"Amoris Laetitia" ("The Joy of Love"), a so-called "apostolic exhortation" Pope Francis issued last spring, celebrates the many ways in which divine and human love engage and intermesh.

An "exhortation" is just that: a word of affirmation, a pep talk. It's what good parents do for their children: encourage them, while admonishing and correcting them.

As a pastoral document, "Amoris Laetitia" is concerned with how we apply our teaching in practice.

In chapter eight of the document, Pope Francis delves into the trenches where love gets tough and people are wounded. Love takes sacrifice, which can be betrayed. What starts as wholesome and cool may be spoiled if "third parties" intrude, be they of the virtual kind (drugs, games, porn or any "-holism") or other people, like intrusive in-laws or the "nice friend who listens."

Good confessors -- priests who celebrate the healing powers of penance -- have always welcomed people in tough marriage situations, who might be divorced or in civil unions.

Often, an abused spouse seeks comfort in a new relationship offering a hope of safety. All too quickly, physical intimacy belonging only in marriage ensues. Children come along -- maybe even a civil wedding ceremony. Pope Francis wants a Church that welcomes and accompanies those wounded in such situations.

Divorced people often feel judged by the Church. The false assumption that divorce automatically means excommunication or second-class membership may stem from experiences with overly-harsh confessors.

It is true that it is objectively sinful to live with someone you are not married to. But the conversation should not stop there.

Unless you know someone really well, it's best to listen before making assumptions. Like most pastors, Pope Francis knows divorced people often feel like failures, guilty and ashamed. That is not a Christian attitude. Parents whose children are in pain and trouble want them to know they are here for them. I think that is what Pope Francis wants to encourage.

Pope Francis expresses God's compassion toward those in broken or "irregular" relationships. Few forms of human pain surpass the depth and breadth of the anguish suffered by anyone who has witnessed the collapse of a marriage. Jesus always reaches out to those who are scattered, isolated, abandoned, marginalized and wounded.

Pope Francis counsels pastors, friends and families to do the same, challenging all of us to walk with those whose marriages are not sound, whatever their current status: single, divorced or in a civil union.

Pope Francis invites pastors to encourage a process of discernment and openness, which might eventually lead to full sacramental participation, if deliberate steps are taken. This requires much patience and sacrifice from the one who accompanies the wounded soul, such as Christ bears for all of us sinners.

To be clear, Pope Francis assures us that no Church doctrine has changed. Cardinal Ludwig Müller, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, consistently maintains that nothing has changed even in the Church's discipline on admission of the divorced-and-remarried to communion, and that the exhortation must be read in continuity with the preceding magisterium. That is our practice in the Diocese of Albany.

Recent reports about pastoral guidelines issued by bishops in Malta, Germany and Argentina have appeared in CNS (Catholic News Service) and some diocesan newspapers, including The Evangelist. Those bishops describe certain circumstances under which they believe Catholics living in objectively sinful states might receive the sacraments.

According to these accounts, a new booklet published by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmiero is described as "authoritative" by a priest directing the Vatican publishing house. Another priest, said to be a theologian and consultant for the Doctrine of the Faith, recently told reporters that Cardinal Coccopalmerio's reading of "Amoris Laetitia" is the same as those bishops whose advice has raised questions about whether the long practice of the Church has changed. This would not be consistent with what the pope, Cardinal Mueller and most bishops clearly affirm. It should be noted that none of these priests speaks for the magisterium.

A common theme underlying all of the writings and pastoral guidelines is our love for those living in situations which are not fully in keeping with Gospel teaching and the desire to walk with them and support them on a journey of spiritual and moral growth.

The first service toward them is to affirm the truth about their living situation. Telling the truth with charity is the essence of mercy. It leads to holiness when accompanied by compassion -- literally, suffering with the wounded person on the way.

Every disciple of Jesus can and should extend this compassion, but the priest-confessor has a special role to play. No pastoral guidelines counsel persons in these difficult situations to go it alone. "Discernment" is never a do-it-yourself process. That would open the door to illusion, rationalization and self-deception.

A confessor must act as a check; a critic, at times; and a wise counselor. In confession, a person may reveal an intent to take the steps necessary to overcome the sinful situation in the relationship.

We leave all judgment of souls in God's hands as we walk with those whose journey toward God has been disrupted by betrayal and deception while in search of love. Our sacrificial patience, encouragement and admonition are themselves powerful signs of God's merciful love.

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