Jul 16, 2016


ABSTRACT  : Amoris Laetitia and a Spirituality of Family Life.

The Catholic Church is possibly better known for its moral than for its pastoral theology, for teaching and upholding doctrine than developing a spirituality than incorporates doctrine and seeks to apply it to the daily life of its families.  Amoris Laetitia is the title of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on Family Life which was released on 8th April 2016.  It was produced as his response to the two important consultative Synods of Bishops on the Family in 2014 and 2015. Interestingly it addresses itself in addition to pastors to Christian couples and everyone as it seeks to present a way forward to live according to God’s plan in the often difficult situations in which families of today find themselves.   But how does the document approach a spirituality of marriage and of other aspects of family life?  Do couples and family members in the various types of families that exist today live out a spirituality that speaks to them in their context or approaches them as individuals?  Is a spirituality of sexuality, marriage over a lifetime, grieving and loss in widowhood, anger, resentment and guilt of divorce, the joys and pains of parent-child relationships from birth to adulthood relevant and valued by families in the secular world of today?

The paper will examine the concepts of spirituality and in particular marital and family spirituality. Toni Rowland seeks to explore these from the background of her own earlier research, own experience and work of the last 35 years.




Amoris Laetitia and a Spirituality of Family Life.

Toni Rowland


Did you wash your face with tears, today, yesterday?

Were they tears of anguish,

loneliness, abandonment and loss?

Were they tears of regret, sadness and guilt at missed opportunities

to say “I love you.”

to say, “forgive me,”

to say, “I really do still need you,”

to say, “I care?”

Were they tears of the joy, of new life and new birth,

of reconciliation or new insights?

Were they tears of laughter,

rising-from-the-depths, rolling-down-your-cheeks kind of laughter?

Did the taste of your tears on your tongue enlighten you

that life is good, because life is?

Then, having tasted the bitterness and saltiness and tang of your tears

can you wash your face with tears of compassion?


Pope Francis recently asked, “All of us have felt joy, sadness and sorrow in our lives but have we wept during the darkest moment? Have we had that gift of tears that prepares the eyes to look, to see the Lord?” He continued, “We, too, can ask the Lord for the gift of tears, it is a beautiful grace … to weep praying for everything: for what is good, for our sins, for graces, for joy itself.

Tears are an intrinsic part of life, in particular family life.  Babies cry, children cry, women, and less often men, cry at deathbeds, funerals and of course also at weddings, anniversaries and when your kids win a prize. Tears are a symbol of spirituality, related by Teresa of Avila to the wounding of the heart by the love of God. They depict heightened emotion, often of love and care.

Sixteen years ago when I sat at the bedside of my dying husband all wired up to life-support systems I was captivated by the tear in his eye.  I wrote “Chris, in your last moments was the tear in your eye just a product of the marvels of modern technology that supported you in your physical distress but then left you helpless in the hands of God?  Was it a product of a life lived in service to God and family?  Was the tear one of sadness, was it one of gladness, of pride or achievement, God’s sign and His own way of saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant?  We lived the Paschal mystery of marriage, even creating our own Good Fridays, but our decisions to love led to true Resurrection times.”  That, for me is a lived spirituality of relationships. It was expressed in tears, his and mine.

When I first browsed through AMORIS LAETITIA, the eagerly awaited document of Pope Francis to the Church about the Family I involuntarily shed a tear.  Why, you may ask? That is what I intend to unpack in this paper.

The paper will consider two main topics: 1. AMORIS LAETITIA and 2. The spirituality of family life.  A short introduction to AMORIS LAETITIA is provided for clarity. My intention is not to offer a critique of the document as a whole but to consider its contribution in the area of family spirituality for families in South Africa. The paper will examine the terms family, spirituality, and family spirituality, mainly from a personal and Catholic perspective because that is my experience, but open to a broader interpretation.  Family spirituality in AMORIS LAETITIA will then be examined. This will be followed by an example and some conclusions.



It is an Apostolic Exhortation, a letter from the Pope after a council or synod in which he comments on the outcomes and presents his personal observations.  It was addressed to clergy, Christian married couples and all the lay faithful.   

