Msgr. Charles Pope: A Pastoral Plan for Marriage and Family Is Unveiled

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By Msgr. Charles Pope • 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:

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 blogThe 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.