Why every Catholic should read ‘The Joy of Love’: Q&A with Jean Stolpestad

| April 14, 2016 | 4 Comments

The Catholic Spirit asked Jean Stolpestad, director of the office of Marriage, Family and Life of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, to break down “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family, released April 8.

Q. Why does this document matter?

A. Since the family is the most basic unit of society, this document is richly relevant to all persons regardless of their state in life or vocation. Each of us comes from a family, and our culture is generated through families. The various states or vocations in life are intimately tied to the state of the family and the Holy Father unites us and challenges us to live these connections in a very intentional way.

St John Paul II helped us to take a deep and intimate look at marriage and family to see “what it is” and “its function, what it does.” Pope Francis affirms this teaching categorically, and then takes into account all of the different cultures and situations families find themselves in, which he calls us to understand. “All family life is a ‘shepherding’ in mercy,” he wrote. “Each of us, by our love and care, leaves a mark on the life of others” (AL 322). He added: It is a profound “spiritual experience to contemplate our loved ones with the eyes of God and to see Christ in them” (AL 323).

Q. What should every Catholic know about it? Why would you recommend a Catholic read it?

Jean Stolpestad

Jean Stolpestad

A. First, I strongly recommend that each family reads this document. It ranges from biblical and spiritual reflections on the family, through very practical discussions on love, sexuality and the education of children, to the many contemporary challenges of unemployment, inadequate housing, migration and violence that have an especially damaging effect on families. It has strong beautiful insights as if the Holy Father is seeing into our living rooms as well as our hearts.

Pope Francis has a very different style of writing than his predecessors. It is at once practical, poetic and directive. The Holy Father himself asks us to read it carefully, slowly and — I might — add prayerfully. He calls us to live with and for others. I would recommend that we would get more out of this document if we begin fulfilling the call to openness of others by reading or praying the text with friends as a book study. I found Chapter 4 to be a beautiful reflection on St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, a tremendously moving chapter filled with profoundly tender pastoral guidance that can help us truly know, recognize and live the gaze of Christ.

Q. What’s the main takeaway?

A. This text that cannot be read in a hurry or summarized in a few sentences. If I absolutely had to distill this very rich document to one theme of the many presented in the nine chapters, I think one that struck me is how deeply the Holy Father wants us to realize that none of us came into this world as perfect people and yet we are all loved by God, and he is our eternal goal. In other words, knowing every person has limitations and that, at times, may even face deep brokenness and extremely difficult situations; yet in the midst of all of this God accompanies us, loves us and asks us to turn to him to find strength, consolation, peace and identity.

But it cannot end there: We are then called to share that experience of love with others. The Holy Father sees the primacy of marriage and the family for developing the necessary environment in which an active and authentic experience of the love of God builds our true identity, and through the family, individuals see the dignity of those who are different from themselves, suffering or marginalized. Pope Francis strongly challenges us to live the true presence of Christ.

Q. Is it just about gay marriage and divorced Catholics receiving Communion?

A. Not at all. The Holy Father offers no change in doctrine. But he does invite us, particularly in Chapter 8, to realize it is not enough to catechize an individual in crisis and then just walk away to let them try to deal with their complicated reality on their own. The Holy Father commits us to walk the path with them.  And this does not always provide a clear-cut means that will work across the board. The way must be figured out, each time, through building relationships with these individual families.

Q. How might it affect the work of the Office of Marriage, Family and Life?

A. I think many people were looking for a completely new approach to marriage and family life. That just did not happen. Pope Francis affirms all of the doctrinal understanding of marriage and family. But he does call us to live a greater degree of mercy. That is, taking the time to see and understand another, and to really stand in solidarity with a families circumstance, and while doing so, bring into that moment the goodness, beauty and truth of Christ. He is asking the Church to be ever mindful and live that maternal aspect which has a concern for individuals and their happiness so that doctrine can bring about a human flourishing.

Q. Why is it being issued now?

A. There is a crisis of family life and we all have witnessed the effects globally. The Church has dedicated many resources and the past two synods to this fact. The family requires vigorous active support of not only the Church but other families. The Holy Father is calling each of us to realize that “something has changed” and the answer lies in a personal, intentional and active response to invest in others. While the doctrinal message has not changed, the messengers in all of us are being “called out.”

The rampant autonomy of persons that says “My life doesn’t affect yours” is wholly misguided. Breaking through that type of entrenched thinking will take a new energy, a new way of thinking and being. I believe this document was issued now to help not only the Church as an institution, but also to help individuals and families to accept and take up that challenge to live and be Christ, actively involved with their neighbor.

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