The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC #1601) teaches us that the sacrament of Marriage is a “…covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreating and educating of offspring…” Marriage is God’s plan. In the Book of Genesis, Chapter 1, we learn that man and woman are created in the image and likeness of God – “God himself, is the author of marriage. The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman.” (CCC #1603) “Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for each other.: ‘It is not good that the man be alone.’ The woman, ‘flesh of his flesh,’ his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him as a ‘helpmate;’ she thus represents God from whom comes our help.” (CCC #1604) The Church and holy scripture teach us that when the man and woman make their covenantal vow in the Sacrament of Marriage, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Saint John Paul II gave us an image of this marriage covenant – an equilateral triangle. Man and woman are the points of the base of the triangle, and God is the upper angle of the triangle. One solid triangle formed by three strong and equal angles – each dependent on the other.
Often, Catholics do not understand the role of the bride and groom and the clergy in the Sacrament of Marriage. In the Sacrament of Marriage the bride and groom as ministers of Christ’s grace, mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church (CCC 1623). The priest or deacon are witnesses to the mutual consent given by the spouses. When mutual consent is given, the priest or deacon say prayers of blessing and epiclesis (calling down the Holy Spirit) asking God’s grace and blessing on the new couple, especially the bride (CCC #1624). In the epiclesis of this sacrament the spouses receive the Holy Spirit as the communion of love of Christ and the Church. The Holy Spirit is the seal of their covenant, the ever-available source of their love and the strength to renew their fidelity (CCC #1624). The Sacrament of Marriage involves much more than consenting to live as husband and wife, promising fidelity, promising to love in sickness and in health and good times and bad. In the eyes of the Church the Sacrament of Marriage is a covenant made between the bride and groom and God. Just as Christ offered his life for us, the new couple is called to offer their own lives by uniting it to the offering of Christ for his Church so that they may form one body in Christ (CCC #1621).
Sacramental marriage is a liturgical act. It is therefore appropriate that it should be celebrated in the public liturgy of the Church (Canon Law 1069). Parishes used to post bans of marriage for those preparing to receive the Sacrament of Marriage in the bulletin for a period of weeks. Among other things, this served as a public announcement of an approaching liturgical celebration. Although the faithful seldom attended these liturgies, they were welcome to attend each celebration of the conferral of the Sacrament of Matrimony. Even though bans are not published in many bulletins these days, the faithful are still encouraged, to attend this liturgical act. This does not mean that everyone attending the liturgy is invited to the private family celebration afterward; rather, the faith community is simply rejoicing in the conferral of a sacrament, and the uniting of a couple for life – the beginning of a state of life in the Church (Canon Law 1537). The public character of the consent protects the “I do” once given and helps the spouses remain faithful to it (Canon Law 2365). A couple preparing for marriage may want to discuss having the date and time of their celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage posted in their parish bulletin, and consult with their Pastor about the possibility of publicizing this liturgical information. The parish community is not only called to witness the Sacrament of Marriage, but to offer continued prayers and support for the couple.
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 dignity of their state by a special sacrament (CCC #1638). 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 (CCC #1639). The Hebrews have a word for the divine love of God, Hesed. Hesed is the everlasting love of God. From John Oswald’s The Bible Among the Myths: Hesed is a love that is so enduring that it persists beyond any sin or betrayal to mend brokenness and graciously extend forgiveness. Hesed is to love as God loves. Like other Hebrew words, hesed is not just a feeling but an action. It intervenes on behalf of loved ones and comes to their rescue. Hesed is love that can be counted on, decade after decade. It’s not about the thrill of romance, but the security of faithfulness. The married couple is called to love each other as God loves – unconditionally. St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 5:22-32 reminds wives and husbands to live, to be, Hesed for each other.
The grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity (CCC #1641). Through Christ, the source of matrimonial grace, each couple help one another to attain holiness in their married life. Christ dwells within each couple and gives them the strength to take up their crosses and follow Him. Couples are called to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, and to love one another with supernatural, tender and fruitful love (CCC #1642). It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love (CCC #1648). “When a husband and wife think of their marriage as a sign of God’s love, they tend to make room for God in their marriage.” (Catholic Update Guide to Marriage, p. 20) In a sacramental marriage couples, through grace, may draw from an added source of patience, wisdom and love. In a sacramental marriage, couples know they are bound together as part of God’s wonderful plan for His creation.
