PROVIDENCE — Two years ago, following the official release to the public of Pope Francis’ highly anticipated reflection on the last two sessions of the Synod of Bishops, “Amoris Laetitia,” Bishop Thomas J. Tobin reflected on his reading of the hefty 256-page apostolic exhortation, acknowledging that while it doesn’t recast the moral teachings of the church, the document “has a unique ability to please or disappoint everyone who reads it.”
“Amoris Laetitia” focuses on process and discernment and advocates prayerful discretion when addressing the pastoral care of those whose relationship with the Church is strained by “irregular” circumstances.
Some Catholics around the world, particularly those who have divorced and later were civilly married but who desire to again receive the Eucharist at Mass, had been hoping for a more concrete pronouncement on their reception of the sacraments.
Following the release of “Amoris Laetitia,” dioceses near and far began to formulate plans to implement pastoral approaches that reflected the document’s call for accompaniment.
In the Diocese of Providence, Assistant Moderator of the Curia Father Jonathan DeFelice, O.S.B., led a task force of approximately 20 priests, religious and laity from across the diocese who were tasked with reviewing the nine-chapter exhortation and developing suggestions to improve pastoral outreach.
“Our approach was that we decided to select one paragraph from each chapter of the declaration because it’s a very long text,” Father DeFelice said.
Over the course of the last two years, the task force crafted three suggestions for pastoral changes from each of the nine chapter summary paragraphs, distilling the 250-page papal document down to a four-page implementation plan. The plan, finalized in April, was recently brought before Bishop Tobin and the Council of Priests and for their review.
Most of the 27 suggestions offered relate to developing continuing education programs in response to the issues discussed.
“One of the major suggestions that we have is to conduct a complete review of the diocesan marriage preparation program so that it can become more in line with the teachings of Amoris Laetitia,” Father DeFelice said.
Some suggestions in this area include developing a “marriage mentoring” program that would connect more senior married couples with younger couples for assistance and guidance, as well as a series of workshops/days of recollection for existing couples to renew and deepen their understanding of their vocation.
Another suggestion is that resources be developed for priests and religious educators to remind the faithful that the church’s vision of sacramental marriage is “something far richer than the secular culture can provide.”
The plan also calls for the diocese to renew its commitment in the area of Catholic education so that schools are accessible to all regardless of income, race and other distinguishing characteristics, and that diocesan programming be broadened to provide continuing education and assistance with addictions and mental health issues.
It also calls for partnerships to be made with local St. Vincent DePaul Societies to raise awareness of the needs of families.
To help make a faith-based education more accessible, the plan suggests the exploration of ways to improve the finances of Catholic schools, including sponsorship and parish tithing programs in an effort to make them more affordable to a broader population.
The eighth chapter of the papal document is an invitation to mercy and pastoral discernment “in situations that do not fully match what the Lord proposes.”
Suggestions offered in this area include the hosting of town hall presentations throughout the diocese with a canon lawyer, moral theologian and a pastor present to discuss annulments, especially among Catholics who may feel alienated from attending Mass due to their marital situation.
In addition to educating the lay faithful on topics of accompaniment, discernment and integration, another suggestion calls for speakers to educate the clergy so that they can better communicate their pastoral concern for the faithful.
As “Amoris Laetitia,” was crafted in response to ideas discussed at synods on the pastoral care of families, the ninth chapter is devoted to marital and family spirituality.
In this area, the plan calls for the encouragement of prayer for families through prayer chains, prayers at Sunday Masses and devotions specifically for the needs of families. Parishes and schools are being encouraged to develop active “young family” groups and incorporate “family” into events. This would include the regular celebration of wedding anniversaries.
Deacon Stephen R. Cote, coordinator of the diocesan Marriage Preparation program, served on the “Amoris Laetitia” Task Force.
“I found it to be enlightening,” he said of the two-year process to develop a plan of suggestions for the bishop to consider. “It was important for us to bring those concerns to Bishop Tobin to make the necessary implementations.”
Deacon Cote is especially hopeful that the Diocese of Providence can establish a marriage mentoring program for younger couples.
“It would be nice to have that,” he said.
“We would coordinate recruiting these couples and set up specific guidelines to mentor. Other dioceses do it and it’s been successful. I think it’s something that’s worth looking into.”
Father DeFelice agreed.
“I think people see a need for a new way to talk about marriage and marriage preparation and I think that was very strong,” he said.
Edward Trendowski, director of the diocesan Office of Faith Formation, said it was no small feat for the task force to produce a localized plan from a hefty papal document that produced so much to reflect on. He said that the members sought responses to the great challenges which face families today while encouraging ideas that were consistent with the teaching of the Magesterium.
“Because married couples have an ecclesial responsibility to reflect the love between Christ and His Church, the task force discussed how priests, deacons, Catholics Schools, parish religious education programs and families themselves can educate children, youth, and adults to recognize the beauty of the sacrament which, along with Holy Orders, is at the service of communion,” Trendowski said.
This ties into building a ‘culture of vocations,’ a topic that will likely be covered at the upcoming Synod of Bishops in the Fall of 2018.
Dr. Rex Appenfeller and his wife Maria Appenfeller, a nurse, also served on the task force.
They found the 250-page document to be comprehensive but, in some ways, overwhelming.
“For us, as members of the Marriage Preparation ministry in the Diocese of Providence, we found the words of Pope Francis in Chapter 4, “Love in Marriage” to be refreshing and reaffirming,” Dr. Appenfeller said.
“We hope to be able to utilize Pope Francis’s words in our work in Marriage Preparation, and specifically the committee has recommended to the bishop consideration of implementing marriage mentoring, providing additional priestly resources, and a marriage workshop for married couples.”
Ron and Kate Jelinek said they were honored to serve and to be a part of the diocesan conversation on “Amoris Laetitia.”
The parents of three girls, ages 10, 8 and 18 months, the Jelineks help Associate Pastor Father Joshua Barrow oversee the “Young Families Group” at Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich.
“We have seen firsthand that ‘the Joy of Love as experienced by families is also the joy of the Church,’ as Pope Francis says,” Ron Jelinek said.
“But the threats faced by families today are very real. So I think our committee was asked to deliver some substantive ideas about how we as a parish and diocesan community can better unleash the joy that God wants our families to experience.”
Through his participation on the committee he has found that from a practical standpoint much can be done to address some of the issues facing the church today.
Jelinek feels it is the world’s aim — especially through the proliferation of technology — to distract people from getting to know God and his sustaining joy.
“We need to remember that family begins with marriage. And the process of becoming a healthy, capable, committed and faithful young adult who can fully give him or herself into marriage begins early in life,” he said.
“Preparing children to consider their vocation — whether it be to in married life or religious life — should begin very early. Full discussion, both at Mass and in Catholic school, about what married life is, how a healthy married life is a procreative force for good which brings great personal joy is critical.”
He believes that Catholic education deserves to reclaim its important role in both helping to support and augment the efforts of faithful families.
“This means a re-doubling of our commitment to funding Catholic education at the diocesan level as well as helping to educate families on the fact that the new tax bill allows them to use 529 plans to pay for K-12 Catholic education,” Jelinek said. “And it means making a robust and unwavering call for school choice in Rhode Island. As our Catholic schools go, so go our families and so goes our Church.”
Jelinek finds that praying the rosary, especially as a family, unlocks unspeakable grace, changes hearts and saves souls.
“At its very core, I believe that is what Amoris Laetitia is asking us to do.”