WASHINGTON (CNS) — Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl said Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation encourages a renewal of marriage and family life through a “pastoral accompaniment” on the part of the church and its members, bringing God’s love and mercy to individuals and families in all stages of life, especially when they are facing difficulties.

“For the Holy Father, the pastoral mission of the church, focused on the lived expression of mercy and love, is expressed in these four principal activities: listening, accompanying, discerning and evangelizing,” the cardinal told an audience April 27 at The Catholic University of America.

In “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis “also draws attention to stages of life where this pastoral accompaniment of families is especially important: in preparing for marriage, in the first years after marriage, during times of crisis, in cases of marital breakdown, and when families are touched by death,” the cardinal told about 150 people.

Cardinal Wuerl’s address on the document was part of a special presentation to a class on the virtues taught by John Garvey, university president.

The cardinal, who as archbishop of Washington serves as the university’s chancellor, also occasionally gives talks in classes in his role as CUA’s William Cardinal Baum professor of theology, a position named for the Washington archbishop from 1973 to 1980 who was a noted theologian and ecumenist.

Cardinal Wuerl noted that listening, accompanying and helping in the discernment of people who might feel themselves apart from the church is an evangelizing outreach for all Catholics. “Such an effort can take place among friends, co-workers, even among family members,” he said. “As in most efforts to evangelize, to bring another closer to Christ, the very activity itself brings the evangelizer that much closer to the Lord.”

In his talk, Cardinal Wuerl emphasized how the document was a “consensus exhortation” reflecting the agreement of the world’s bishops who worked together with Pope Francis in two synods of bishops in 2014 and 2015 that examined challenges facing married couples and families in today’s world.

The cardinal, who participated in both synods, noted that last fall’s gathering “affirmed that there is a difference between the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage (that is, that marriage endures until death), a doctrine of the church, and the pastoral judgment concerning individuals’ relationships to the sacraments. The two realities are greatly related, but they are not the same thing.”

Providing an overview of the document, Cardinal Wuerl noted that for Pope Francis, the starting point for strengthening and renewing marriage and family life is God’s love.

The pope “reminds us of the vocation of the human family, which is revealed in the infinite love of the Lord who was made incarnate in a human family. So great is God’s love for us that when he chose to become one of us, the context was a family,” the cardinal said.

Another key point of the pope’s document, the cardinal added, is that renewing marriage and families is the work of the whole church, and of every family.

“Without claiming to present an entire pastoral plan, our Holy Father calls for family apostolates that would offer more adequate catechesis and formation, that would be directed not only to engaged and married couples and their children, but also a renewed catechesis on the importance of families and marriage (directed) to priests, deacons, seminarians, consecrated religious, catechists, teachers, social workers, medical professionals and other pastoral workers,” he said.

Underscoring how Pope Francis’ exhortation is in continuity with Catholic teaching and reaffirms church doctrine regarding marriage, the cardinal said, “The teaching on marriage and human love of Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI is featured prominently in the document. Particularly notable is the rich use of John Paul II’s catechesis on the body and on human love,” the cardinal said.

He noted that the exhortation includes numerous citations from the teachings of St. John Paul II, the Second Vatican Council, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “While we can refer to ‘Amoris Laetitia’ as a consensus document, we might also name it a continuity exhortation,” he said.

Cardinal Wuerl also emphasized that many consider the heart of the document to be its pastoral implications for married couples and families and for the priests and others who serve them. The tone of the document reflects Pope Francis’ approach to his ministry, the cardinal said.

“Pope Francis approaches his teaching ministry first and foremost as a pastor of souls,” Washington’s archbishop said. “Indeed, in many places in the document, one hears the voice of a pastor speaking directly to members of his flock, sharing his own experience and wisdom formed from many years of service to God’s people.”

Cardinal Wuerl noted that the document also underscores how the church’s pastoral ministry to families is helping them discern their situation, and “a key part of discerning is the formation of conscience. … One aspect of this formation is presenting the teaching of the church in all its fullness and without compromise, though in language which is welcoming rather than defensive. But it is families themselves who must be invited to understand how to apply and begin to live out this teaching in the particularity of their own situations.”

The cardinal then addressed a point that has dominated media coverage of the exhortation: the question of whether the document points to an opening for some divorced and remarried people to receive Communion.

“Those in irregular situations, such as the divorced and civilly remarried, should be invited to deeper inclusion in the life of the church, but the Holy Father is clear that he is in no way changing the church’s doctrine nor making general changes to its sacramental practice or canon law,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “He is inviting such families and the pastors who accompany them to discern what it means for them to walk the path of conversion.”

The cardinal also noted, “The teachings of the church on marriage and the family, conscience and moral decision-making, remain unchanged. The role of the priest in listening and offering affirmation or challenge to persons as they work through their own understanding of their situation, is not the same as absolving from the law (of the church).”

The cardinal concluded his talk by noting how fitting it was that Pope Francis issued his apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family in the Catholic Church’s Jubilee Year of Mercy. “As we read and apply, discern and appropriate the teaching of ‘Amoris Laetitia,’ we must always remember both God’s loving truth and his saving mercy,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

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Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.