Mercy is a fountain to extinguish the blaze of sin

Editor’s note: This is the second column in a series on Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Read the first column, Teaching young people how to navigate love and terror, here.

Somehow people thought that Pope Francis might redefine our Catholic understanding of sexuality and matrimony. When that did not happen, in the aftermath of the synod on the family, they were disappointed.

What sometimes escapes the press is the fact that we are not mired in stodgy traditionalism but, rather, rooted in reliable traditions. Sacred Scripture and what we have long understood as natural law testify to an understanding that marriage is a union between a man and a woman which is blessed by God, intended for the benefit of human society, and meant for fruitfulness — where possible, physically fruitful in terms of a next generation; where that is not possible, fruitful in terms of what we might call spiritual parenthood. It creates a lifelong bond.

Families in general, and loving couples in particular, model what the Holy Father refers to as “a communion of love.” He speaks of spousal love’s call “to bind the wounds of the outcast, to foster a culture of encounter and to fight for justice.” Essentially, Pope Francis calls married couples to draw people together as children of God, brothers and sisters in one human family.

So what about all those situations which don’t fit the man-woman norm or don’t bear witness to the power of matrimony, where husband and wife are the ministers of the sacrament?

The pope speaks of what he calls “irregular” or “exceptional” situations and “wounded families.” He reminds us that when “the flame of sin” is met with an act of mercy, mercy is a kind of “fountain offered us to extinguish the blaze.”

He also points to another truth from the catechism. Even though a person may be engaged in something or may have done something which objectively and correctly is considered a matter of grave sin, it is still possible that the person is in the state of grace. He or she may be ignorant, misled, seduced, deluded, coerced, or, if we may use more colloquial language, simply suckered in by contemporary propaganda.

And here it might be good to recall that propaganda comes our way via the internet, music lyrics, television, politics, peer pressure, and, as the pope notes, whatever is currently fashionable.

So we are left with that balancing act which calls us to uphold what we understand to be God’s loving will regarding marriage and family while also being respectful of everyone, no matter what his or her living arrangement turns out to be. A word which Pope Francis uses with notable frequency in “Amoris Laetitia” is tenderness. He notes that Jesus met everyone’s gaze and left no one feeling overlooked and abandoned.

We may not be able to embrace the spouse who has left us, the child who won’t communicate, the brother or sister who has broken faith, the friend who has gone astray, or a whole country that seems to have lost its bearings. But we can pray and pray and pray tenderly. And wait on God’s bountiful grace.

About Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM 130 Articles
SISTER PAMELA SMITH, SSCM, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at