Soon after his election, Pope Francis decided that marriage and the family had to be the first big issue for the synod of bishops to discuss. St John Paul II made a similar choice when he became Pope in 1978: the opening synod of his pontificate, in 1980, was on that same theme. It, too, was controversial and generated a lot of discussion, although in a pre-internet age it did not reach the general public in the same way.

Already back then, one of the main topics discussed was whether the divorced and civilly remarried could receive Communion. St John Paul II’s post-synod exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, became the main Catholic teaching on the subject for a generation.

In the following 35 years much changed.

In the first place the culture and law in most western countries no longer followed or even understood the Christian conception of marriage. Widespread divorce and cohabitation led people to forget what only two generations ago had been a shared understanding of matrimony, allowing one government after another to redefine marriage in wholly new ways.

But this wasn’t just society “out there”. The figures have long shown that the rates of divorce, cohabitation and support for same-sex marriage among Catholics were not far off those among the rest of the population. It wasn’t just the culture that no longer knew what marriage was; many if not most Catholics had forgotten too.

Like John Paul before him, Francis was aware that the health of the family determines the health of the Church, and not only the size of the congregations but even the number of priests in the future would depend on putting this right.

He therefore started a three-year process of discernment involving not one but two synods, plus a year of study in between. Discernment, as developed by St Ignatius of Loyola, is the art of prayerfully reflecting on God’s presence or will in the daily reality of our lives, reading the signs in the light of the Gospel. It requires a well-formed conscience, a deep knowledge of what is going on, and the maturity to make good decisions in full freedom. But as we have seen in the Synod meetings of the last two years, the discernment process can be messy, unpredictable and without a clear endpoint.

This process has now reached a milestone with the publication ofAmoris Laetitia [AL]. Francis’s post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation is his attempt to gather up the key insights, thoughts, ideas and proposals of this long process. His many quotes from the final documents from both synod gatherings show that he has taken careful account of the synod fathers’ conclusions.

Francis specifically states that he does not adjudicate on the various matters by passing any new laws, adding that not all moral and pastoral issues need to be settled by the Magisterium.

Instead he makes three bold proposals.

The first proposal is an invitation to mercy and pastoral discernment of situations that fall short of what God demands of us. There are no doctrinal changes but a change of attitude so that in the Church we can reach out to everyone whatever they have done, extending mercy to all. We are encouraged to accompany people one by one, understanding that every person is different and avoiding the temptation to put people into categories.

The mercy we are called to live is the willingness to enter into the chaos that is another person’s life. It is not a matter, the Pope explains, of just stressing doctrinal, bioethical or moral issues: we need openness to grace and the readiness to support one another. In the Church “no one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel.”

But this pastoral approach does not mean diluting the teaching of the Church. Any kind of relativism or an undue reticence in proposing the ideal of Christian marriage “would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of the love on the part of the Church for young people themselves,” he says, adding: “To show understanding in the face of exceptional circumstances never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being.”

As Christians, the Pope says elsewhere, “we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings.”

Hence the second proposal in AL: the re-presentation of the fullness of the meaning of Christian marriage and family to a society that has forgotten it or in some cases specifically rejected it.

Over several chapters Pope Francis presents marriage and family in its full beauty, taking the cue from the Bible and from recent Catholic teaching with which he is in total continuity (Vatican IIBlessed Paul VISaint John Paul II and Benedict XVI).

He also shows how he is grounded in reality – as required by the very process of discernment that he started three years ago – in not ignoring current major threats to marriage and family such as divorce, migration, poverty, unemployment, pornography, an anti-birth mentality, gender ideology and violence against women.

He dedicates a whole chapter to a beautiful and delightfully practical commentary of St Paul’s hymn to love in the First Letter to the Corinthians, showing how each line can be lived out in married life.

This proclamation of the message of marriage and family should be so compelling that it reaches the hearts of people, and – over the next few decades – begins to change the culture. This can be done partly by teaching from the Pope, bishops and priests, but mostly by the witness of married lay Christians.

It will not be easy. The culture has moved very far away from natural law and the Christian view of marriage. The Church also needs to regain credibility that it understands the real problems of people. Pope Francis’ proposal for personal accompaniment and mercy may go some way to restore this credibility.

The third proposal from Amoris Laetitia is for a better and deeper preparation of young people for marriage, and close accompaniment in the first years of married life.

What the Pope actually calls for is a preparation culture from a very early stage, starting at school, reinforced in Confirmation classes, and continued through pastoral programmes for young people right up to the time of the marriage and beyond. A 1996 document from the Pontifical Council for the Family written by its then president, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, already envisaged such an approach, but it seemed never to penetrate parishes and schools.

Now, even more than then, a radical approach is required. The marriage preparation of the future should be so deep and professionally done that the current trends of divorce and cohabitation might be eventually reversed, first among Catholics and then among everyone else.

At the time of the Reformation, faced by the poor formation of priests, the Church decreed that nobody would be ordained without having proper studies of philosophy and theology and being trained in a seminary.

As a result, over the next few decades and centuries a major change took place in the Church: the Council of Trent established seminaries, and introduced rigorous formation programmes – essentially, a guarantee that no priest could be ordained without displaying a level of understanding and awareness of what Jesus was calling him to.

Similarly strong action is required at this time in the preparation of couples for marriage.

So, who is going to put these proposals into practice? Priests should of course accompany people in need, proclaim the teaching of the Church and help prepare couples for marriage. But real cultural change will only happen when married lay Catholics take up this task, which is really their own.

Lay people all the time walk with others: in our own families and circle of friends, whatever they have done, to bring them closer to the mercy of Christ. Married lay people witness through their lives, however imperfect, to the saving power of Christian marriage, through “their joy-filled witness as domestic churches,” as Francis says in AL. And it is, above all, married couples who should take charge of preparing young people for marriage, giving courses as professionally as possible based on their own experience, and accompanying them in their early years of marriage, as AL envisages.

Because the future of the Church depends so greatly on the future of marriage, AL is effectively saying that the future of the Church is in the hands of lay Catholics, men and women.

At the end of Vatican II in 1965, the Apostolic Constitution Lumen Gentium proclaimed the universal call to holiness of all the baptised, and the specific vocation of lay people to sanctify the world of work and family. But no proper formation programmes for lay people were put in place and many therefore invaded the sacristies looking for involvement in liturgical ministries instead.

Some 20 years later Saint John Paul II asked the Synod of Bishops to discuss the vocation and mission of the laity. The resulting document Christifideles Laici (1988) included, among many things, detailed programmes of formation for lay people to be able to sanctify the secular world, starting with the family and leading on to the world of work – finance, banking, industry, politics, etc. But few institutions took this to heart, and instead a futile discussion was started on women priests and married priests which continues to this day.

Much is at stake for the Catholic Church and indeed for the whole of society. Will Amoris Laetitia mark the point when lay Catholics in large numbers start to understand their role in the renewal of the family and take it to heart?

If it happens, it will mean that this really is – as Francis so often says – a change of era.

Jack Valero is co-founder of Catholic Voices and Press Officer for Opus Dei in the UK. This article has been republished with permission from Catholic Voices Comment

Jack Valero is the Communications Director of Opus Dei in Britain. He is also Coordinator for Catholic Voices, a group of Catholics trained to speak to the media about Catholic issues...