Practicing Tenderness in the Family

In Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, he includes the term ‘tenderness’ in his discussion on marriage and family life as something that must accompany love so that the two can mutually inform one another. He writes:

Our teaching on marriage and the family cannot fail to be inspired and transformed by this message of love and tenderness; otherwise, it becomes nothing more than the defense of a dry and lifeless doctrine. (§59)

Tenderness humanizes the daily disposition of love toward those around us because it sees in another or oneself a person on a journey. It not only sees their destination but also is there to brush the dirt off when they fall and to kiss their wounds. Apart from a notion of tenderness, love can often be influenced in ways that distort its authenticity, even ways that go unnoticed to the lover or beloved. Love can become a mere assumption that does not manifest itself, even in subtle dispositions.

But authentic love in the family, informed by the practice of tenderness, can then flow from its source in the family to all relationships. Our orientation toward the Kingdom, where is Love himself dwells, calls us to participation here and now. The particular community of the family consists of real persons in concrete places and times where we are called forth to the practice of tenderness and authentic love as an enactment of “Thy Kingdom come.”

The ways in which tenderness is actually practiced in the family can prove to be challenging. Particularly in marriage, tenderness is often called for out of the remembrance of one’s vows: in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Practicing tenderness toward one's spouse during times of physical sickness, monetary difficulty, or other visible signs of vulnerability can come more naturally than during good times and times of health when any brokenness is not visibly manifest. Often, the latter elicits a response only after much practice.

But erring on the side of tenderness at all times helps shape one’s disposition toward one’s spouse so that tender practices become the default and authentic love is cherished always. Pope Francis notes:

Against this backdrop of love so central to the Christian experience of marriage and the family, another virtue stands out, one often overlooked in our world of frenetic and superficial relationships. It is tenderness. (§28)

The practice of tenderness, then, combats “the world of frenetic and superficial relationships” by building a community within the family that wholly accepts another human person in their brokenness, whether external or internal, so that their relationship may especially include trust and honesty, which lead to authenticity.

To recognize the instances in our own lives where we must also be tender toward ourselves is to place ourselves with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and to pray. Tenderness can help us take on the proper stance of prayer because in it we place our own brokenness before God and strive to see ourselves as God sees us: persons who are beautiful from the utmost depths of our being. So to practice tenderness in the family means to enter into a communion where the beauty of all persons of the family is exemplified by each act, which shapes the overall disposition of the members towards one another and towards themselves.

Jean Vanier, who founded L’Arche, developed his theological imagination around the practice of tenderness while living and working with persons who are disabled. He lived in a community of persons gathered in communion with one another under one roof, reminiscent of certain aspects of family life. Vanier reflects upon brokenness and vulnerability in his writings and the ways in which we ought to respond to the human condition. The practice of tenderness is perfected when it is extended to the deepest wounds that are often interior wounds, ones that take a long time to heal. In a lecture given at Harvard Divinity School, Vanier explained:

Living with men and women with mental disabilities has helped me to discover what it means to live in communion with someone. To be in communion means to be with someone and to discover that we actually belong together. Communion means accepting people just as they are, with all their limits and inner pain, but also with their gifts and their beauty and their capacity to grow: to see the beauty inside of all the pain. To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: “You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.” We all know well that we can do things for others and in the process crush them, making them feel that they are incapable of doing things by themselves. To love someone is to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them. (From Brokenness to Community, 15–16)

Vanier’s understanding of authentic love encompasses the practice of tenderness at its core because it upholds another person as beautiful in and through the experience of internal and external suffering. When tenderness is practiced mutually in this way between spouses in light of their sacramental union, the flowering of authentic love manifests itself in the family as well where children and relatives may also learn this practice. Tenderness between spouses leading to authentic love may then act as a catalyst for authentic relationships within the family drawing each member deeper into communion with the whole familial unit.

The practice of tenderness requires a day-to-day willingness to see the other through the eyes of Christ:

  • The eyes which slept on the breast of his Virgin Mother as they fled to a foreign land for safety.

  • The eyes which gazed on Mary Magdalene as she lay before him on the dusty ground untouched by stones.

  • The eyes which met with Veronica’s on the road to Calvary.

  • The eyes which saw the unbelief of Thomas and allowed him to place his hand in his side.

Christ is the exemplar of authentic love in the family as one who treats the afraid, the adulterer, the sorrowful, and the doubtful with utter tenderness. At the same time, as a human he also accepts the tenderness of others. Christ, who took up the entirety of the human family as his own in the Incarnation, loved perfectly in these acts of tenderness.

Tenderness evokes a love that transcends differences in age, race, gender, physical conditions, etc. because it operates precisely by penetrating these realities to establish a deeper communion. In the practice of tenderness, one loves in a way that is totally particular to another unique person and wholly transformative of persons because authenticity is treasured.

In the community of the family, may we walk tenderly with one another, seeing with the eyes of Christ, so that our families may authentically reflect the love of God who is the one true source of joy, unity, and peace.

Featured Photo: Amro Fitzrovia; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.


Madeline Running

Madeline Running recently graduated with her B.A in theology from Notre Dame. She now lives in South Bend, Indiana with her husband and young daughter.

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