AMORIS LAETITIA, Latin for THE JOY OF LOVE, was presented after an extensive discernment process to consider the situation around family life in our day in the church and to some degree in the world.   Questionnaires  preceded two synods, in 2014 and 2015. Analysis of the responses formed the agenda for the three-week long Synods attended by church leadership, cardinals and bishops with a small number of priests, theologians and laity, mainly couples. The final report was published in December 2015.


In the very long document Pope Francis thanked the Synod Fathers for their “legitimate concerns and honest questions.”  His aims were to present an “aid to reflection, dialogue, pastoral practice and to help and encourage to families in their daily commitments and challenges.”  AL4   He also said that each region should consider their own reality. About half of the quotations are taken from the Synod report.

Recently there has been a strong focus on church teaching and the perception of the laity around certain serious concerns, in particular divorced and remarried Catholics, same sex marriage and contraception.  (These could be seen as non-issues in some other denominations). Two schools of thought were clear at the Synod. One is a strict adherence to church teaching, as the truth. The other believes in a more pastoral and merciful approach that recognises the teaching but also the difficulties families face. This aims to accompany couples and families in discernment and support them as they make their choices in conscience. Pope Francis stated:


“We have long thought that simply by stress­ing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were provid­ing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are ca­pable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. AL 37.


AMORIS LAETITIA does not propose changes in church teaching but Pope Francis generally promotes the more pastoral merciful approach which he also relates to the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy which he initiated and is commemorated at present.  He presents Jesus as THE FACE OF THE FATHER’S MERCY and the response called for is to be MERCIFUL LIKE THE FATHER.


As stated above, from a Catholic perspective I now explore the concepts and terms: family, spirituality and family spirituality


Family Spirituality    

Everyone has spirituality, some means of experiencing a relationship with God, or a higher Power. Sandra Schneider (1995 #84) describes spirituality as “consciously striving to integrate one’s life in terms not of isolation and self-absorption but of self-transcendence towards the ultimate value one perceives.”  Spirituality is nevertheless about being in touch with one’s inner self and is not necessarily determined by one’s religion.

Foley in Family-Centred Church, a New Parish Model, states, “Spirituality has to do with the way we live our daily lives. It does not make us other-worldly but more fully alive. Many people relate it to formal prayer and church attendance even ascetical practices.”  (pp 111-112)  There is no one way of “naming the holy.” Women’s experience of childbirth or of oppression, or low self-esteem as they allow themselves to be touched by God begins the journey of wholeness.  Male spirituality forces men to encounter their own feminine and recognise their own more active approach. (p 174)


Family spirituality is looking with family eyes at all aspects of life and love. It is linked with one’s understanding of family as well as one’s worldview.

Family.  We all tend to speak in general terms about “FAMILY” but how do we understand it? A helpful resource drawing on an earlier papal document Familiaris Consortio is the manual A FAMILY PERSPECTIVE  IN CHURCH AND SOCIETY  of the US Catholic bishops.  Its vision for the family is “an intimate community of persons bound together by blood, marriage, or adoption, for the whole of life. In our Catholic tradition, the family proceeds from marriage—an intimate, exclusive, permanent, and faithful partnership of husband and wife.”  (FP 14)  This is clearly a countercultural vision in today’s society.  FC includes in a derivatory way, the love between members of the same family, between parents and children, brothers and sisters and relatives and members of the household. FC18, An ever deeper communion grows with the spiritual bonds of love.  From FC21. In simpler terms this spirituality of family relationships is built on marriage or relationships derived from marriage and its purpose is to share love. Church documents from Vatican II also revive the notion of the family as a domestic church, from the experience of the early household churches.

Having said this, defining the family proves to be difficult even in the secular world. The United Nations and national governments in developing family policies find this is due to different beliefs and changing realities. The South African White Paper describes a family as “related by blood (kinship), adoption, foster care or the ties of marriage (civil, customary or religious), civil union or cohabitation, and goes beyond a particular physical residence.”

Some religious writers on family spirituality have honed in on enriching the spirituality in the various life situations and relationships within families and not marriage as the only foundation.