The Second Vatican Council calls the family the Ecclesia domestica – the Domestic Church. Parents are by word and example the first heralds of faith with regard to their children. All members of a family are called to exercise their priesthood of the baptized by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, and self-denial and active charity (CCC #1656). What does holy mean? From, Catholic Update Guide to Marriage, “To be holy is to rejoice in oneself and in the gift of life. That which is holy is charged with enthusiasm for life. Holiness includes concepts such as humor and laughter, compassion and understanding, and the capacity to forgive and be forgiven, to love and be loved. Family life is sacred in the Church because to live with people as lovingly as you can is to live with God. Holiness in families comes from learning to forgive and be reconciled and learning to face up to our problems and do something about them. In family life, holy means striving to surrender to God’s light within us at times when the darkness around us seems overwhelming. It means struggling day after day to bring creative order – if only a bit – to the chaos. When we work at cultivating forgiveness, reconciliation, and community, we embody God’s holy will in the context of family life.”
How to make the Sacrament of Marriage work. Blessed Mother Teresa said, “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.” From, Catholic Update Guide to Marriage, “To live a full and loving married life couples must practice self-discipline, patience, humility and perseverance. The first step in making a sacramental marriage work is making room for God in married life. Marriage should be embraced as a sacrament of salvation, when husband and wife allow Jesus to be with them and support their commitment. Through this sacrament God unites man and woman in an unbreakable bond of love and peace.” Daily prayer, both individual and as a couple is important in the sacramental life of marriage. Blessed Mother Teresa said, “If we pray, we will believe; if we believe, we will love; if we love, we will serve.” Through prayer, sacramental marriage becomes a loving commitment to serve one another and then others. Through prayer, sacramental marriage reflects God’s gift to us – himself. God offers us himself, and we in turn are called to offer no less. Married couples give of themselves everyday by offering their lives to their spouse.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1650 states: “Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. Infidelity to the words of Jesus Christ – ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’ – the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid if the first marriage was.” The annulment process was created to determine if a first marriage was valid. The validity of a marriage can only be determined through the annulment process. This process has the potential to be a very healing experience and is a very powerful tool for self-reflection. A person seeking annulment will make an appointment with a deacon or priest, or certified lay minister to learn more about the process. Usually the annulment process is a one or two year journey filled with prayer and reflection – it is not about assigning blame. “If a couple civilly divorce and do not civilly marry again, and are committed to living in complete continence, they may continue to receive the sacraments. If a couple civilly divorce and both civilly remarry, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s Law” (CCC #1651).
Pope John Paul II wrote the following in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Christian Family in the Life of the World: “I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons, they can, and indeed must, share in her life” [n.84]. Regarding civilly divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received a declaration of nullity (an annulment) of the first marriage, the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1651 states, “These couples should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity, and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day God’s grace.” As long as this situation exists, these couples are not separated from the Church, but “may not receive Eucharistic communion. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those couples who have repented for having violated the marriage covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence” (CCC #1650). The Church continues to welcome the sinner, for we all are sinners, and prays for the healing gift of God’s grace to touch our minds and hearts.
The Church understands marriage to be a “matrimonial covenant, by which a man and woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (Canon Law 1055, §1). It is intended to be a faithful and permanent commitment for one’s whole life, until the death of one of the spouses (Canon Law 1056). Marriage is more than an agreement or a contract between two people. It is a covenant of faithful and fruitful love between a man and a woman and God. Marriage is a total giving of self to the other, and is a public state of life in the Church. From Catholic Update Guide to Marriage, “Marriage can be difficult, but when it is embraced as a sacrament of salvation, when husband and wife allow Jesus to be with them and support their commitment, marriage becomes a source of grace and blessing for the couple, their families, their Church and the world. Through this sacrament God unites man and woman in an unbreakable bond of love and peace. May the Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless them in good times and in bad, in this life and in eternity. Amen.”