The Soul of Pastoral Ministry

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 on love in the family 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” (No. 199).

He knows that marital and family pain can be uniquely different for different people. People come from different backgrounds, different cultures and different circumstances. People bring different kinds of baggage to their relationships. They bring different values, 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” (No. 296), and the Church cannot apply moral laws “as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives” (No. 305).

He 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 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.

He 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” (No. 37).

Pastoral ministry enshrined in mercy and compassion is a great help and service to couples and to families. We are facilitating God’s grace, working in them and in the life of the Church. We are allowing deep reservoirs of the couple’s inner wisdom to reveal itself. We are honoring their consciences and their capacity for pastoral discernment. It is the mystery of God’s life and God’s care.

Pope Francis envisions that in a climate of unconditional positive regard emotionally hurting couples and families find an empowerment that will aid them in their discernment for 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.

He advocates that when pastoral ministers practice a ministry to couples and families saturated with mercy and compassion they minister in a godlike fashion. And godlikeness 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 (see 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 as Jesus spoke to the adulterous woman: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 8:11).

Msgr. Morgan is a retired pastor of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey.

A Love That is Strong
The Synod Fathers emphasized that Christian families, by the grace of the sacrament of matrimony, are the principal agents of the family apostolate, above all through “their joy-filled witness as domestic churches.” Consequently, “it is important that people experience the Gospel of the family as a joy that ‘fills hearts and lives,’ because in Christ we have been ‘set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 1). As in the parable of the sower (cf. Mt 13:3-9), we are called to help sow seeds; the rest is God’s work. Nor must we forget that, in her teaching on the family, the Church is a sign of contradiction.” Married couples are grateful that their pastors uphold the high ideal of a love that is strong, solid, enduring and capable of sustaining them through whatever trials they may have to face. The Church wishes, with humility and compassion, to reach out to families and “to help each family to discover the best way to overcome any obstacles it encounters.” It is not enough to show generic concern for the family in pastoral planning. Enabling families to take up their role as active agents of the family apostolate calls for “an effort at evangelization and catechesis inside the family.”