Matrimony: Is It Still Holy?
by Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin
Marriage is like a beautiful gilded birdcage. All the little birds on the outside want to get in while all the little birds on the inside want to get out!
This saying, by an author unknown to me, summarizes accurately the state of marriage today. Marriage is still an attractive and useful institution, and millions of couples each year begin the journey. At the same time, however, at least half of those who enter the "gilded bird cage" find themselves wanting to get out, their marriage ending in separation and divorce.
This poses a real problem for the Church and especially for parish priests who work with engaged couples and witness their vows. This column was to be entitled, "Why Priests Hate Weddings," but I thought that might be a bit too strong. Nevertheless, ask any priest about his work and he will quickly share with you the challenge of dealing with the Sacrament of Marriage today.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that the real practice of weddings and marriage today is far different from the ideal of Holy Matrimony as instituted by Christ and taught by the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes our teaching about the Sacrament of Matrimony:
"In a Christian, marriage the spouses are strengthened and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and the dignity of their state by a special sacrament... The consent by which the spouses mutually give and receive one another is sealed by God himself... Authentic married love is caught up, into divine love... This grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the coupleís love and to strengthen indissoluble unity. By this grace they help one another attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children." (1638, 1639, 1641)
These are lofty and noble words, but in reality priests (and others who assist with marriage preparation) encounter a host of secular challenges in helping couples prepare for the Sacrament.
It begins with the fact that so many couples (perhaps 40 percent) are living together before they are married. This cohabitation1 along with the sexual activity that presumably accompanies it, reveals a lack of understanding about the sanctity of the marriage covenant and gives grave scandal to the Christian community.
Many couples who approach the Church for Matrimony these days do not possess the freedom necessary to marry. Either there is already a pregnancy involved, or one of the parties was previously married, making it difficult or even impossible to receive the Sacrament.
"Mixed marriages," that is, interfaith marriages, pose special challenges since the Catholic party is obliged to raise the children Catholic and the other party is often reluctant to do so. Inter-faith marriages also present practical problems for the wedding liturgy because it is not permissible for non-Catholics to receive Holy Communion. This restriction, when not properly understood, causes hard feelings between the families at the precise time when their unity should be accomplished and celebrated.
Wedding rehearsals are a constant irritant for priests who have to deal with large, unruly wedding parties, and people who arenít used to being in the church, arenít familiar with Catholic worship. Bystanders become liturgical experts, infusing the liturgy with every sort of personal preference and creative innovations.
Wedding liturgies themselves become parties rather than prayer, making it nearly impossible to maintain any sense of decorum, any sense of the sacred. Guests arrive late, the bride goes into hiding, the groomsmen have been sitting in the church parking lot drinking, flower girls and ring bearers are very cute but too young to walk up the aisle without crying, the music is chosen from the "top forty list" and the photographer scrambles over the pews to direct the action rather than record it.
Itís exceedingly difficult for the priest to stand in the pulpit with any degree of conviction; to speak about the permanence of marriage when guests are involved in their second or third marriage; about fidelity when spouses have been or will be unfaithful; about sanctity when the newlyweds process out of church never to be seen again; about children when so many brides and grooms carry a contraceptive mentality into their marriage.
The secular mentality continues into the wedding reception which nowadays is characterized by ear-splitting music, too much drinking, vulgar language (even by the best man during the toast) and mandatory rituals that border on the pagan. Jesus and Mary who graced the wedding feast at Cana would surely be embarrassed by the festivities today!
Perhaps this list sounds depressing to you, but I assure you that such circumstances are not unusual. Iíve personally witnessed all of them, as have most priests. Is it any wonder that pastors find it easier and more satisfying to celebrate funerals?
The challenge of the Christian Church today is to regain a sense of the sacred as we teach about marriage and celebrate weddings. It begins with clear and consistent catechesis about the nature and obligations of Holy Matrimony. The Church will certainly be counter-cultural in this matter, but our teaching will be a gift to our society.
And in planning and celebrating weddings, we need to return to practices that emphasize that marriage is a sacrament, not a social convenience, that a wedding is a prayer, not a parade.
What can couples do to prepare to receive the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony in a fitting way?
First, in dating and courtship, associate with people who are free to marry in the Catholic Church. So many fine young Catholics. find themselves in a painful dilemma when they are forced to choose between marrying the one they love or maintaining their sacramental life in the Church. More often than not the Church loses. Remember also the advantage of marrying someone of your own faithóit brings about a more perfect union and eliminates many potential conflicts down the road.
Donít live together before marriage. It is an established fact that the divorce rate for couples who live together before marriage is much higher than for couples who don't. Cohabitation tarnishes your reputation, creates a nearly unavoidable occasion for sin, and causes scandal for others.
Live in chastity and purity, attend Mass on Sunday, receive the Sacraments of the Church and pray together. Your engagement is a beautiful time when God will be active in your life if you allow Him to do so, if you seek His grace and guidance.
Participate willingly in a marriage preparation program offered by the Church. It will help you and your intended spouse focus on essential elements of your future life together as you discuss faith, family, sexuality, children, communication and finances.
In planning your wedding ceremony, resist social pressure and strive for simplicity. Remember, the larger and more grandiose your wedding, the more complications and tensions youíll encounter as the big day approaches. The essential requirements of your wedding are the two of you, your witnesses, the priest and Jesus Christ. Be sure that the bridal party youíve chosen is committed to celebrating your wedding in a spiritual and faith-filled way. Maintain a civil Christian atmosphere at your reception. You can still have the time of your life while avoiding pagan rituals and embarrassing moments.
Finally; in your married life be completely open to Godís Providence. You cannot begin to predict or control the future, but your faith in God and unconditional love for each other will be the pillars upon which you build your life together. Be receptive to the gift of children to complete your union, and remember that the number of children you have must include a consideration of God?s will as well as your own.
There is so much at stake when we speak about Holy Matrimony. After all, healthy Christian marriages are the foundation of healthy families; and healthy families are the foundation of society. May we live to see the day when Holy Matrimony is once again holy, when it is celebrated and lived in a way that allows the love of God to shine through, illuminating the Church and the world.
E-mail this page to a friend