Monsignor BORDEYNE, recently appointed president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, had come to lead two training sessions on “Amoris Laetitia – The Joy of Love” at the Maison CANA – Les Pothières and at the “Institut Théologique des Dombes” in 2017. With the Net for God team, we met him again in 2018 during the shooting of the film “The Joy of Love”. At the beginning of the Year of the Family, we thought it would be useful to read again this interview published in FOI magazine (issue 60) in 2019.

“There is more joy in giving than in receiving” Acts 20:35

Christian marriage is built around this one sentence from Jesus. St Paul quotes it. Marriage is agreeing to bind myself forever to someone, that is, to give myself. It is the greatest joy that can exist because it is not only that I am going to give something, it is that I am going to give myself.

Today some people live together in a very beautiful love and already have children. Many people ask for marriage today in the Church when they already have a large family. If they go so far as to take this step, it is because, somewhere along the line, they have understood that the greatest joy consists in giving themselves.

But we don’t know what we are doing when we give ourselves! You know what you are doing if you give someone money, if you give a poem, if you give a bunch of flowers. But giving yourself is a magnificent adventure, because you don’t know what you are doing. It is by doing it that we discover more about who we are, who the other is and why we came to this earth.

NFG: We are observing profound anthropological changes in the conception of the couple and the family in today’s society. What are the crucial changes affecting the couple and the family today?

P.B.: It’s true that there are many changes. At the same time, there is one thing that doesn’t change: people can fall in love. And that changes their lives. This is fundamental. It’s also true that the way of dealing with this extraordinary adventure, of falling in love with a person, of asking questions and managing this emotion, has changed a lot. What has changed is first of all the way of entering family life. You get married later. We are less supported by the environment, by norms that would be obligatory; and each one leads his own life. This gives a lot of freedom but sometimes leads to paths that lead nowhere. What I think is very important today is the importance we give to emotions, to feelings. We are stimulated by mobile phones and images! We are very much in demand and this sharpens our emotions. The rhythms are affected, intense and ultimately not very orderly. What is also changing, particularly in Europe, is the weight that people give to meaningful work, work that is fulfilling, professional success. The balance between investing in family life, having children, and work is a beautiful question. It arises differently at different times in one’s life. When these things come into conflict, it can be complicated for the couple, and for the children too.

I would say that in the past we had baptism, marriage and funerals, three pillars of the Christian life; today, because of all these external and internal changes, it’s a bit disrupted.

NFG: What challenges do families face?

P.B.: The first challenge is to put words to this reality. Because the way of living the feeling of love, of dreaming of the family, of representing it, has always changed through the ages. Pope Francis, at the Synod on the Family in 2014-2015, insisted a lot on the need for the Church to find words that are appropriate to people’s experience.

Another challenge is to manage time, and therefore to accept, for parents, that their children are entering marriage, into the family, at a different pace from the one they have known. But there is also the challenge of duration. I am struck by the fact that I meet many people who, once their children have been raised, separate! This challenge of duration is also linked to the lengthening of human life, which means that we stay together longer. But it’s not just that. We change our lives a lot more. Retirement, for example, is experienced today as a second experience, after working life, a second adult experience. Another example: how do we accompany the entry into being a Grandfather and Grandmother? I am struck by the fact that this is a step beyond what we could have imagined.

These challenges are challenges for the Church! Accompanying divorces, professional breakdowns, unemployment… The challenges of accompanying human situations linked to war, inequality, poverty, which make family life almost impossible. It is therefore a challenge for Christians to be present to these realities in order to help families build on human love. For Pope Francis, awareness of these considerable changes has enabled him to grasp these great ruptures, and he proposes a panoramic view of the situations, accepting that the responses are not necessarily exactly the same in all regions of the world.

The realism of love

NFG: Would the Church be willing to change the doctrine on marriage? Why?

P.B.: The question is not to change the doctrine, and from my point of view the opposition “doctrine and pastoral care” is a bad opposition. I think – and the Pope also says this – that many people idealise conjugal and family love, so that when they encounter difficulties, they tend to throw everything away. The Pope forces us to see that to be a pastor, that is to say, to be a Church that welcomes people as much as possible with the heart of Christ, is to welcome them with all that they are: their desires and their failures. The perfect ideal is never possible, but in every form of love there is a part of the ideal; and rather than looking at what we have not done, it is better to rely on the part of the ideal that we have achieved in order to progress.

