Last Saturday I had the joy of witnessing the marriage of a couple with whom I had a special connection. I had done the same for the parents of the groom 42 years earlier and had witnessed the marriages of hisolder brother and a myriad of cousins and friends, all of whom have stayed close to one another since our generation became friends as teenagers. At the reception later we had a picture of the more than 15 couples of the group, all of whose marriages I have had the privilege of witnessing.
The more I thought about this particular gift we priests and deacons have of witnessing the commitment of a couple in marriage, the more it struck me how crucial marriage and family are for the good of society and indeed for the survival of society. What can be more important for the flourishing of human living than the love of a man and a woman who have found in each other the great gift of mutual love leading them to make a lifelong commitment to cherish each other and to build up that love into a permanent union of life and love bearing fruit in children!
The Church calls this the one gift of God that was not lost by original sin or washed away in the Flood. God chose to make a couple, the first man and the first woman, the symbolic expression of His creative love. Throughout the Bible God communicates His care and His love for His chosen people by using the images of husband and wife, portraying Himself as a loving husband and father and seeing in His covenant with Israel a deeper expression of divine love that animates human love.
When Jesus tells us that “What God has joined together, let no one divide,” he makes it clear that marriage is a central element of human life and living. Paul tells us that “as a husband you save your wife and as a wife you save your husband,” reminding us that the image of husband and wife is an image of Christ, the bridegroom’s love for the Church, His bride. Thus the most basic relationship achieves the status of being a true sacrament, an outward sign instituted by Christ to reflect His love and pour forth grace through the bond of the Holy Spirit. Small wonder we as a community of communion rejoice with every couple who pledge their love for each other before the Lord and His Church.
This coming Sunday the Church celebrates Catechetical Sunday. The theme this year is Marriage, Sacrament of Enduring Love. This is a good moment for all of us to renew our commitment to supporting marriage and family life. It is an opportunity for us as a Church to rededicate ourselves to proclaiming the truths that undergird marriage and the values that marriage and family protect and foster. It is a moment to re-affirm the Church’s teaching on marriage and to recognize how important it is for us never to compromise that teaching and always to defend marriage and family life, especially in today’s society that has made commitment rare, relationships casual and love ephemeral.
A former director of our diocesan Office of Faith Formation on more than one occasion told me that developing good programs for marriage preparation and marriage promotion was an almost impossible task. She despaired that we faced such an uphill struggle in this field. Today I am happy to tell you that our diocesan Office of Faith Formation, under the leadership of Sister Mary
Alice Piil CSJ, has a team of persons who have tackled this challenge and turned it into a new opportunity. Our Office has produced some of the best DVDs on marriage and marriage preparation, as well as on Natural Family Planning both in English and Spanish. Pre-Cana marriage preparation has been developed and new interest in caring for married couples and their families can be found in our parishes. Catholic Charities sponsors programs for families in challenging circumstances and our hospital system has begun a series of clinics, named for the late Bishop James McHugh, which will offer special care for women and children.
Pope John Paul II once said that as a young priest, he “fell in love with human love.” I can readily echo that sentiment for I have experienced it time and again in the parishes where I have served and among friends whose marriages I witnessed as a young priest and whose children’s marriages I have also witnessed. Love is the strongest bond for human living. Human love, built up and sustained by God’s love in the sacrament of marriage is a potent force for good in our world. In a society of casual sexual relationships, selfish liaisons, partial commitments, childless unions and “no fault” divorce, the Church continues to defend marriage for what it is and is intended by God to be: a permanent union of a man and a woman who commit themselves to faithful married life for the rest of their lives with the total mutual giving of one to the other that is open to bringing children, the fruit of that love, into the world. To every married couple I send my thanks for your witness. You are the most important witness to Christ’s love in the faithfulness of your married love. You are the most visible sacrament that can save society and be the true measure of a life of joy, happiness, fulfillment and peace.