Foley in Family-Centred Church calls for a paradigm shift amongst others from spirituality of individual piety to relationships, from otherworldly to the holiness of ordinary life, from neuter to masculine/feminine.  The sense of sexuality shifts from procreation/mutual love to a spirituality of sexuality.  Even liturgy and ritual should change focus from the institutional church to the home as the ordinary place.

Fr Charles (Chuck) Gallagher wrote extensively on spirituality of marriage and of sexuality. The concept Sex is Holy was an eye-opener for many couples in the 1970s. To youth he suggested that falling in love is a conversion, an experience of God.  In a talk on the Domestic Church and family spirituality he lists identifying characteristics of a family spirituality that include unconditional love, communication, belonging, conflict- forgiveness- healing, family goals, security of permanence and interdependence versus independence.

With reference to African spirituality the 1994 African Synod of Catholic Bishops presented the image of CHURCH AS FAMILY OF GOD because of similar family-orientated characteristics. African spirituality is traditionally and by nature family-centred. Ancestors and rituals play an important role. Dlungwane (200:133) claims that Africans have tended to adopt a dual personality. On the one hand there is a personal relationship with God while on the other Christianity, presented in doctrinal and biblical terms, “has failed dismally to penetrate the African soul.”  Skhakhane emphasizes that there is no dichotomy between spiritual and material. (200:125)

Marital spirituality.  Much has been written on conjugal or marital spirituality in papal documents, (FC, HV, GS, by theologians, priests, secular writers and psychologists.  Marriage movements for preparation and enrichment exist and some active in the Catholic network in South Africa are Engaged Encounter, Marriage Encounter, Retrouvaille and Equipes de Nossa Senhora.   However it is well known that in South Africa marriage, and church marriage in particular, is not the life experience of the majority of adults.  According to the  2011 census of South Africans 43.7% had never been married, 36.7% were married at the time, 11.0% were living together like married partners, 5.7% were widowed, 0.9%  separated, and 1.9% divorced.[9] Wikipedia.  The SA White Paper notes 23% nuclear families, plus 16% extended families.  Even this takes many different forms and family structures change over time.

Our concern here is to ask, “While recognising marriage as the ideal foundation of a family in what ways can a family spirituality or a spirituality of relationships go further and also apply to those not in families built on marriage?  How does the pregnant single teenage mother experience God in her situation?  Or her partner, the boy or man? Or how does the divorcee after a failed relationship relate to God, having fallen in love with a new partner?   Or how do those with a homosexual, bisexual or transgender orientations discern God’s plan for their life?  Widowed and orphans are recipients of care, but what is their spirituality?  How do children who have experienced or witnessed parental abuse view God, as loving Father?

Wendy Wright in SACRED DWELLING, A Spirituality of Family Life uses the rooms of a house to reflect on how families experience holiness in their relationships.  She also speaks of the primary call to nesting versus going out.

Mitch Finley, another Catholic writer, speaks positively and with hope on all aspects of family life in YOUR FAMILY IN FOCUS.  He states, “A single parent family may not fit the traditional model but it is a family. To call such families broken is no help at all. A single-parent family is just that, a family with one parent. “

Programmes exist for successful parenting, using psychological approaches or also incorporating the spiritual. It is my contention that when there is a focus on parenting it is possible to be inclusive of all parents and not necessarily those who are married. A general family focus is the approach adopted by MARFAM, Marriage and Family Life Renewal Ministry which produces resource materials for family faith sharing on a range of family topics. The Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference manual AN INTRODUCTION TO PARISH FAMILY MINISTRY similarly uses this approach, making the family at home one of the areas for spiritual growth.

Spirituality has evolved over time but for many centuries was primarily the domain of clergy and religious. It also promoted personal and communal relationships with God, a view which does not necessarily adopt the family as a unit.  Even now feminine and masculine spiritualities may be promoted more strongly.  We do pray about our family issues, but do we experience God within the family relationships?  Formal prayers and devotions to Mary and other saints are very Catholic, but faith sharing is not a common practice.  Other denominations are often more bible-centred and also more at ease with spontaneous prayer.

