On Wednesday, Feb. 21, I traveled with Archbishop Jerome Listecki to the University of Notre Dame to attend a special seminar for bishops on Amoris Laetitia or “The Joy of Love.” This Apostolic Exhortation was authored by Pope Francis in response to the Synod on the Family, which took place in 2015. The conference was structured somewhat like a symposium, with presentations and feedback from faculty members from a number of Catholic universities and directors of Marriage and Family Life offices of various dioceses. The focus of the discussion was the reception of Amoris Laetitia in the life of the Church, namely the challenges and opportunities it offers for ministry to families, as well as recommendations for its pastoral implementation. I would like to share some of the observations I received from taking part in this important event.

My original impression was colored by the assumption that the bulk of the seminar would be devoted to the eighth chapter of the document, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.” Because it deals with the topic of divorced and re-married Catholic couples, this is the segment of the Exhortation which has received the most publicity – often erroneously reported – in the secular press. However, the sensitive issue of the status of the reception of the Sacraments by such couples was not addressed in a systematic doctrinal, canonical or moral theological approach. Rather, the emphasis of the conversation primarily dealt with the encouragement to reach out with compassion to those in situations of irregular union to assure them of the love of the Church and to lead them gently and patiently to the Gospel of Marriage in its fullness.

The key theme of the seminar – writ quite large in Amoris Laetitia – is the proclamation that the family is a privileged locus of the grace of God. There is a sacramental potential in the bond of family to reflect the unconditional love and commitment of Christ for His Church. One of the goals of the document is to help priests and pastoral ministers convey this perspective on the spiritual meaning of marriage to a contemporary culture.

One of the hopes Pope Francis articulated in Amoris Laetitia is to set a new paradigm for the preparation of couples for the celebration of the Sacrament of Matrimony. For many years, preparation tended to be accomplished in a series of instructional sessions attended by the engaged couple. In many dioceses, these sessions were entitled “Pre-Cana Programs.” Such sessions presumed an already significant affiliation of couples in parish life – linked as well with an assumption of Biblical literacy cognizant of the nuptial setting of the first miracle of Christ in the village of Cana. However, given the “lesser” connection of several young people to the Church, the proposal is to re-shape pre-marital preparation more akin to the relational or communal model of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. It is suggested that specially trained “mentor couples” accompany young people on a formational journey to help awaken an awareness of the call of God to grow in faith and discover its power and beauty.

A portion of the seminar was devoted to the discussion of the need to devote attention to the special needs facing engaged couples and families in communities of diversity. Lack of economic opportunity, the inability to resolve the issue of immigration, and the specter of violence and discrimination are just some of the challenges which cause intense stress and sometimes inhibit the possibility of minorities and the poor even conceiving the achievement of a successful marriage and family. Not only do such conditions call for new ways of pastoral intervention, they also remind the Church of the much broader need to address the social injustices of our time.

Mention was also made of the unique concerns of couples who marry and seek to raise a family within the setting of an ecumenical or interfaith union. Gone are the days when an overwhelming majority of Catholics sought and found partners within the Church. Now, a very significant number of Catholics marry outside of the Church. On many occasions, the question of the religious affiliation and formation of the children of such unions is either a sensitive issue or one ultimately not addressed. There needs to be a more intensive effort to reach out to those in mixed marriages to provide support and encouragement.

The consensus of the participants in this Notre Dame seminar is that – while there may well be disagreements and debates about some of the particular components of Amoris Laetitia – there seems to be widespread agreement that the objective of seeking to bring the Gospel to bear on the current reality of the family was achieved in a successful manner. The document is not shy in articulating the difficulties and problems facing marriage and family in the modern world. Yet, it is just as bold in giving witness to the conviction that the Spirit of God and the “Joy of Love” can be found even in the midst of such messiness.