A much anticipated celebration after that of the holiday season is Valentine's Day. Many early signs of Valentine's Day appear quickly after the passing of the holidays to fill in the lull that is often experienced. It is a day that celebrates love in a manner in which people in a myriad of relationships show love and affection for each other. Valentine's Day reminds us that it is love and affirmation which are an essential part of life and fill in the voids which many times are experienced. Marriage and family life are the core of all relationships as God intended and are an essential part of Valentine’s Day.
One of the explanations of the origins of Valentine's Day is a fascinating one. St. Valentine was a Bishop who lived during the third century and opposed the edict of the emperor which forbade Christian marriage. Because he continued to perform these marriages in defiance of the emperor, he was subsequently imprisoned. While in prison, he would correspond with those to whom he was giving pastoral care through letters and notes which he would sign, "From your Valentine." Thus began the custom of sending notes and letters on Valentine's Day as an expression of love and affection. Valentine was martyred on February 14, around the year 270.
It is quite appropriate to say that we have recently received an important Valentine greeting from the Bishop of the Universal Church - Pope Francis. Following the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis has given us a wonderful reflection on love in his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia - The Joy of Love. This presentation of the Holy Father in regard to the authentic teaching of the Church on marriage and family life is a wonderful document which helps all of us to understand the meaning of love as the very nature of God as well as the purpose of marriage and family life as an intimate participation in that love.
It is unfortunate that misunderstanding of Amoris Laetitia has caused controversy and unfounded criticism. It is a clear and affirming presentation of the Church's constant teaching on the nature of marriage as an indissoluble relationship between a man and woman through which the gift of life is brought into the world. A reading of the document shows how much it is consistent with the teaching of St. John Paul II especially in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. There is nothing new in Amoris Laetitia that in the slightest way is not in keeping with the constant teaching of the Church in regard to marriage and family life. If anything, it is a strong affirmation of this teaching in a manner that encourages its reception. While Pope Francis rightly acknowledges the failures of human nature in a manner that calls for the accompanying of those who find themselves in difficult situations, he does not in any manner intend to verge from the Church's teaching on moral matters pertaining to the indissolubility of marriage. If anything, he is encouraging Catholics to accept and be faithful to this teaching even in difficult times.
As we celebrate Valentine's Day and reflect upon the meaning of love, marriage and family, it is well for us to reflect upon the messages which Pope Francis gives us in Amoris Laetitia. There are so many we could choose from but the following four are most helpful for all of us whether we are married or not. They are spoken in a manner that is most affirming but also most understanding of human nature. They give us support and encouragement as all Valentine messages are supposed to do. All four of them are the title of the section of the exhortation they fall under.
1. A Big Heart. Pope Francis reminds us of the importance of having a “big heart”. He does this by reminding us that family is larger than the small circle of a husband and wife and their children. It includes grandparents and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, relatives, members of the household, other families and friends. This larger family should provide love and support to all, especially those who find themselves in difficult situations and need to be reminded of their dignity and value. The elderly and the infirm, the separated and widowed, those who are alone or struggling with an addiction are all part of a wider family that can be touched by the love and affirmation which comes from the big heart that is part of any family. There is an important need for us to see beyond our own family and household and to embrace all as members of God's family in order to be touched by the love of God. This message of “the big heart” is certainly in keeping with Pope Francis' constant call to reach out to the periphery.
2. The Challenges of Crises. Pope Francis helps us to understand that life is marked by all kinds of crises. However, he stresses that these crises are part of the "dramatic beauty" of life. All of us face different crises in our lives and in our relationships. Some of them come to us through no effort on our part and some of them come to us because we bring them upon ourselves. The important thing in these challenging situations is to recognize their reality and to face them with courage, resolve and understanding. It is especially important during these crises to depend upon the assistance and understanding of others, just as it is important for us to give that assistance and understanding to others in these situations. The Pope many times in speaking to couples reminds them of the difficulties that they are going to face which sometimes will result in arguments and misunderstandings. The important resolutions in these crises is to accept these human limitations and to move ahead with love and mercy. The Holy Father encourages married couples, as well as all people, never to be forgetful of the importance of three simple words in any relationship, "please, thank you and sorry." These words certainly are good Valentine messages.
3. When Death Makes Us Feel its Sting. Pope Francis brings to mind the reality that all of us face in our lives – the painful loss of a loved one. Nothing affects a relationship as much as when that relationship is terminated by death. Certainly the loss of a spouse as well as a loss within a family brings a pain that is real and piercing. It is only by reaching out to others at the time of loss that we make a great difference in the life of one who is grieving. Certainly our Lord knew the pain of loss in the death of His friend, Lazarus, and Our Blessed Mother knew its pain in the death of Christ upon the Cross. Jesus and Mary are with us during times of loss and also remind us of the family of the Communion of Saints which makes a tremendous difference in the way we can deal with the pain of loss. It is through the community of the Church that faith in eternal life is strengthened in the life of someone who has lost a beloved. Our faith reminds us that while those who have gone before us can no longer be physically present to us, yet for all death’s power, “'love is as strong as death” (Song 8:6). It is most fitting during Valentine's Day to speak in love to those who have gone before us and to hear in faith the response of their presence still with us and with the Saints in eternity.
4. Love Endures All Things. Pope Francis gives us a very encouraging message in reflecting upon the words of St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians 13:4 – 7, where he speaks of the power of true love which can never be exhausted. True love endures all things which means that it bears every trial with a positive attitude. How important is this message for family life and how important is this message for all of us in the many challenges that we face. Love never gives up even in the darkest hour and in the most oppressive of situations. Pope Francis quotes the following moving words of Martin Luther King, "the person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to that point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls 'the image of God,’ you begin to love him in spite of (everything). ... Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and so on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little more sense, and that's the strong person." As believers in Jesus Christ, we know that His love endured all things and that in His message there is no room for hatred. Hatred only destroys not only the person that is hated but the person who hates as well. Valentine's Day is a fitting one to turn in love to someone for whom we have no affection and perhaps even rightly so.
Shortly after Valentine's Day, we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of Peter on February 22. This is the day in which we celebrate the role of the Pope as the Shepherd of the entire Church. He unites us as a family of Jesus Christ in the Church where love is the center of life both here and in eternity. We thank our Holy Father, Pope Francis, for the Valentine gift of Amoris Laetitia as we continue to reflect upon its message and live the joy of love.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
February 10, 2017