Reflecting on the reality of one’s family and one’s spirituality can be challenging if considered in the light of church teaching with its doctrines and canon law.   Think of contraception or homosexuality.  The aim is to find God present in these complex realities even if there is objectively a state of sin bearing in mind the role of conscience.  This brings us back to AMORIS LAETITIA and an examination of how it promotes and develops the spirituality of marriage and of family life.

Spirituality in Amoris Laetitia.      

The most definitive passage on the spirituality of AMORIS LAETITIA is quoted below.  It is taken from the final chapter, 9, headed “The Spirituality of Marriage and Family Life.”

“The Lord’s presence dwells in real and concrete families with all their daily troubles and struggles, joys and hopes. Living in a family makes it hard for us to feign or lie; we cannot hide behind a mask. If that authenticity is inspired by love, then the Lord reigns there with his joy and his peace. The spirituality of family love is made up of thousands of small but real gestures.  In that variety of gifts and encounters which deepen communion God has his dwelling place. This mutual concern brings together human and the divine for it is filled with the love of God.   In the end marital spirituality is a spirituality of the bond in which divine love dwells.”   AL315


It is only possible to make brief references to the document. Highlighted are those that support my position that a family spirituality should be sought that can more readily accommodate the various types and aspects of family life as the experience in our country. Reading the whole lengthy document will obviously allow for a more complete picture.

No doubt, what Pope Francis has presented in this document is a powerful inspiring affirmation of the traditional teaching and vision of marriage between a man and a woman, which in his view is not well understood and also needs to be promoted strongly. He recently stated that this poor understanding could invalidate marriages. Two full chapters of the nine are devoted specifically to marriage and its spirituality and newly-weds and the importance of marriage preparation is stressed. A reflection on 1 Cor 13 is full of Pope Francis’ own brand of down to earth advice on how to build a successful marriage relationship, while being cognisant of problems. Much of this chapter however could be applied well to other or all family relationships. The spirituality referred to however throughout is repeatedly related back to a family based on marriage.  This is one of my main concerns with the document.

A spirituality of sexuality and fruitfulness in the context of marriage is well presented with many references to former Pope, Saint John Paul II and his Theology of the Body which builds on marriage and natural family planning.  The Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception has been a sticking point for couples for years and been widely rejected. Sexuality is presented primarily in the context of marriage, even the sections on sex education for youth.  However, all people are sexual beings all their lives and through all the stages of growth and development they have to live out their sexuality in chosen and appropriate ways.  When would they be “living in sin?” Conscience comes into play here too.

In recognising family situations derived from a marriage, as mentioned above there are older couples and the changes they undergo, the elderly in general, and siblings. The death of a spouse is discussed with good insight. A compassionate response of care and support is noted for the divorced and not remarried. Marital spirituality is applicable to widowed, divorced and not remarried in a derivative way. The larger family should provide (pastoral) care and support to singles, teenage mothers, other with disabilities, addictions and “those who have made a shipwreck of their lives.”  In my view what is not recognised is that couples will only live in a married state for a portion of their lives, being single before and most often after marriage. There is no development of a spirituality of such situations which is more intrinsic than pastoral care.

Discernment and accompaniment is needed for those in irregular and imperfect situations, i.e. those not built on marriage or derived from it. However he makes it clear that everyone should be made to feel part of the Church and not be discriminated against. This applies to those who have remarried, for cohabiting couples (of all ages) and single parents and to those with same-sex attractions “to assist them in discovering God’s plan.” Same-sex marriage is unacceptable. AL 250    Spirituality would ask, how do these church members or those in e.g. polygamous marriages experience God in their lives?

There are meaningful images of spirituality of parenting, in particular in describing pregnancy and childbirth from a mother’s perspective. Practical tasks, the importance of father and mother, education of children including sex education are noted. However again, a deeper spirituality of those long years of finding God in the reality of parenting teens, and young adults, the changing nature of (any)parent-child relationships and children’s relationships with God is again not well developed. Or what of step-families AL172.

