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A Pastoral Plan for Marriage and Family Is Unveiled

March 4, 2018

Sunday at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, with hundreds of invited married couples, Cardinal Donald Wuerl presented the Archdiocese of Washington’s pastoral plan to more fully implement Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. The complete text of the plan is available here and additional resources can be found on this website: adw.org/amorislaetitia.

The purpose of the pastoral plan is to achieve the overarching goal of Amoris Laetitia, which is to strengthen marriage and family. It emphasizes effective marriage preparation, support for married couples, marriage enrichment, and assistance for couples struggling in their marriages. The plan speaks to teaching the faithful more effectively on the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, the need for conscience formation, and the overall need for formation in the Gospel. There are also helpful sections directed toward working with people in irregular situations so as to address their problems and keep them close to the heart of Christ and the Church. The Tribunal processes of the Archdiocese remain as they have been in the past for the proper resolution of marriage cases.

Before an in-depth discussion of the plan, a short aside is in order: While nearly all of the commentary on Amoris Laetitia has focused one or two narrow matters pertaining to a couple of footnotes or to Chapter 8, almost to the point of ignoring the rest, the pastoral plan correctly understands that the exhortation is much, much broader in scope. It is this larger part to which the Cardinal’s plan is devoted, while also attesting that there is no change in Church teaching.

What this plan is about is formation in the Lord’s teaching and grace as well as setting an ever-stronger foundation for marriage and family. Cardinal Wuerl notes in his own blog, The parish has a central role in making clear the Gospel vision for marriage and family life. Indeed, this must be our crucial work going forward, both as an Archdiocese and in our individual parishes.

I would like to reflect on this solid, pastoral plan, by reflecting on it in three ways: A Gospel Picture, A Growing Problem, a Going Plan.

A Gospel Picture In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus sees a woman of Samaria coming to a well to draw water. As the Lord who created her, He has always known her and loved her. Before He ever formed her in her mother’s womb He knew her (see Jer. 1:5) and knew everything she would ever do. Indeed, every one of her days was written in His book before one of them ever came to be (see Psalm 139). Yes, He knows her and loves her.

The woman is not named because she may well be you or someone you know. Yes, her story is our story.

The woman comes to the well thirsty. She may be an outcast since she comes alone and at a time of day when others would not be there. Whatever her pain, whatever her sins, whatever shortcomings may have caused her to be outcast and alone, Jesus seeks her. There’s an old hymn that says, “He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.”

In daring fashion, Jesus, a man, speaks to a woman in public. This was not done in those days. He also reaches across racial and ethnic divides, appealing to their shared thirst. In her own pain and fear she at first scoffs that a Jewish man would speak to her, a Samaritan and a woman. In His patience and mercy Jesus does not give up. Slowly, even tenderly, He draws her to a deeper encounter and helps her discover her true thirst.

At a critical moment she says, Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty. Here is the moment for which Jesus longed and thirsted: her assent, her response in faith, however nascent. Her assent opens the first door to the living waters Jesus wants to give.

There is an obstacle, though

“Go call your husband and come back.”
The woman answered and said to him,
“I do not have a husband.”
Jesus answered her,
“You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’
For you have had five husbands,
and the one you have now is not your husband.
What you have said is true.”

Note that there is no rejection in Jesus’ tone, but neither does He ignore her marital situation or wave it off as if it were of no account. Like a good physician, He sees this as likely at the heart of much of her pain and her difficulty in discovering her truer thirst. Something here needs healing, needs to be addressed, so that the living waters can flow and satisfy.

How exactly Jesus dealt with her situation is not clear. Whatever happened was between them. Remember that the Gospel accounts often present in a focused way what for us usually takes much longer. For example, Jesus healed lepers in a moment and cast out demons by a mere command. In contrast, our healing and the casting out of our demons takes time and an ongoing encounter with the Lord through His Body, the Church.

In this Gospel then we see a picture of what the Church has always done and must continue to do. Whatever our hurts and whatever our histories, the Church—the living, active presence of Jesus Christ in the world—must continue to seek those who thirst and draw them to Christ, the source of the true water for which they really thirst. Some bring struggles with sin, addiction, weakness, and other afflictions. All of us are sinners who need ongoing healing. We often seek love try to satisfy our thirsts in the wrong ways and in the wrong places. The role of the Church is not to dismiss sin and struggles as if they were of no account, but to help the faithful, through God’s graces, to work through struggles and overcome obstacles so that the healing waters can flow.

