Recently two writings of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have come to our attention. While these writings are very different in nature and scope, they have a striking similarity especially in regard to expressing the depth of God's mercy and reveal very much the similarity of mind and character between these two great and humble men. The first writing is an obvious and much anticipated one – The Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis on marriage and family life, Amoris Laetitia. The second writing is a more subtle and less obvious one – a rare and lengthy interview given by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI which took place in October 2015, and was recently published. In this interview the Pope Emeritus speaks on issues of justification and faith addressing mercy and our need for forgiveness. Both of these writings revealed the depth of mind and spirituality of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as well as their kindred spirit.
Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, "The Joy of Love," is a magnificent reflection on marriage and family life so important and necessary for our society today. The exhortation has been greatly anticipated in view of the two recent Synods on Marriage and Family Life which were invoked by Pope Francis. The Exhortation is a rather lengthy but very pastoral and readable document which, in the words of Pope Francis himself, must be read and considered slowly and carefully. It is a document of great pastoral insight which addresses the nature of marriage and family life as part of the divine plan and offers great support and accompaniment to those in difficult situations. It affirms the Church's constant teaching in a manner that is encouraging, supportive, understanding and welcoming. The Exhortation is very timely during this Year of Mercy and such in keeping with Pope Francis’ personal and pastoral approach especially in expressing the mercy of God which reaches every aspect of human life.
The document has been greatly accepted but, depending on the interpretation and hopes of the reader, is viewed in different ways. Some wrongly laud it as the beginning of a divergence from traditional Church teaching and moral praxis while others wrongly condemn it as not in keeping with Church teaching. Because Francis speaks the truth in love, that truth is easily misunderstood and misinterpreted. The truth in love is meant to open hearts to the Lord and is not meant to please ideology or political correctness. This is especially why Pope Francis calls for a careful and slow consideration of the document in order that it might be properly understood.
Amoris Laetitia makes clear that marriage and family life are part of the divine plan which is meant to bring joy to all people. Marriage is a very reflection of the Trinitarian life of God Himself and draws us into union with God especially by the participation of bringing life into the world through the gift of children. While expressing great understanding and compassion for those who find themselves in difficult situations, Pope Francis makes clear that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and woman and that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (251). -Pope Francis also expresses a great deal of understanding for those who find themselves in difficult marriage situations and makes clear that it has always been the role of the Church to reach out in such situations so that no one feels they are abandoned or cut off from the life of the Church. He calls for a great deal of support for marriage and family life as well as for a great pastoral sensitivity to those in difficult situations.
It is obvious that the truth which Pope Francis expresses in such great love is an expression of the love of God Himself. Truth and love can neither be separated nor stand on their own. They are part of a unity which is reflected in the life of God Himself. The entire tone of Pope Francis’ Exhortation is one that expresses the mercy of God in a very concrete and practical manner. How beautifully Pope Francis expresses this mercy when he states, " 'Without detracting from the evangelical ideal, there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear', making room for 'the Lord's mercy, which spurs us on to do our best!. I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, 'always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the streets' " (308).
Pope Francis emphasis on the overwhelming mercy of God is given enhanced insight by the recent writing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In his October interview, Benedict emphasizes the need for us to hear the message of mercy in the teaching of Pope Francis. The Pope Emeritus states that, "Only where there is mercy does cruelty end, only with mercy do evil and violence end. Pope Francis is totally in agreement with this line. His pastoral practice is expressed in the fact that he continually speaks to us of God's mercy. It is mercy that moves us toward God, while justice frightens us before him." There can be no question that in the mind of Pope Emeritus Benedict, not only does the Church get her shoes soiled by the mud of the streets as she reaches out to us but in a figurative manner, so does God Himself. Consistent with his teaching, Benedict emphasizes that God's relationship to us is one of mercy in which He becomes involved in the very sufferings of our lives. Benedict especially expresses this in terms of the Trinitarian life of God in a manner which is deeply insightful and almost mystical.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI emphasizes the intimate involvement of the Father in the suffering of His Son. He clearly states that "The contrast between the Father, who insists in an absolute way on justice, and the Son who obeys the Father and, obedient, accepts the cruel demands of justice, is not only incomprehensible today, but, from the point of view of Trinitarian theology, is in itself all wrong." Benedict insightfully emphasizes that the Father is not without passion. The Father is mercy and compassion and perceives a suffering of love. He makes reference to a very moving image which was popular during the Middle Ages referred to as the "Throne of Grace" or the "Passion of the Father." In this image the Father holds the Cross with His crucified Son upon it, bending lovingly over Him as the two, as it were, become one on the Cross. As Benedict states, "So in a grand and pure way, one perceives there what God's mercy means, with the participation of God in man’s suffering means. It is not a matter of a cruel justice, not a matter of the Father’s fanaticism, but rather of the truth and the reality of creation: the true intimate overcoming of evil that ultimately can be realized only in the suffering of love." In the Cross of Christ, we can figuratively say that God gets His shoes soiled by the mud of the streets out of mercy for the human person and for reconciling humanity to His life. This truly is the heart of what our faith is all about and of God's outreach to each and every one of us in a way that is astonishing and truly divine.
The reflections of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI are an expression of the same reality of God’s merciful love. They are nothing new but part of the living and loving tradition of the Church as it reveals itself to us through the ages and in the present age. During this Year of Mercy, especially as we read the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis and the interview of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, let us always be astounded by the mercy of God which reveals itself to us many times in ways we least expect. Let us never imagine that there are obstacles to this mercy especially as this mercy is revealed to each of us and to every person.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
April 22, 2016