All in all, although there is mention of it, the proposed spirituality could be seen to be too simplistic at times.  Saying, “please, thank you and I’m sorry,” are necessary and nice but more is required too than leaving a simple prayer at mealtimes to the youngest member. Formation for an adult family spirituality of any kind and that also includes marriage, like adult catechesis is generally limited in most parts of our country.  PFM ……..


A personal experience of spirituality in widowhood is used to illustrate a more distinctive family spirituality, still  of relationships.


Widowhood and its Spirituality – a personal experience.        

In marriage enrichment couples may be invited to share their thoughts on death. One never expects to be widowed relatively young.  My husband’s short illness ended in his death without my having an opportunity to say goodbye and achieve some kind of closure. This was undoubtedly the most traumatic experience of my life. On a psychological stress scale the death of a spouse rates the highest.  I was shattered, felt torn in half, riddled with guilt, anger at him and at God, experiencing absolute desolation and great confusion. If our goal in our marriage was to achieve unity as we had so often shared, why was I being left alone? I expressed many of these thoughts and feelings in writing, in prayer poems addressed to God and to Chris. This was my spiritual journey and a means of continuing our relationship. One poem was, “MY WIDOWHOOD IS LIKE MY BROKEN LEG.”  The opening poem “Have you washed your face with tears,” was written some 6 months later. Over the years my prayer poems have become fewer while I continued reflecting and writing on the process and developing some support for other widowed people.

Where is God to be found in widowhood? Early on I spent almost an entire weekend retreat in tears, grieving tears, searching tears.  A fellow retreatant said to me, “God says that he will be your husband”.  That blew my mind. No way did I want God, I wanted my man, the one with whom I lived and loved, made love and had children with, but nevertheless at times experienced quite serious conflict. My pain has dulled as I have been able to reorganise my life, following alone the path we had chosen to travel together. In my family ministry work now I often feel his absence. In the marriage movements I feel excluded as if I no longer belong. Church structures also appear to be more welcoming to couples than widows.

Becoming widowed is a process one is forced into and hardly a choice.  Simple faith may accept that this is God’s will. That didn’t help me. I got help from reading, “God’s will is our salvation.”  Suffering and pain are not God’s will but God can accompany one through it. One may not want this accompaniment from God or goodhearted fellow parishioners.  Peer support at widowed retreats, listening to others crying, sharing their story, even repeatedly, is a healing balm for each of us. Different cultures experience dealing with the widowhood  differently. For example, black widows have shared difficulties with their husband’s family. What of physical needs, sexual or just the need to be hugged and held?  What of the possibility of new relationships? How are all these integrated into oneself?

My research led to workshops, with some input followed by sharing. As resources for understanding the process and the spirituality I produced Becoming Widowed, a booklet and STATIONS OF THE CROSS FOR THOSE WHO ARE WIDOWED.  Stations of the Cross, is a devotion reflecting on the Passion and death of Jesus in 14 steps.  In Widowed Stations the bereavement experience is related to these.  Jesus was betrayed and unjustly condemned. Do you feel unjustly condemned, betrayed?  Can you relate to Jesus’ own experience of being made to carry his cross?  To end on a note of hope for a future resurrection a 15th Station, the Resurrection of Jesus, has been added.

I studied bereavement theories, (Kubler Ross, Worden) but CONTINUING BONDS, a book of essays presented me with a relatable response. A recent article “The Nature of spirituality in spousal bereavement” in INTAMS Review supports this and discusses the possibility of joy in the process.

This in a way brings me back full circle to AMORIS LAETITIA, the JOY OF LOVE and my opening reflection poem on tears. At his bedside I was fascinated by the tear in his eye.  Was it a tear of sadness or gladness, of having lived our commitment to God, the Church and one another?  This was our spirituality. Even now I do at times when I share I still involuntarily dissolve into tears. But just days ago on the occasion of his anniversary I called up a favourite photo and my immediate response was not tears but to smile back at him, hopefully it is now a time of a renewed Joy of Love?


Having presented my understanding of family and spirituality, and some experiences, and related these to AMORIS LAETITIA I shall draw some conclusions.