A Growing Problem It is no secret that marriage and the family are in crisis. (See some sobering statistics here: Marriage Troubles.)

The culture is increasingly poisonous to marriage and family: secularism, materialism, the sexual revolution, mobility and rootlessness, the demise of the extended family, the need for two incomes, suffocating college debt, promiscuity, movies that emphasize dysfunction rather than virtue, pornography, ideological colonization, and individualism.

The biblical vision of marriage, family, and sexuality has been significantly eroded in the minds and consciences of many people today. This is true in our parishes as well. The Church cannot remain aloof or disinterested in the walking wounded, who greatly resemble the woman at the well. In his blog, Cardinal Wuerl beautifully notes,

So many people think that if their own lives look more like the woman at the well than the Holy Family that there may not be a place in the Church for them. That is simply not true.

As Jesus looked to the woman of Samaria with love and sought to draw her to the living water of the Spirit, so the Church looks to us with love and seeks to more deeply immerse us in the living waters of Holy Spirit and the Lord’s truth, which alone will set us free.

Simply wishing people well or welcoming them without providing real, substantive help is not enough. Jesus did not brush aside the woman’s painful marital past at the well. He raised the issue with her and (albeit in a hidden way). He ministered to her in a way that allowed her to leave her water jar (a symbol of her reliance on the world) and run joyfully to summon others to Jesus.

The Church, as Christ’s active presence in this world, can do no less—hence the Cardinal’s pastoral plan.

A Going Plan The Pastoral Plan of the Archdiocese of Washington is a combination of pastoral practices and the assembling of resources to help parishes and individuals form and care for one another in today’s world. The Cardinal sets forth “the need for more adequate catechesis and formation, not only of engaged and married couples and their children, but also priests, deacons, seminarians, consecrated religious, catechists, teachers, social workers, medical professionals and other pastoral workers.”

The Cardinal also speaks to the need for the proper formation of conscience through patient and careful teaching by the Church and careful listening and discernment by the faithful.

There are some people today who (often with erroneous consciences) uphold objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal or who want to propose something other than what the Church teaches. They should in no way presume to teach or preach this to others. The Church must patiently and clearly help them, and everyone, to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.

The Church must consistently seek more effective ways to reach people, especially in this age of secularism and detachment from traditional Christian and biblical terms and vision. We cannot simply presume that others share our premises or understand our terms and distinctions. The Cardinal notes, “The act of accompaniment includes fidelity to the teaching as well as awareness of how the teaching is being received or even able to be perceived.”

The Cardinal exhorts pastors: “The underlying moral principle which should inform both that personal discernment and the priest’s ministry is that a person whose situation in life is objectively contrary to moral teaching can still love and grow in the faith, he or she can still take steps in the right direction and benefit from God’s mercy and grace while receiving the assistance of the Church.”

Our job is to assist in the ongoing formation of conscience with respectful, patient, and clear counsel.

Remember that the Church has long reached out to people in invalid marriages through the Tribunal and annulment process. The Church and your local pastor stand ready to assist you if you are currently in a marriage not recognized by the Church. It is often possible to resolve the obstacles that stand in the way of the living water of the sacraments. Please seek advice from your parish or the Archdiocese. An annulment is not a “Catholic divorce.” It is rooted in Jesus’ very words. There is no room to detail all of that in this post, but I have written in more depth on the subject here: What is an annulment?

The pastoral plan then goes on to exhort parishes and parishioners with practical advice. The Cardinal addresses pastors, parish leaders, parish staff, catechists, youth, engaged couples, newly married couples, young adults, young families, older couples, and families in special circumstances (e.g., military families, interfaith and ecumenical families).

The plan concludes with references to dozens of practical resources and programs in the areas of formation, marriage preparation, marriage enrichment, and help for those in troubled marriages.

Some may wonder whether a plan such as this will simply be announced with great fanfare only to end up on the shelf. I would point out that Cardinal Wuerl and the Archdiocese of Washington have a well-established record of following through on pastoral plans. Our Synod, conducted in 2014, has been carefully implemented and has resulted in many structural changes and ongoing initiatives that were sought by the members of the Synod. The Cardinal’s recent pastoral on racism has resulted in a standing committee to shepherd its implementation.

