I grew up lucky. I grew up the eldest of five on a family farm in Co Limerick. My parents were hard working and devoted to each other and to us. I never saw them having a big argument, I saw the casual way they showed affection to each other; I experienced the unconditional love they had for me and my siblings.
In my naivety, growing up in 1970s rural Ireland, I thought that’s how all or most families were – a bit like The Waltons from the telly, if you remember them.
Domestic violence, conflict, marriage break up, physical and sexual abuse – all of these were outside my frame of reference because I was a sheltered child and lucky enough to come from a loving, protective family.
So it was an eye-opener when I started out as a priest. When I came across some awful cases of domestic abuse, violence in the home, domestic dysfunction, I was stupefied. I didn’t know quite how to respond. It was outside my frame of reference.
I realised that we live in a world populated by non-perfect families, of normal people caught up in difficult domestic situations, very often not of their own making.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since I was ordained 30 years ago, and my own family has experienced the joys and sorrows of married and family life during that time. I am well acquainted now with the vissicitudes of family life and the difficulties and heartbreaks, as well as the joys and triumphs, associated with it. I’m sure all of us are.
And this is the context in which Pope Francis published his letter on marriage and family Amoris laetitia (The Joy of Love). It is also the context in which we prepare to celebrate the World Meeting of Families in August.
When I read Francis’ letter or listen to him speak about family life, the first thing I hear him say is welcome to the human condition. He knows the reality of family life. He knows the challenges families face. He doesn’t preach pie in the sky. He knows full well that relationships can be complicated and life is not black and white. We know this, too. Many of us know this all too painfully.
And Francis says that’s okay. It’s important to be honest in our relationships and honest about them – no matter how good or bad or wonderful or messy they are. The great thing about the pope’s encyclical is that it addresses the real life issues families face. It’s not a simple rehash of church teaching on marriage and sexuality.
Another striking thing about his letter is its positivity. Francis emphasises the positive. Note the word ‘joy’ he uses in the title. The joy of love. Joy – not challenge, or duty, or obligation, or call. Joy… Joy that fuses the relationship between couples, joy that deepens as their relationship lengthens, joy that envelopes the family circle, joy in the other, joy in each other, the joy of love. Love and sexuality are wonderful and life-giving, nourishing and necessary. We should celebrate them.
And that’s important, because there is so much bad news around today. And when we think of marriage and family, we can focus on the negative. The shattering of relationships, the increase in divorce, the bitterness of the family courts.
So much about family life in the past was good – the stability of the family unit, the hard work and sense of duty of parents and children, the virtue of chastity. But, notwithstanding the many challenges we face, there is so much today that is better than in the past. Think of the culture of secrecy and shame that sent young women to Mother and Baby Homes, the crippling hangups about sex that paralysed so many good people, the crushing loneliness of those who were gay or lesbian and dared not admit it. Yes, modern family is complicated, but in many ways it is so much better too.
The third striking thing about Francis’ letter is its focus on love. Note the word ‘love’ he uses in the title. The joy of love. Francis writes about the lifelong experience of love. This is also in contrast with times past, when Christian marriage was understood in cold, legal terms as a contract; law rather than love.
Family is unconditional love shared through every heartbreak and accomplishment and family is unconditional love offered even when that love is unrequited. Our families are where we experience the power of love. Our families must be where we witness to the power of love.
Love is an overused word today. We find it everywhere from graffiti-laden locker room walls to anonymous internet chat rooms. It sells everything from underwear to Ferraris. It is confused with every kind of feeling and emotion. But true love, real love? True love does not change with the times. True love can be cheapened by misuse and overuse but its essence never changes. True love is not infatuation or lust or obsession. It is not servile submission or putting up with. It is not grasping or abusive or domineering. It is not a one-night stand or a fling with someone whose name you struggle to remember.
True love is never selfish, never all about me. True love overcomes, forgives, endures, sacrifices, empathises. It never gives up on anyone. It sees the good in everyone. Love, true love, is our best nature because it is God at work in us – God who is love.
Joy and love – two ingredients that build happy marriages, nourish strong relationships, sustain united families. It’s what I experienced growing up on the family farm all those years ago, what I still experience. My prayer is that it is your experience, too.