Pope Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (The Joy of Love) has captured in a beautifully intimate way what the Theology of the Body should look like as a marital and familial spirituality.
With true tenderness, the pope shows how it is in the intimate garden of the human family that the theology of our bodies first breaks into the soil of human history, allowing our personalities to grow, ascend, and blossom into the larger world. Marriage and the family allow the joy of love to be made flesh.
Taking thoughts from Amoris Laetitia itself as a springboard, I’d like to offer five ways through which we can begin to give flesh to this theology of the body in the family. Let’s begin with that initial encounter that makes human love become flesh; the communion of love of the man and the woman.
1. Love Your Spouse
“The erotic dimension of love… must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses… a ‘pure, unadulterated affirmation’ revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable. In this way, even momentarily, we can feel that ‘life has turned out good and happy’.”
– Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 152
It has often been said that the best way to love your children is to love their mother or father, to love the source from which this family sprang. To show a real attentiveness to your spouse, to be grateful for the “marvels” within them that Pope Francis spoke of, is to reveal to the children the face of love
How many times in the course of a day do disagreements arise, expectations get dashed or a simple lack of attention between mom and dad send ripples of discontent over the face of the family? So love your spouse, acknowledging their masculine or feminine mystery in the home and in your heart. This quiet love and its reverent gaze will speak volumes and stretch deep into the future as your children look back recalling, perhaps with renewed hope, the silhouette of mom and dad in the kitchen, or leaning against the porch railing, or the couch or in the kitchen offering a gentle kiss, or a listening ear. Those images will become a kind of kindling for their souls and stir a longing for a similar vocation of love and communion in their own lives.
2. Make Your Home a Temple
“Within the family ‘which could be called a domestic church’, individuals enter upon an ecclesial experience of communion among persons, which reflects, through grace, the mystery of the Holy Trinity.… The Church is a family of families, constantly enriched by the lives of all those domestic churches.”
– Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 87
Seeing the family as a domestic church means connecting in some way the signs, symbols and experiences of the parish church into the space and rhythm of your life at home. There should be a kind of holy reverence for the people under your roof, in the greetings you exchange with one with one another, in the areas where you spend time together. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” A Catholic home should have sacred art, a crucifix, icons of the Holy Family, Our Lady, St. Joseph (rosaries on the bedroom doorknobs and a holy water font by the front door is always a nice touch).
At the same time, let’s be realistic. The smells and bells of the “domestic church” are quite different from those of the parish church. These “mass times” can change at the drop of a hat, and the call to prayer is often not on the same schedule as the Angelus.
The essential point is that this space be a place where self-giving love can flourish. The dinner table is in a certain sense a kind of altar where we lay down our offerings, our gifts to be shared. The nuptial bed is that high altar, shrouded like the Holy of Holies where a kind of eucharistic self-giving happens that gives flesh to the wedding vows. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in the Spirit of the Liturgy, “In the Eucharist a communion takes place that corresponds to the union of man and woman in marriage. Just as they become ‘one flesh’, so in Communion we all become ‘one spirit’, one person, with Christ.”
One could say that a kind of consummation
happens at both; one communal and the other spousal, with both imaging the fruitfulness that flows from the banquet of self-giving love.
3. Teach the Sacramental Vision
“Children need symbols, actions and stories… it is best to encourage their own experience of faith and to provide them with attractive testimonies that win them over by their sheer beauty… Hence moments of family prayer and acts of devotion can be more powerful for evangelization than any catechism class or sermon.”
– Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 288
Every night we bless our children with holy water, tracing the cross on their foreheads. I’ll say the Aaronic prayer found in the book of Numbers 6:24-26. “May the Lord bless and keep you, may the Lord let His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord show you His face and give you peace.” Then I add a little embrace, and a “goodnight, you’re a gift to us.” I put a little dab of essential oils like lavender or rose on their hands and over their hearts saying “The Lord give you the oil of His gladness and health and strength of mind, body, and soul.” Though the actions are small, they will leave a memory. A sacramental touch that brings the gifts of creation in touch with their body-persons, their very selves, prepares them for the more efficacious encounter with the Church’s sacraments, with Christ Himself.
As Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si, 233, 235: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face… The Sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life. Through our worship of God, we are invited to embrace the world on a different plane. Water, oil, fire and colors are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise…” ( Laudato Si, 235, 233)
4. Catechize Through the Language of the Body
“The family is called to join in daily prayer, to read the word of God and to share in Eucharistic communion, and thus to grow in love and become ever more fully a temple in which the Spirit dwells… The work of handing on the faith to children, in the sense of facilitating its expression and growth, helps the whole family in its evangelizing mission. It naturally begins to spread the faith to all around them, even outside of the family circle.”
– Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 29, 289
The domestic church of the family is called to be a school of holiness, and rest assured, there are loads of lessons already baked in! Through our family faith formation, we then become bread for the world. As author Mike Aquilina wrote, “The family is the great catechism God has given the world. The work of our lifetime is to learn how to read it and then study it prayerfully.”
Every family, every day gives us chances to live the content of the Faith, to embody the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which are all self giving acts of love directed to the human person, a body and soul composite. From nursing an infant, changing a diaper, or calming the trembling heart from her nightmares, to the lived experience shared openly to the questioning teen, the listening ear for the searching twenty-something or the advice to the newly married offspring; every blessed contact with the person is an event that can teach the theology of the body. For in every word and action we speak; “I love you, I am ministering to you, I am being attentive to the theology of your body and your call to communion with others and with God Himself.”
This living, breathing catechism of the family is often more about listening, looks, and sensitivities, then dogmatic dissertations, or lectures. It’s theology breathed through the body, inspired by the Spirit of Love.
5. Live in the Beautiful Mess with Mercy
Honestly for my wife Rebecca and I, trying to live this theology of the body “successfully” with four children under the age of eight can get messy. The joy of love runs deep, but the peace comes in tiny flashes, sometimes in the briefest of moments amidst the tempestuous demands of the little ones. But Proverbs 24:16 says “though the just fall seven times, they rise again.” (I could easily double that, by the way!)
We have to realize that to reach the ideal we must be real. And faithfulness is a better goal than successfulness. As Pope Francis said at the close of the World Meeting of Families in 2015, “In families, there are difficulties. In families, we argue; in families, sometimes the plates fly; in families, the children give us headaches. And I’m not even going to mention the mother-in-law. But in families… there is the resurrection… it is a factory of hope, of hope of life and of resurrection.”
In this Year of Mercy, let us pray for the patience and grace of God to guide us through the battles, breakdowns, and bliss that are often all wrapped up in our families. Let us live this “paschal mystery” in and through our families and so help the world to taste and see the joy of love!
“Love is a festival. Love is joy. Love is to keep moving forward.”
– Pope Francis
Bill Donaghy has spoken internationally on faith and the New Evangelization since 1999. Through his work with the Pontifical Mission Societies, Bill gave hundreds of talks on the spirituality of mission to young people throughout the greater Philadelphia area and beyond, creating a teaching and speaking ministry known as MissionMoment.org. He holds an Associates Degree in Visual Arts, a Bachelors in Philosophy and a Masters in Systematic Theology. In addition to his full-time work for the Theology of the Body Institute, Bill teaches at Immaculata University. He and his wife, Rebecca, live outside of Philadelphia, PA with their four children.