  • What constitutes a family and how this is presented is crucial in reading AMORIS LAETITIA. No definition is given but a family based on marriage is the formal teaching of the church FC and still the ideal for family life. However most families in SA are living in a non-ideal reality. There are writers on family spirituality who do broaden this narrower definition. Our local Church will have to consider what action could or should be taken.
  • A spirituality of the family as a unit, as a domestic church, irrespective of its form or shape is hardly developed. A true family spirituality is one of relationships. It can and should include the individual, the person as a member of a family but the ideal should encompass experiencing God in the family in its diversity with its different stages and types of relationships.
  • The reality of a range of “families” is recognised, some of which at times are described as irregular, imperfect or non-ideal which could be alienating. Even ideal marriages are “imperfect.” Pastoral care and accompaniment by an outside source is suggested “to help them find God’s plan.” While compassionate this does not recognise the intrinsic and lived spirituality within these relationships and situations.
  • While AMORIS LAETITIA does not definitively answer the big issues of concern with regard to church teaching, its pastoral and merciful approach are a form of spirituality as they do invite deeper reflection and decisions in conscience.
  • There is a wealth of meaningful passages on marriage and related issues, possibly too much for this type of document.
  • Sexuality and sex in particular is only dealt with in the context of marriage, neglecting the fact that everyone is a sexual being all their lives.
  • It is possible to quote many passages that could apply equally well to any kind of family reality as to marriage and leave out “the distressing line” but does that treat the document with the honesty it deserves? (See AL 315)
  • Finally, it is appropriate to return to the image of the nature of spirituality presented as my opening statement: the gift of tears and the question of my tearfulness as my involuntary reaction to reading AMORIS LAETITIA.  “It’s all about marriage. What about me?  Where do I fit in?” was my immediate heart-felt response.  Are only crumbs from the table to be offered to all those in imperfect, irregular situations or those who have been but are no longer married or have never married?
  • There are no easy answers. Maybe the document should be THE JOY OF MARRIED LOVE as those who are married, and maybe even struggling, will find much to inspire them. I believe there are hurting people who I fear may not find that personal comfort from reading THE JOY OF LOVE.  Probably my favourite statement is, “Jesus expects us to stop looking for niches that shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead to enter into the reality of other people’s lives and to know the power of tenderness.  Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated.”  AL 357 





Dlungwane, P “The New Testament in the Context of African Spirituality” in 2000. Inculturation in the South African Context. Nairobi: Paulines.

Finley, M 1993,  Your Family in Focus. Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press.

Foley, G 1995. Family-Centred Church, A New Parish Model. Kansas City: Sheed and Ward

Gallagher, C et al, 1983. Embodied in Love, Sacramental Spirituality and Sexual Intimacy Melbourne: Dove Communications


John Paul II 1981. Familiaris Consortio. On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World. Pretoria: SACBC

John Paul II 1995. Ecclesia in Africa. The Church in Africa.  Nairobi: Paulines


Klass, D. Silverman, P & Nickman, S. (eds) 1996. Continuing Bonds – New Understandings of Grief.            Levittown, PA: Taylor and Francis.

Orobator, A 2009.  Theology Brewed in an African Pot Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa


Rowland, T 2006 revised 2016. Becoming Widowed. Johannesburg: MARFAM

Rowland, T 2001.  Stations of the Cross for those who are Widowed. Johannesburg: MARFAM. (Also available in Zulu, Sotho and Tswana.)

SAIRR, 2011.  Healing South African Families.

Schneiders, S 1995. “Spirituality and the University” in Endean, P The Way Supplement. #84.

Skhakhane, J “African Spirituality” in 2000. Inculturation in the South African Context.  Nairobi: Paulines.

Tomkinson, S 2015. “The Nature of Spirituality in Spousal Bereavement.” In INTAMS Review. Vol 21 – No 2 – 2015

Wright, W  2007.  Sacred Dwelling, a Spirituality of Family Life. London:Darton-Longman and Todd

…. A Family Perspective in Church and Society, 2004. Committee on Marriage and Family, National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States………

St Augustine College M Phil Assignments:

Research paper,

Spirituality and psychology assignment

Widowhood assignment.


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