rooted in my temporary experience now, and are often about earning or maintaining trust, or love. Francis is reminding us that love and trust, if they are of God, are ultimately gratuitous. They are freely given and rooted in the well spring of love that is God’s own self.

Early in my own marriage I found myself aware that one of the traps I could easily fall into was wanting my husband to provide for all my emotional needs. This is not possible, and I remember talking at depth with my spiritual director about the need to be deeply rooted myself in the love of God each day, so that I was able to enter freely into the love of marriage. In reading Francis’ reflections I am reminded and called to those two deep relationships, seeing them as completely interwoven: my need to, with awareness, experience God’s unconditional love for me each day, and my need to love and be loved by my husband. It is from grace that the freedom to trust, hope and bear all things comes.

This document is profoundly rich. It holds many ideas to be chewed over and pondered about the nature of love and in particular the nature of married love. As I was reading it, I was thinking about how I want to re-read it slowly, with my husband, over perhaps a series of months, taking just one or two paragraphs of an evening and thinking how they apply to our own life. To be fruitful this needs to be a document that engages with our lives. To do this we, as the married faithful, must be vulnerable and open to allowing the pope to speak to us in the concrete circumstances of our own lives. Then with the church we too can hope that our marriages may grow into the fullness promised by the sacrament of a “free and mutual self-giving, experienced in tenderness and action, and permeating our entire lives” (Gaudium et Spes 49).