by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
The Rite of Election is the liturgy at the beginning of Lent in which participants in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, who desire to enter the Catholic Church and whose parishes have attested to their readiness, are formally accepted by the bishop for baptism or reception into the church at the Easter Vigil. Last year, at one of the Rite of Election ceremonies, I met two young women who both had been very active members of a Protestant community.
Somehow, they had become acquainted with the Little Sisters of the Lamb. One had become enthralled by the beauty of the liturgical life of the Little Sisters. This inspired her to learn more about the Catholic Church and in particular, to study the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Her interest in becoming Catholic was awakened too late to be prepared to enter the church at Easter. However, I had the privilege of receiving her into the church on Pentecost and, since then, she has begun formation with the Little Sisters of the Lamb.
The other young woman also had an affection and admiration for the Little Sisters, but she did not have a desire to enter the Catholic Church. However, she too had been inspired to study at least portions of the catechism. She was preparing to be married in her Protestant community, but she expressed a desire for excerpts of our catechism to be read at her wedding. She loved how the catechism described Christian marriage. It expressed exactly what she wanted for her marriage.
I was very moved and edified by her comments. In my almost 40 years of priestly ministry, I have never had a Catholic couple request portions of the catechism to be read at some point during their wedding liturgy. Her comments prompted me to go back and read the catechism’s description of marriage with fresh eyes. It truly is beautiful.
The catechism states: “From a valid marriage arises a bond between the spouses which by its very nature is perpetual and exclusive; furthermore, 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” (1638).
The church teaches that the marriage vows create a bond that is irrevocable and unique. Moreover, it describes the sacrament of matrimony as actually consecrating the couple, which means setting them apart and empowering them for a sacred mission.
The catechism continues: “The consent by which spouses mutually give and receive one another is sealed by God himself. From their covenant arises ‘an institution confirmed by the divine law… even in the eyes of society.’ The covenant between the spouses is integrated into God’s covenant with man: ‘Authentic married love is caught up into divine love’” (1639).
The catechism is clear. Marriage is not just about the couple. God himself seals their vows. The promises that couples make to each other in the wedding liturgy are related and connected to the covenant God has made with human beings. Married love is heavenly in that it is to image and reflect, even if imperfectly, divine love in the world.
The catechism further states: “Thus the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation
of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by God’s fidelity. The church does not have the power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom” (1640).
The church’s description of marriage makes clear that it must be entered into freely. The marital embrace of the couple (sexual intercourse) expresses physically what the vows proclaim: The two have become one. Each expression of sexual intimacy in marriage is a reaffirmation, a renewal, of the wedding vows. The union of the couple’s bodies in the marital embrace expresses physically what the couple has promised to strive for in every aspect of their lives — namely, to give themselves totally to each other.
The catechism continues: “‘By reason of their state in life and of their order, [Christian spouses] have their own special gifts in the People of God.’ This grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they ‘help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children’” (1641).
One of the essential purposes of marriage is for the spouses to help each other become saints, to attain holiness. To be true to their vows, a husband and a wife must strive to purge themselves from selfishness, as they place the good and the happiness of their spouse above their own wants and desires.
A second essential purpose of marriage is an openness to be co-creators with God of new life. Children help their parents acquire an even greater holiness, because they draw out from their parents an even more perfect, more selfless love.
If that were not challenging enough, the catechism goes on to state: “Christ is the source of this grace. ‘Just as of old God encountered his people with a covenant of love and fidelity, so our Savior, the spouse of the Church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of Matrimony.’ Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to ‘be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,’ and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love. In the joys of their love and family life he gives them here on earth a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb” (1642).
Wow! Marriage well-lived is to be a taste of heaven. However, this does not mean it is easy. No, just the opposite. Christian marriage, properly lived, calls for heroic love — a love that is willing to pay any price for his or her beloved.
It would be impossible to live this love, except that Jesus promises to live with the couple and to give them whatever they need to follow him along the path of love — to forgive each other, to ease one another’s sufferings and burdens by carrying them together, and to triumph over any and every adversity. Couples have the opportunity to encounter Jesus in their relationship. They are called to become a sacrament, a vessel of God’s love for one another. They are to give flesh to the love of Jesus for each other.
Happy Valentine’s Day to all married couples! Thanks for being mirrors of God’s love in the world for the rest of us!