What is a family without love? Can it be a family at all? Certainly a family can exist without love, but how could it not be experienced as a poverty and a tragedy? The vision of life that Christianity proposes to all who will listen has at its core the message of love of God and neighbor. The Christian family is certainly no different and so Pope Francis devotes an entire chapter to a meditation on the famous passage from 1 Corinthians chapter 13, “Love is patient, love is kind…” He stresses that it would be “insufficient to express the Gospel of marriage and the family, were we not also to speak of love. For we cannot encourage a path of fidelity and mutual self-giving without encouraging the growth, strengthening and deepening of conjugal and family love.” (AL, 89)
“The word ‘love’, however, is commonly used and often misused.” (105) By looking in detail at this brief passage of scripture the pope hopes to dispel misunderstandings about the real meaning of love and present the gospel understanding of this reality that impacts every aspect of the daily life of the family. Love is classically understood as both an emotion and as a choice to benefit the beloved, often phrased as “to will the good of the other.” St. Paul’s poetic description of love does not begin with this definition. Instead he describes the qualities of real love and provides a starting point for Christians to learn the way of love, especially in the family where “love is experienced and nurtured in the daily life of couples and their children.” (AL, 90)
The passage begins with “love is patient” (verse 4) and the word patient in the original Greek refers “to the quality of one who does not act on impulse and avoids giving offense.” (AL, 91) Having the desire to bring good to the ones you love requires that thoughtfulness and care is exercised with every act to ensure that it expresses love. Often rash responses are the ones that cause offense and hurt the ones we love. Additionally, the pope gives this advice about how the ordinary life of the family can become a place where patient love is cultivated. “Unless we cultivate patience, we will always find excuses for responding angrily. We will end up incapable of living together, antisocial, unable to control our impulses, and our families will become battlegrounds.” (AL, 92)
The next qualifier, “kind,” places additional requirements upon “patient”. This Greek word for kind, chrestéuetai, is only used in this one place “in the entire Bible. It is derived from chrestós: a good person, one who shows his goodness by his deeds.” (AL, 93) St. Paul adds “kind” as a complement to “patient” to emphasize that patience “is not a completely passive attitude.” Kind patience involves activity directed towards “dynamic and creative interaction with others.” (AL, 93) He “wants to stress that love is more than a mere feeling. Rather, it should be understood along the lines of the Hebrew verb ‘to love’; it is ‘to do good’.” (AL, 94)
Patience rooted in the truth is not tolerance of any and all behavior, specifically abuse. “Being patient does not mean letting ourselves be constantly mistreated, tolerating physical aggression or allowing other people to use us.” (AL, 92) This dispels the common misunderstanding of the permanence of marriage as justification for remaining in harm’s way when abuse of oneself or one’s children is occurring. While the indissolubility of marriage does not mean that one can dissolve a marriage due to this horrible rift in what should be the loving environment of the family, it should never cause hesitation for the abused or the protecting parent to get help and defend their own dignity or that of their child(ren).
Neither is love jealous. The members of the family should give no quarter to envy because “love has no room for discomfiture at another person’s good fortune.” (AL, 95) Love makes room for the other and rejoices when the other members are able to have or accomplish something good. It “makes us rise above ourselves, envy closes us in on ourselves.” (AL, 95)
Love is not boastful. The Greek word used by St. Paul here calls us to avoid being haughty and pushy and to avoid speaking too much about ourselves. We should think of the other first, especially in the way we “treat family members who are less knowledgeable about the faith, weak or less sure in their convictions… In family life, the logic of domination and competition about who is the most intelligent or powerful destroys love.” (AL, 98)
Love is also not rude, rather it is “gentle and thoughtful… [and] abhors making others suffer.” (AL, 99) It is generous because “generously serving others is far more noble than loving ourselves,” because, “loving ourselves is only important as a psychological prerequisite for being able to love others.” (AL, 101)
Neither is love irritable or resentful. This phrase is connected to the earlier mention of the need for patience so that one “does not immediately react harshly to the weaknesses and faults of others… to nurture such interior hostility helps no one.” (AL, 103)
In this Year of Mercy, the Pope emphasizes the merciful nature of love. “The opposite of resentment is forgiveness.” (AL, 105) Experience tells us that it is almost unavoidable that at times the members of a family will fail one another. However, “when we have been offended or let down, forgiveness is possible and desirable, though no one can say that it is easy. The truth is that ‘family communion can only be preserved and perfected through a great spirit of sacrifice. It requires, in fact, a ready and generous openness of each and all to understanding, to forbearance, to pardon, to reconciliation. There is no family that does not know how selfishness, discord, tension and conflict violently attack and at times mortally wound its own communion: hence there arise the many and varied forms of division in family life’.” (AL, 106, quoting from John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio)
Dino Durando is the director of the Office for Family Life.