The Church has fallen on hard times in recent history. We read of parish closings and mergers, clergy abuse scandals and a decline in vocations. We also wonder about what may appear to be the decline of the influence of Catholicism in our society. Despite the strong opposition of our bishops and dedicated laity, we saw the recent passage of the same-sex marriage bill in New York and a fierce advocacy and promotion of abortion around the country. We suffer in spirit because of these things.
Our Catholic understanding of marriage may be precisely that which gives us hope and courage in what may be an otherwise bleak time.
Marriage is one of two sacraments of service in the Church, the other being Holy Orders. The contribution of bishops, priests and deacons to serving and building up the Church is apparent. But how would a married couple do so? They do so by the practical, every day living of their vows.
On the day of their marriage in the Church, a man and a woman say to one another “I take you to be my wife (or my husband). I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”
A similar sentiment is seen when the priest or deacon blesses the rings: “Lord, bless these rings which we bless in your name. Grant that those who wear them may always have a deep faith in each other. May they do your will and always live together in peace, good will and love. We ask this through Christ our Lord…”
Notice that the vow and blessing and exchange of rings do not say “I will love you only if you are as good looking 20 years from now as you are today or if you like my mother’s beef stew.” In other words, a fruitful marriage cannot be made subject to unreasonable demands. Implied in the marriage vow is that you will love the person as they are, not as you would have them be; it means that your love will be there to support your spouse as his or her love is there to support you. You pray that his or her gifts may flourish and that the Lord grant him or her strength to overcome any weaknesses. Sometimes, however, a marriage encounters difficulties and the vows are tested.
It is here that the married couple’s fidelity is particularly needed by the Church. We appreciate and depend on their service to their parish, the raising and education of their children and the other contributions they make to the Church and society as a whole. But it is in their fidelity, trust and love of one another in marriage that we see what our relationship to the Church is meant to be.
The problems that the Church faces do not give us license to try to make it over to suit our tastes. If that were so then, as many spiritual writers have noted, it would not be the Lord’s Church but my Church. And just as the Church has supported us in our joys and sorrows – our baptisms and funerals, our weddings and sick-calls – so now are we called to support and love the Church when it needs us most.
Father Arlen Harris was raised in St. Francis of Assisi-St. Blaise parish, Crown Heights, and he worked as a reporter for The Tablet prior to entering the seminary.