I am convinced that this pastoral plan will also bear much fruit through consistent and persistent action, ongoing review, and accountability. There is much to do—marriage and the family need our focused attention. It is our mission and goal to root the world once again in God’s beautiful vision. It will take time and great effort from all in the Church. We must pray and we must act. The pastoral plan can unite and focus our efforts. May God’s grace and blessing be upon us.

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Comments (16)

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  1. A.Maria says:

    This is good news indeed and thank you for the good articles such as the one from yest., on the fresh perspective of seeing the 10 commandments as promises that can be lived with joy by His grace .

    Hope many would see these efforts as another sign of the springtime that St.John Paul 11 and others too have been praying for The Church .
    We have the ( ?surprise )announcement by the Holy Father of the Feast of Bl.Mother as Mother of The Church , to thus deepen her role in The Church ; that , in turn might lead to having a Feast in honor of The Father as well , with its promises for many blessings throughout .

    A true belief that an all holy, powerful, merciful Father is my Father and that of the other too is a truth that is not so easy for our darkened minds and hearts and if the Feast in honor of The Father would help more in same , as promised , more prayers offered for such a purpose could be of help to make same into a reality .

    The Israelites , after the years of slavery , likely had forgotten what it is to be loved and respected , having been used in destructive ways ;
    such a distorted perspective on love itself very likely at the root of issues in many lives in our times too , needing a true encounter with the Father love in our Lord ,with acceptance of His mercy and forgiveness for all involved .
    Thank God that there is also much focus on the Sacraments, Adoration and deliverance ministry in our times , to help in compassion for the afflicted , thus to persevere in hope , deepening in relationship , for the joy of the oneness of spiritual union with those in our lives , to often raise the heart in silence – ‘Our Father , hallowed be Thy name ‘, thus quenching the thirst at both sides too .

    Thank you .

  2. Larry says:

    “with hundreds of invited married couples”

    No singles invited? That’s business as usual…

    “It emphasizes effective marriage preparation, support for married couples, marriage enrichment, and assistance for couples struggling in their marriages.”

    And apparently nothing to support Catholic singles. The Church talks on and on and on about marriage, but does absolutely nothing to provide support for single Catholics to simply meet. More business as usual.

    • C Beltz says:

      Larry,

      What were you looking for? In fact, there are plenty of places to meet – parish missions, ministry, outreach, or simply talking to fellow church-goer’s after mass. If you feel underserved as a Catholic male, perhaps this is God calling you to ministry? Start a program within your parish to meet other singles while engaging in charitable activities or worship. But I would caution that the Lord must be your focus in such an endeavor, as He would rightly be in your life anyway. Have faith and trust in Him who loves you more than anyone else, that the path you follow will bring you great peace and joy.

      • Larry says:

        C. Beltz, I guess I was looking for singles to at not be excluded from presentations on “how to strengthen marriage and family”. Thank you for making my point for me. No one ever thinks to invite the singles. The Church has completely forgotten that marriages and families get their start among the unmarried. People get uncomfortable when that simple point is brought up. Or are dismissive and insist that “there are plenty of places to meet” when that’s obviously no longer true.

        • “marriages and families get their start among the unmarried”

          Yes, the time to learn how serious the Church’s teachings are regarding marriage and the consequences of divorce is well prior to falling in love someone and desiring to marry that person. I believe the Church should make a significant effort to educate children in these matters, not just young adults. The consequences of a failed marriage should be well understood before one begins to date.

    • teomatteo says:

      Larry, try googling: Juventutem (your state) and see what pops up. Just a suggestion. peace.

  3. John says:

    Political and social commentator Charles Murray’s “The State of White America: 1960 to 2010,” takes a look at the marriage problem among others in the U.S. The bright spot is that highly educated professionals have on balance successful marriage unions with a low divorce rate. Apparently, the rest of the population is not so good. What sticks out is those who are married and economically ahead of the game have marriages that the Vatican would like it’s adherents to emulate. Unfortunately, as some would call a critic of contemporary society, Murray’s outlook is not spiritual but political and has a different outlook on what ails the country and it may run counter to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

  4. Fr. Thomas Hoisington says:

    Monsignor, please share with us your thoughts on the observations of eminent canonist Edward Peters: https://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/a-demur-on-the-aow-document-implementing-amoris-laetitia/

    • I would like to point out what Msgr. Pope wrote about conscience just this Feb in a marvelous article published in the National Catholic Register (http://www.ncregister.com/blog/msgr-pope/in-an-age-of-moral-confusion-we-must-be-clear-about-the-true-meaning-of-con). Below is just an excerpt; I suggest everyone read the entire article. You’ll find it very helpful

      Begin quote:

      While it is true that one must follow the judgment of ones’ conscience, the authority of conscience is not unlimited. Conscience is not a final and unchanging authority; it is more student than teacher. One is obliged to form one’s conscience through both study and experience.