The great danger of our society, which is going very fast with digital technology, is that we go too fast! But the time of human love is a long time. The main thing is not to be discouraged. The Pope’s great message is the realism of love. It is not because human love is not always at its peak that it does not exist. He has these words for spouses: your spouse’s love is limited but it is real. And so, it’s an invitation to look at the part of the ideal that there is in every human commitment; and, therefore, to accept to welcome this part of the ideal, instead of seizing it; to welcome it so that it can bear fruit in our lives; this is basically the pastoral work of a Church.

A particle of divine love

NFG: What is the originality, the novelty, the beauty of the document Amoris Laetitia? What are the pastoral and theological challenges?

P.B.: I am going to read you a text that I find magnificent, it is number 27 of the text The Joy of Love: “Christ introduced above all, as a distinctive sign of his disciples, the law of love and of the gift of self to others. And he did this through a principle to which a father or mother usually bears witness by their own existence.” I find this text magnificent because it reminds us of the fundamental law and that only one person has been able and will ever be able to live it fully, Christ, that is the law of love.

The message that Pope Francis sends is that the love that men and women seek in their relational life and with their children is a particle of divine love. And that, therefore, striving to enter into the meaning of married life is a true mystical adventure. That there is an immense joy, and that this joy does not consist in always being at the top, but consists in being humble, in recognising that forgiving your child who has been unpleasant during the day, coming to give him a kiss because he needs to calm down before going to sleep, is a mystical gesture; bringing flowers to your wife when you have been irritated, or on the contrary, for her, making a small gift or a nice dish when her husband has been difficult to live with for some time, these are mystical gestures.

Sometimes sexuality, the sexual exchange, is discovered before these small daily gestures, but the message is that all these small gestures, the life of affection, of mutual love, the sexual life, from the moment it is done in respect of the other, is a part of the mystical life, that is to say, of the intimate relationship of God with the baptized people, with the people of believers. At the same time, the great lucidity of the Pope – and I think this is what makes the strength of his message – is that he does not idealise.

There is also a very interesting chapter in this text on the moral education of children. The Pope talks about formation in freedom, formation in good habits, and also learning to postpone pleasures. Because in a world full of images, it is important to accept that lasting joy is synonymous with waiting. We must help children to acquire habitus. The habitus is an aptitude that is stable because it has been patiently built up; it is the fruit of repetition that enables us to do simply some rather difficult operations.

An impulse: “seek the possible good”

NFG: Communication in couples is vital. Why do you find it so difficult?

P.B.: The couple is not an island: the couple is a small part of society. And so, if the couple has difficulties, it’s not just the couple’s problem, it’s the problem of the whole of society, and particularly of the Church. And that’s why it’s important for the Church to be able to offer places to talk. The word is always a gift. We must “Dare to do the possible good”. It comes twice in the text. For me it was an illumination. Only what is possible, but everything that is possible. Not everything is possible because I don’t have all the abilities. I can’t change my spouse; I can’t change my child. There are things he or she will never be able to do because he or she doesn’t have the gifts to do it. This is a message that is really new because very often in the field of the family we idealise a lot. What is possible for one is not necessarily possible for the other.

The Second Vatican Council said: it is the responsibility of the spouses to talk, to listen to each other, to respond to this call to give life according to what is possible in their country, in their time and in their couple. So, discern what is possible. But also recognise that there are things that are not possible or are no longer possible. The message that the Pope sends is: whatever your situation, something is possible and it is called good, and you are made for good and you will find it. And the Church is there to help you find it, to be a happy single person for example. Or, for example, if you are divorced, if you can remain faithful to the couple, that is the possible good for you, the Church will help you, it is your vocation. If you are remarried and in conscience you have done everything you should have done to repair the wrongs, to take care of all the people for whom you are responsible and that in the newly formed couple, which is a civil alliance, you are doing good, that in the good that is possible today you are doing, the Lord is with you and welcomes it.

I think the Pope is giving an impulse: seek the possible good and all the possible good, but nothing but the possible good. What I would like to say to couples, after reading “The Joy of Love”, is that each one has been chosen by God so that he or she may reveal a piece of the love of God, of Jesus, the only son of the Father, who came to meet us. Whoever I am, I have something unique to contribute to make the beauty of Jesus’ life-giving sparkle where I am.

As head of the Institut Catholique de Paris from 2011 to 2020, Monsignor BORDEYNE has taken a close interest in the situation of couples and families in the Church. As an expert, he participated in the Synod on the Family in 2015. He has written many books, including “Ethics of marriage: the social vocation of love” and “Divorced and remarried: what changes with Francis”, published in spring 2017 by Salvator.