by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
This Sunday is World Marriage Day. It is a day upon which we pray for all married couples that the Lord will bless them as they live their vocation that summons them to follow Jesus on the path of heroic, faithful and unconditional love.
I recently returned from the Good News Cruise, where more than 400 married couples from across the country spent a week focused upon renewing their marriages and deepening their love for each other in the Lord. It was inspiring to witness these couples’ zeal in seeking to fulfill their vocation of making God’s love revealed in Jesus real for one another.
Among the married couples, there was a couple from Wichita, who were married for only four months. They chose the Good News Cruise for their honeymoon. This summer, our archdiocesan World Youth Day pilgrimage included a recently married couple, who chose to spend part of their honeymoon living the simple life of World Youth Day pilgrims. These recently married couples gave me hope for the future of marriage and family life in Kansas, our nation and our culture.
Our secular, cultural understanding of marriage is that it is a contract between a man and a woman to love each other. Our secular, cultural expectation of love is for the other person to make me happy, to make me feel good. Once the other person no longer pleases me, makes me feel good, then I am free to end the marriage, to end the contract. Thus, we see the high prevalence of divorce in our country.
Christian marriage, as St. Paul described in his Letter to the Ephesians (5: 21-33), is a call to become an icon for our Lord’s love for his spouse, the church. St. Paul began the passage by challenging the Ephesians: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The next verse, however, raises the eyebrows of many in our culture because Paul wrote: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” Many people fail to read on where St. Paul wrote: “Husbands love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.” How did Jesus love the church? He died for her. He gave his life on Calvary for her.
Jesus calls husbands and wives to have a mutual subordination to each other. Christian marriage is a covenant, not a contract. A covenant, unlike a contract, is not about a mutual agreement of terms where if one party does not fulfill the terms, the contract is null and void.
A covenant is a union of persons in the Lord. It is an unbreakable bond, where each spouse is seeking the good of the other before their own wants. The covenant of marriage is not about the other person pleasing me, but my promise before God to seek their good above my own desires!
To cite a nonbiblical source, in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the mother counsels her soon-to-be married daughter that the husband is the head of the family. However, she qualifies this by advising her daughter that the wife is the neck, and she turns the head in whatever direction she desires.
In Christian marriage, there is a mutual seeking of one another’s good, not the domination of one person by the other. Husbands and wives are called to complement each other, not dominate the other. Husbands and wives are called to help each other know their true dignity as beloved sons and daughters of God.
Several years ago, I accompanied our seminarians on a pilgrimage to Mexico City. Of course, we spent a good deal of our time at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. However, we also partnered with a Catholic organization called Hope of the Poor, which took us to the garbage dumps on the outskirts of Mexico City. People actually live on these trash dumps and eke out a living by recycling other people’s trash.
Many of our group, including myself, were not fluent in Spanish. Craig Johring, the founder and leader of Hope of the Poor, counseled us as we approached the dump area that it did not matter, whether we spoke Spanish or not. Craig challenged us that as we encountered those who were considered the outcasts of Mexico City, to reflect to them through our eyes their great dignity as beloved sons and daughters of God. We should gaze upon them with the reverence and respect that is due to one for whom Jesus gave his life on Calvary.
In a true sense, this is what married couples are called to do for each other. Marriage requires an intimacy where couples know each other completely. They know each other’s virtues and vices, their strengths and weaknesses. With this profound insight into each other, married couples are called to affirm for one another through their gaze, the other’s great dignity in God’s eyes.
It is in this covenant of love between a husband and wife that new life can be welcomed into the world and receive the greatest gift — a father who loves their mother and a mother who loves their father and who together love the child who is the fruit of their love.
Sadly, we live in a secular culture that has a contractual understanding of marriage, resulting in a high level of divorce. We live in a culture that considers marriage irrelevant, resulting in the prevalence of cohabitation. We live in a society where a very high percentage of children grow up in a home without one of their biological parents present.
I grew up in a single-parent family. I have the highest esteem for single parents who heroically do their best to love and provide for their children. However, this is not how God designed us. The social science data supports that the optimal environment for children is to be raised in a home where their mother and father love each other and, together, love the children that are the fruit of their love.
Whether we are married or not, we all have a stake in marriage. Marriage is important for society, for our nation, for our communities and for the church. We need to pray for married couples that they know the importance of their vocation — not just for themselves and their children, but also for society and the church.
I encourage couples to consider taking next year’s Good News Cruise. There were couples of all ages, but particularly a large number of couples who have already raised their children. Many of them commented how they wished their married children, who are in the process of raising their families, could make the next Good News Cruise. Some were committed to making it financially possible for their children as well as offering to babysit their grandchildren.
Of course, you do not have to take the Good News Cruise to get support for your marriage. Our archdiocesan marriage and family life office offers many opportunities for marriage enrichment throughout the year. Invest in your marriages for your own sakes, for the good of your children and for the church.