      Conscience is not independent of Divine Law nor of just law and legitimate authority. It is not private inspiration or interpretation. It is not a law unto itself. Conscience does not establish law. The role of conscience is to apply what is taught by God, through Natural Law, Revelation, and the Church to particular situations. The aim of conscience cannot be to resist such law but rather to receive and apply it.

      Conscience is not to be equated with sentiment or emotion and surely not merely with one’s desires. Instead it must seek evidence in what is revealed by objective sources such as Divine law, Natural Law, and the certain doctrinal teachings of the Church.

      The goal for acts of conscience must always be that they are rooted in what is good and true.

      Acts of conscience must also be certain. They should not be sentiments, hunches or guesses as to what should be done. They are to be well thought out and rooted in revealed and natural truth. On this their certainty rests, not on what one wants or finds expedient.

      While it is taught that a man may follow his conscience even if it be erroneous, this does not make the conclusions of an erroneous conscience true or worthy of respect. Jesus Himself once said, The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God (John 16:2). This is a truly horrifying case of an erroneous conscience. In speaking of it, Jesus does not affirm that it is good. It is certainly evil to kill the innocent and to martyr Christians! And even if their erroneous consciences may lessen their culpability, Jesus does not leave them free of any role in their deformed consciences. Thus, He adds, They will do these things because they have not known the Father or Me (John 16:3).

      So, the Church’s response to an erroneous conscience should not be to affirm it or to pronounce it worthy of respect. While we want to respect that some people are sincerely wrong and wish to treat them with dignity, we must continue to insist that those who have erroneous consciences are wrong. We must teach both them and others what is true and why.

      Ultimately our role is to respond to the ever-present call initiated by Jesus: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” To “repent” (metanoiete), in its most literal sense, means to come to a new mind, a new understanding, a new way of thinking. This new mind is what ushers in the transformative truth of the Gospel.

      I present this short treatise on conscience in hopes of clarifying and encouraging greater caution when using the word “conscience.” While not everyone accepts all the details of the Scholastic perspective presented here, we ought to be careful not to reduce conscience to personal judgments, as if they were authoritative. Conscience cannot and should not be set in opposition to Divine Law, Natural Law or revealed truth. Conscience is not the master of these; it is their servant, applying their truth to particular circumstances.

      “Respecting” the consciences of those who live in open opposition to revealed truth cannot include affirming them as if they were not in error. God does not speak out of both sides of his mouth. Either a person’s judgment is in conformity with God’s revealed truth and is thus correct, or it is not in conformity and is thus in error.

      True respect for the conscience of all human beings is shown by affirming the right judgments of their consciences and seeking to correct erroneous judgments. This is in accord with human dignity.

      End quote.

  5. Kristen says:

    Msgr. Pope,

    I don’t mean to throw cold water on this rollout but I don’t know how any parish in the United States can implement Amoris Laetitia effectively until the children of divorce are included in workshops, listening session or even mentioned in any meaningful way. Until we hear from children of divorce (even good divorces or just divorces) and acknowledge the injustice of divorce, we cannot strengthen marriages.

  6. You can grease the skids but if the horse won’t pull you will carry the load on a slippery slope. Jesus and the woman went their separate ways when he was through enlightening her to His truth. There is a polemic division amongst the clergy in the Catholic faith. They are even calling to improve relations with the muslim faith and they condone poligamy and jihad. A person can be married in the Cathoic Church 30 years have chidren and the get an annulment because they decide they want to marry someone else and stay in communion with the Church. My ex-brother-inlaw is living proof. I would have to say the Church is pretty compassionate already.

  7. Morrie Chamberlain says:

    Pope Francis had wondered aloud how many Catholic marriages today are truly valid. I agree with his speculation. How many weddings took place since the 70’s where the bride and groom did not truly appreciate the nature of a sacramental marriage? Open to children, faithful to one another, lifelong, loving, with God at the center. It is now open warfare against the secular forces that fight against these values. Programs like these can be considered a type of field hospital that Pope Francis envisions our church having. The status quo is not working and something extraordinary is required.