by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
For the past 30-plus years, I have spent most New Year’s Eves with two married couples. In 1975, three of the four were young adult members in my first parochial assignment.
I had the privilege to assist both of these couples with their marriage preparation. I celebrated their nuptial Masses and witnessed their wedding vows. I have celebrated with them the births of their children. I have celebrated baptisms, confirmations, anniversaries, weddings and — more recently — the births of their grandchildren. We have been friends now for more than 40 years.
They certainly would not claim to have the perfect marriages or the perfect families. However, I can say unequivocally that it has been a grace for me personally and for my priesthood to share in the goodness of their marriages and their families.
This coming year in the archdiocese, as part of the implementation of our 10-year mutually shared vision, there will be special emphasis on the importance of marriage, parenthood and family life. Family is the foundation of our communities, our society, our nation and our church. Marriage is the foundation of family life. In a sense, everything in a culture depends on the health of marriage and family life.
Sadly, our American society is very confused about marriage and its meaning. Part of this cultural confusion is the result of the popular myth that marriage is exclusively about the happiness of the couple. We have lost sight of the importance of healthy marriages for the health of society.
Part of this diminished cultural respect for the importance of marriage is the de-emphasis of the positive impact of healthy marriages on the welfare of children. The social science data is overwhelming in its affirmation that children who grow up in a home with their biological father and mother have a much better chance of flourishing in school, in their professional and work lives, in their personal lives, and in having their own successful marriage.
For the most part, our culture is silent about these realities in part because so many marriages do not endure for a lifetime and we do not want to offend or add to the pain of those who have experienced a divorce. Similarly, because so many children today do not grow up in homes with their biological parents, we do not want them to feel like they are doomed to a life of failure.
As I have mentioned before, I grew up in a single-parent home. I have nothing but the highest regard for single parents who are incredible examples of heroic love for their children. As a church and a society, we need to do more to assist, support and encourage single parents.
That being said, we cannot be silent about the importance of marriage nor can we fail to do everything possible as a church to help married couples not only survive, but thrive, in a culture that has become increasingly negative about marriage. There is simply too much at stake.
One of the reasons for the high failure rate of marriages is mistaken notions about its purpose and nature that result in false expectations which in turn lead to disappointment and discouragement. The cultural ideal of marriage is that a couple remains on a perpetual romantic high. This, of course, is impossible.
Another flawed understanding about marriage is that openness to children is optional, rather than essential to marriage. Of course, not every couple will be able to have children, but every marriage is called to be fruitful. Our culture promotes the idea that marriage is fundamentally about the happiness (which is often equated with high levels of pleasure) of the individuals.
Christian marriage is about happiness, but happiness as described in the Beatitudes. Happiness is not about satisfying our own wants and desires. In fact, a married life or single life with this focus will end in emptiness, not happiness.
Christian marriage is all about seeking the immediate and eternal good of your spouse and a willingness to set aside your own personal wants and desires in the pursuit of what is best for your spouse. While this understanding of marriage requires sacrifice and a high level of self-discipline, it is the pathway to the highest levels of enduring happiness and authentic joy.
Similarly, parenthood requires an even greater level of generosity and self-sacrifice. Sadly, many in our culture today look upon children as a means to fulfilling parents’ wants and desires, rather than recognizing children as a blessing who fulfill their parents by drawing forth from them a greater capacity for generosity and love.
It is my hope that one of the fruits of this year will be for us as a church to better serve adults and children who have been affected by divorce. We will be striving to empower parents, whether they are married or single, to become more effective teachers of their children of the Gospel and the Christian life.
In reality, there are no perfect marriages or perfect families, because every spouse and every parent is a flawed human being.
However, marriage is intended by God to be the closest reflection of his love in the world. A couple’s striving to love each other unconditionally and forever mirrors God’s love.
If you are married, I invite you to pray this year asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten you how you can be a better husband or a better wife. For those of us who are not married, I ask that we ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to us how we can better support and encourage married couples as they strive to live their vocation of heroic love.
Healthy marriages and healthy families make for a better, more joyful and peaceful world. We all have a stake in helping marriages flourish in our church and society.