This past March, Pope Francis penned a moving tribute to married and family life called Amoris Laetitia, or “The Joy of Love.” This apostolic exhortation praises spouses who have learned to love each other faithfully, freely, fruitfully, and totally and who “‘now taste the sweetness of the wine of love, well-aged and stored deep within their hearts’” (231).
It also contains many practical tips for finding happiness together, including:
- Practice constant forgiveness in order to daily reaffirm our decision to love.
- Trust one another and let go of the desire for control.
- Bring out the best in one another and let our love expand outward toward the poor and needy.
- Give ourselves without losing ourselves.
- Forgive faithfully
No marriage can survive and thrive without forgiveness. Jesus tells us we need to forgive “not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). This is especially true in the vulnerable intimacy of married life. Pope Francis reminds us that forgiveness is not a one-time action; it’s an ongoing attitude. Spouses must “daily reaffirm their decision to love” and “continue loving and forgiving” (163). According to Pope Francis, acceptance lies at the root of forgiveness.
Accept yourself. Accepting yourself can be the first step in forgiving someone else. The pope says, “We need to learn to pray over our past history, to accept ourselves, to learn how to live with our limitations, and even to forgive ourselves, in order to have this same attitude toward others” (107). Low self-esteem can make us “become distant from others, avoiding affection and fearful in our interpersonal relationships” (107). With God’s help, gentleness with ourselves can make us gentler with our spouses.
Accept your mistakes. Accepting yourself also means accepting your share of the blame. The pope advises each spouse “to ask quietly and humbly if he or she has not somehow created the conditions that led to” a quarrel (236). “Even if it seems clear that the other person is at fault, a crisis will never be overcome simply by expecting him or her to change. We also have to ask what in our own life needs to grow or heal if the conflict is to be resolved” (240).
Accept God’s forgiveness. We can forgive others because God has first forgiven us. The Holy Father says, “If we accept that God’s love is unconditional … then we will become capable of showing boundless love and forgiving others even if they have wronged us” (108). Prayer is a fount of forgiveness. Prayer helps us to examine ourselves honestly, recognize our need for healing, and resolve to keep trying. Every marriage will benefit from “insistent prayer for the grace to forgive and be forgiven” (240).
God gave us free will so we could choose to love him wholeheartedly, not as slaves but as friends (see John 15:15). Marriage is a unique “friendship marked by passion” (125). Trusting freely allows that friendship to blossom.
Let go of the need for control. Pope Francis says, “We do not have to control the other person, to follow their every step lest they escape our grip. Love trusts, it sets free, it does not try to control, possess, and dominate everything” (115). When we get married, we expect to be treated as a high priority, but our plans for our spouse don’t suddenly replace God’s plans. A person who knows how to love freely and generously will willingly take second place to God. Pope Francis explains, “There comes a point where a couple’s love attains the height of its freedom and becomes the basis of a healthy autonomy. This happens when each spouse realizes that the other is not his or her own, but has a much more important master, the one Lord” (320).
Let go of fear. A mature married love does not fear. Pope Francis observes, “Those who know that they are trusted and appreciated can be open and hide nothing” (115), but suspicion can breed secrets. Unless your spouse has given you specific reasons not to, gift him or her with your trust. Set your expectations high, and give your spouse a chance to live up to them!
Let go of preconceptions. Your spouse is not the only family member who deserves your trust. Your children deserve it, too. “We cannot control every situation that a child may experience,” Pope Francis says. “… What is most important is the ability lovingly to help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy” (261). That autonomy may lead to a path that fails to match our preconceptions, because our God is a God of surprises. “This is a good thing,” maintains the pope (262).
The pope highly praises marital fruitfulness, while stressing its intangible aspects. We bear fruit whenever we nurture the good in others, seeking to bring out the best in them. As Pope Francis says, “Marital fruitfulness involves helping others, for ‘to love anybody is to expect from him something which can neither be defined nor foreseen; it is at the same time in some way to make it possible for him to fulfill this expectation’” (322).
Welcome the children of your womb. Pope Francis speaks of the conception of each child as the Creator’s eternal dream come true (see 168). He emphasizes that “large families are a joy for the Church” (167). He even calls a married couple’s fruitful relationship “an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself” in the loving communion of the Trinity (11). But fruitfulness means much more than simply bearing children.
Welcome the children of your heart. The Pope urges us to reach outside the bounds of our biological family. He encourages both adoption and foster care, because all children, “whether natural, adoptive, or taken in foster care, are persons in their own right who need to be accepted, loved, and cared for and not just brought into this world” (180). Welcoming children who are not of your womb, but of your heart, “expresses a particular kind of fruitfulness in the marriage experience” (180).
Welcome the poor. Going even further, Pope Francis pointedly remarks: “We also do well to remember that procreation and adoption are not the only ways of experiencing the fruitfulness of love” (181). By serving and welcoming the poor, a family’s fruitfulness expands outside itself and “in countless ways makes God’s love present in society” (184).
The idea of love as a total gift of self was a cornerstone of St. John Paul II’s teaching, and Pope Francis has followed in his footsteps. Love can’t last unless we go all in, giving all, taking all, and sharing all.
Give love completely. Married love is pleasurable, passionate, and “all-encompassing,” says Pope Francis (125). It transcends the present moment and encompasses “a totality that includes the future” (214). It is the perfect antidote to today’s throwaway culture, a “culture of the ephemeral,” which “fails to promote love or self-giving” (39). It mirrors “the total self-gift of Jesus Christ, who even now lives in our midst and enables us to face together the storms of life at every stage” (290).
Receive love completely. Pope Francis wisely reminds us that a total gift of self is not the same as a total loss of self. Marriage is not the same as martyrdom! He says, “The ideal of marriage cannot be seen purely as generous donation and self-sacrifice, where each spouse renounces all personal needs and seeks only the other’s good without concern for personal satisfaction” (157). Spouses must recognize their own needs, ask for help in fulfilling them, and receive that help as a form of love. Only then can each spouse become the person that God wants them to be with the help of the other. According to Pope Francis, “As love matures, it also learns to ‘negotiate.’ Far from anything selfish or calculating, such negotiation is an exercise of mutual love, an interplay of give and take for the good of the family” (220). Then “there will be no winners and losers, but rather two winners” (220).
Share love completely. The best gift we can give our family is the gift of our full attention. Pope Francis says: “We can be fully present to others only by giving fully of ourselves and forgetting all else. … We are constantly reminded that each of those who live with us merits complete attention, since he or she possesses infinite dignity as an object of the Father’s immense love” (323). We are called to see one another with a direct and loving gaze, to listen to one another’s deepest thoughts, and touch one another with care and compassion (see 128, 137, 142). This is how we share love completely.
So, according to Pope Francis, the four keys to a joy-filled marriage are to forgive faithfully, trust freely, live fruitfully, and love totally. I can only respond, “Amen!”