The soul of pastoral ministry to couples, families

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis reflects on the joys and the challenges of marriage and family life in our times. The document gives much affirmation and much encouragement to all couples and to all families.

While this apostolic exhortation has not changed church doctrine, it gives much attention to the pastoral care of those living in any kind of pain and suffering. The pope is asking priests and laity to compassionately reach out to those who are divorced and civilly remarried. He wants us to connect with all who feel estranged. He wants all to feel welcome in the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis in his global vision wants all families to experience “the joy of love.” Yet, he realizes there is much pain and suffering in marriages and families in our time. And dealing with this pain and suffering is a fundamental challenge for all church ministers. It may require what he calls “new pastoral methods.”

Pope Francis knows that marital and family pain can be different for different people. People come from different backgrounds and different cultures and different circumstances. People bring different kinds of baggage to their relationships. They bring different values and different needs and different expectations. They can bring different experiences and different hurts that impair their ability to foster intimacy in a marriage and in a family.

Pope Francis in his wisdom makes the plea that all individuals and families need mercy and acceptance. All need attention and positive regard. All need understanding and compassion. He says we are to “avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and the church cannot apply moral laws as if they were “stones to throw at people’s lives.”

Pope Francis challenges all of us to be able to jump out of our own minds and feel our way into other people’s pain and suffering. We are to feel our way into their hurts and into their confusions. We are to feel our way into their spiritual hungers and emptiness. We are to feel our way into their felt need for mercy and compassion. This is the soul of pastoral ministry to those who feel estranged from the church.

Pope Francis envisions the church to be like “a field hospital” treating the wounded and attending to those in pain and suffering. This type of marital and family ministry is the way of the church. It is the essence of ministry to couples and families. It aids all who are in any kind of emotional and spiritual pain because of estrangement from the church.

Pope Francis knows that when people feel accepted and understood it is then they can access the Almighty Spirit within them. When they feel deeply heard, it is then they can access the gifts of the Holy Spirit and manifest to the world the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Pope Francis believes that when there is compassionate outreach, people can access an inner grace that clears the emotions and the cognitions that stand between them and the church; it is then they can receive life-changing inner messages that assist in conscience formation. The church has been “called to form consciences, not to replace them.”

Pope Francis envisions that in a climate of unconditional positive regard, the hurting couples and families find an empowerment that will aid them in discerning the wholeness and holiness for their lives. It is then they will hear the voice of the soul taking them on a transformational journey into the heart of the church and into the heart of God.

Pope Francis advocates that when pastoral ministers practice a ministry to couples and families that is saturated with mercy and compassion, then they minister in a God-like fashion. God-likeness means that we are reaching out and thinking of ourselves and of others with mercy and with compassion.

Pope Francis implies that God thinks of us like the merciful and forgiving Father, (Lk 15: 11-32). God thinks of us like the Good Samaritan, (Lk 10:29-37). God thinks of us like the Good Shepherd, (Jn 10:1-5). God thinks of us and speaks to us like Jesus spoke to the adulterous woman “neither do I condemn you… go away and don’t sin anymore,” (Jn 10: 1-11).

Msgr. Thomas J. Morgan is a retired pastor of the Diocese of Camden.