Leaders of the U.S. Catholic church have been proceeding carefully in their efforts to understand and implement the pope's exhortation on marriage and family, according to a report issued Sept. 27.
The report, from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was in response to a request from the Office of the Synod of Bishops to determine how the papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love") has been received and implemented since its release in April. The report is based on responses from 59 dioceses and 18 national organizations.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a member of the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family, is chairman of the U.S. bishops' ad hoc committee studying implementation of the exhortation.
A number of dioceses and Catholic groups said they are spreading the word about the document through articles or columns by bishops in diocesan newspapers, websites and social media outreach. Several national organizations have been conducting webinar presentations and some dioceses have provided online toolkits with resource guides and supplementary materials for Catholics and church leaders.
Dioceses also have been providing opportunities to train pastors, priests and deacons on the document and some dioceses have given priests guidance on how Amoris Laetitia should be implemented.
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Some diocesan responses said the document would be the focus of future deanery meetings but that it had not been urged as a topic for suggested homilies or as themes to be included in seminary education.
On the diocesan level, the offices of marriage and family life, not surprisingly, were most familiar with the document, involved in studying it and recommending changes to ministry efforts such as providing training for volunteers in marriage ministry.
Diocesan tribunals also were listed as having key roles in implementing Amoris Laetitia by providing education on the annulment process and implementing changes put forth by Pope Francis such as eliminating fees and making the process more accessible. Adult faith formation offices have been providing educational opportunities for religious education teachers and the general Catholic public.
A number of U.S. bishops reported that they have been educating diocesan staff members on the exhortation and have been re-evaluating or changing diocesan office structures in response to the pope's emphasis on ministry to families by hiring full-time staff dedicated to pastoral care of marriages and families.
When asked how marriage-related ministries would be impacted by Amoris Laetitia, several bishops mentioned new marriage preparation programs they plan to use and increased training for mentor couples and marriage preparation leaders. Many of them also spoke about re-evaluating marriage enrichment offerings to integrate the teachings of Amoris Laetitia.
Respondents also noted a particular focus on the document's fourth chapter emphasizing marriage preparation and difficulties in marriage. Bishops and church leaders emphasized the need to provide enhanced training for those who work with married couples and to provide more resources to Catholic couples. Several bishops also mentioned the need to give more attention to remarried couples.
A theme of the report was that the pope's document provided a "renewed approach to caring for marriages and families" and several respondents spoke of a new tone on such matters from Pope Francis as well as his emphasis on "accompaniment, mercy, highlighting the strengths of the family and the joy of love, and the importance of allowing 'Amoris Laetitia' to inform all ministries."
They also noted that they could use more resources on applying some aspects of the exhortation, particularly on the reception of the sacraments for those in irregular marital situations and they said they needed more guidance on some of the document's key terms and concepts "such as discernment, integration, gradualness, conscience, and mercy."
The conclusion of the report points out that the interest shown in Amoris Laetitia and the resources developed for it "shows the high level of eagerness toward charting a faithful and effective implementation of the Holy Father's exhortation across the United States."
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, USCCB president, said in a statement that the report shows the "good work that is already underway, as well as envisioned future plans to continue absorbing and unpacking this foundational document."
He said at the national level, the USCCB "looks forward to the anticipated development of a renewed, comprehensive pastoral plan for marriage and family life ministry and advocacy inspired by our Holy Father's encouragement. This plan will be carefully developed over the next few years and will be a strategic opportunity for the church here in this country."
The archbishop said the pope has "given us a tremendous gift in 'Amoris Laetitia.'"
"May our ongoing reception of it continue to be an opportunity for the whole church and society to renew their dedication to protect, promote, and strengthen marriages and families," he said.