The following are excerpts from a letter to the faithful by Bishop Robert W. McElroy published by The Southern Cross:

Last month, Pope Francis issued an authoritative teaching document on marriage and family life which he entitled “The Joy of Love.”

In October of this year, I will convene a diocesan synod which focuses exclusively on the topics of marriage and family life that Pope Francis has raised in “The Joy of Love.” Each of our 100 parishes will have a representative in the synod. The majority of the representatives will be lay men and women, which is particularly important on this topic of marriage and family. There will be preparatory sessions during the coming months.

A diocesan synod embraces the dimensions of theological reflection, pastoral insight, visioning and governing, all within the context of a deep spiritual orientation to the wider life of the Church. The synod in October will focus on five major challenges contained in “The Joy of Love”: witnessing to the beauty and realism of the Catholic vision of marriage; the need to form a culture of invitation to unmarried couples; the nurturing of children; ministry to those who have been divorced; and bringing spiritual depth to family life in its various forms. It is my hope that our synod will provide a moment of profound renewal and growth in our ecclesial support of the families in San Diego and Imperial counties. And it is my hope that this synod will be a genuine reflection of the mercy and compassion of God in this Jubilee Year of Mercy.


II. The Challenge to Form a Culture of Invitation and Hospitality to Unmarried Couples

Immense numbers of young Catholic couples who fully intend to marry in the Church live together before their Catholic marriage. In approaching couples in all of these situations, Pope Francis states that we must be consistently clear that Catholic marriage in the fullness of its vision remains the moral requirement for all. But he also emphasizes that the Church’s teaching and outreach should not ignore the love, sacrifice and commitment which is reflected in so many of these relationships which differ from marriage, because to do so is to ignore the presence of elements of God’s grace in the hearts of these young men and women and to alienate many of them from the Church.

In order to achieve this balance toward the invitational outreach of the Church to couples in civil marriage or cohabiting, “The Joy of Love” states that such couples must be “welcomed and guided patiently and discretely.” Whatever their situation, “all these situations require a constructive response seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage in conformity with the Gospel.” Pope Francis points to the “law of gradualness” which the Synod on the Family of 1980 explored in depth, a principle which recognizes that men and women tend to accomplish moral good in stages of growth. This principle requires an outreach to couples who are living together or in civil marriage which reflects love more than judgment, which affirms the beautiful elements of love already present in the lives of such couples while constantly beckoning them to the permanent commitment of Catholic marriage.

The principle of gradualness reaches far beyond the question of marriage to embrace all elements of the Christian moral life, for it really is an embodiment of the pastoral method of the Lord Himself. Pope Francis repeatedly cites the example of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well as a prism through which to construct the Church’s outreach to young couples, a prism which embraces them in their humanity and their love, rather than categorizing them as living in sin.

The challenge to build a culture of invitation and hospitality for couples who are not yet married requires us to examine practices which, while they have a certain legitimacy, alienate young couples and leave them feeling that they are unwanted in the life of the Church. Various rules about which churches will accept specific couples for marriage can leave Catholic couples feeling shut out. Diocesan rules about the setting for marriage are also often experienced by couples as a source of alienation. The lack of pastoral outreach and information for couples who are married civilly constitutes a barrier to their being married in the Church. During the diocesan synod in October, existing rules and practices which are alienating must be examined, and creative new pathways to inviting couples to the full commitment of Catholic married life must be explored.

IV. The Challenge to Provide Authentic Pastoral Support for Those Who Are Divorced

But what of Catholics who have remarried civilly after a divorce?

“The Joy of Love” powerfully asserts that the Church’s pastoral care for those in second marriages must “allow them not only to realize that they belong to the Church as the body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it …. Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel.”

Many Catholics who have been divorced and remarried conclude for a variety of legitimate reasons — many of them arising out of caring concern for the effects that an annulment process might have on the feelings of adult children or former spouses — that they cannot initiate the annulment process. What is their status in the Church?

“The Joy of Love” emphasizes that no abstract rule can embody the many complexities of the circumstances, intentions, levels of understanding and maturity which originally surrounded the action of a man or woman in entering their first marriage, or which surround the new moral obligations to a spouse or children which have already been produced by a second marriage. Thus, Pope Francis rejects the validity of any blanket assertion that “all those in any [second marriage without benefit of annulment] are living in a state of mortal sin and deprived of sanctifying grace.”

It is important to underscore that the role of the priest is one of accompaniment, meant to inform the conscience of the discerner on principles of Catholic faith. The priest is not to make decisions for the believer, for as Pope Francis emphasizes in “The Joy of Love”, the Church is “called to form consciences, not replace them.”

Catholics participating authentically in this discernment of conscience should keep in mind both the permanence of marriage and the teaching of the Church that “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Many Catholics engaging in this process of discernment will conclude that God is calling them to return to full participation in the life of the Church and the Eucharist. Many others will conclude that they should wait, or that their return would hurt others.