Amoris Laetitia and building bridges: “stay as close as you can”

I’ve had time to skim The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia) by Pope Francis. It bears closer reading, and I’ll get there eventually. For now, it evokes words that had a profound effect on my life – words uttered a decade before Pope Francis even became a priest, and a year before I was born.

The pope’s recent message reinforced the Catholic Church’s recognition of the truth about the dignity and indissolubility of marriage. At the same time, he urged readers to build bridges of mercy and patience and acceptance for other people as they are, where they are.

Can one be “accepting” of people in unsanctioned unions, without compromising on truth? Let me tell you my family’s story, and you’ll know why I say yes.

My parents had a whirlwind courtship: they got married five months after they met. There was one sticky point that probably kept them from getting married even sooner: my father had been divorced.

Both my parents were Catholic, my mother more observant than my father. Before going through with the wedding, Mom needed to talk to a priest.

She knew what it meant to marry someone whose marriage had been dissolved under civil law. She did not ask the priest to re-write the rules.  She was going to marry my father, and that was that. At the same time, she had faith in God and in His Church. What, she asked the priest, could she do?

His answer was simple. “Stay as close as you can.”

No threats. No thundering denunciations. No compromise of the truth. Just a clear, merciful invitation for Mom to participate in the life of the faith community as best she could, with the clear understanding that she and my father were choosing to forgo the sacraments.

And so my parents were married in a civil ceremony. I was born a year later. Mom took me to church every week, we were active in parish activities, and when the time came I had religious education. One day when I was very little I asked Mom why she didn’t come to Communion with me. “Just pray that I can someday,” she replied. Stay as close as you can, she must have been thinking.

When my father’s first wife passed away – may she rest in peace – my parents had their marriage solemnized in the Church. It must have been one of the happiest days of my mother’s life. It was therefore a happy day for my father, regardless of his ongoing irritation with the Church.

When I became an adolescent, I started asking why I had to go to church when Dad didn’t. “Listen to your mother,” he growled. I muttered mutinously but I complied. A couple of decades later, Dad listened to her, too.

A funny thing happened when adulthood snuck up on me: I realized my mother had put down roots for my faith, and those roots stubbornly refused to be torn up.  My mother brought me up in such a way that I couldn’t escape the truth if I tried.

All that time, she lived by the merciful and encouraging words spoken by a priest I never knew: stay as close as you can. Had she not received mercy and encouragement at that critical moment, she might have fled the Church in despair, and her life and mine would have been very different.

My mother didn’t tell me about her conversation with that priest until a short time before she died. When she told me, I thought to myself, now it all makes sense.

I have been the beneficiary of encouraging words spoken at a critical moment to a person whose marriage was for several years not in accord with Church teaching. I’ve seen the generational effect of those words. As I read The Joy of Love, I knew that Pope Francis understood how powerful mercy, acceptance and encouragement can be.

I wish I knew the name of the priest who counseled my mother. I ask God to bless him, wherever he is. There’s a good chance he was a military chaplain, since my parents met on an Army base. That’s a tough pastoral environment. I’d say he knew how to rise to an occasion.

My parents had 42 years together. The first dozen of those years were spent outside the sacraments but still inside a warm and faith-filled parish (stay as close as you can). My mother’s example brought my father back to the practice of the faith. I am Catholic in large part due to her influence, which in turn has affected my own husband and children.

Stay as close as you can. Those words anticipated The Joy of Love by more than fifty years, and they built a bridge that my parents were eventually able to cross together. Witnessing my parents’ eventual full reconciliation with the Church, I learned that mercy and truth are essential – and we separate them at our peril. I’m grateful to the Holy Father for reinforcing that lesson.