Bishops Offer Lofty Words That Relate to Married Life
by David Gibson
Frequently, the news I report on this website involves the “workings” of marriage – what researchers are learning about the secrets of lasting marriages and how couples might navigate the complexities of their everyday lives.
Other times these news reports involve the very meaning of marriage – its underlying foundation, its purposes and the sources of its strength.
However, sometimes the essential meaning of marriage blessedly meets the workings of marriage head-on, and this is one of those times!
In homilies during recent diocesan Masses for couples celebrating 25, 50 or even more years of marriage, Catholic leaders insisted that the meaning of marriage is not an abstraction divorced from the all-too-real demands of daily life. Instead, it seems, marriage of its essence can dynamically shape the actual lives of spouses for the better.
Bishop Joseph Bambera of Scranton, Pa., acknowledged in a homily June 5 for an annual wedding anniversary Mass that the church employs some “lofty words” to speak about marriage. “Somehow, through the power and wisdom of God, your relationships in marriage are a reflection of God’s love for humankind,” he told couples.
But the bishop went on to explain how such lofty words about marriage assume “flesh and substance” in the actual circumstances of a couple’s life. Bishop Bambera assured couples that “while lofty,” these words “are quite relevant to life.”
To explain how the church’s vision of marriage assumes “flesh and substance” in the circumstances of a couple’s life, Bishop Bambera reflected on St. Paul’s well-known description of love as patient, kind, not jealous, not brooding.
The bishop suggested that God’s love is reflected in a marriage when the spouses are patient and do not despair “over the foolishness, insults and unteachableness of others – like when your husband doesn’t listen or your wife just doesn’t seem to understand.” Similarly, God’s love is reflected in a marriage and family when spouses love in a selfless manner, perhaps when one of them is ill.
British Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster also focused on the church’s lofty vision for marriage during a June 11 Mass in London for couples celebrating lengthy marriages. But he, too, anchored the church’s vision in the real lives of real people.
“In the journey and joy of marriage, the blessing of faith makes such a difference. The commitment of Christian marriage brings with it a transforming blessing” – the blessing of accepting the other for who he or she is, the archbishop said. This commitment contrasts sharply with provisional understandings of relationships in which the partners can always walk away and “each of the partners is always on probation,” he added.
What is transformative about this? Archbishop Nichols explained that the commitment of marriage gives rise to a “real freedom” that allows the spouses “to acknowledge their weakness and failures without fear of rejection,” and creates a context in which to grow as persons.
He considered the total acceptance of each other that stems from marital commitment a form of love that is kind. “The power of everyday loving kindness is one that can achieve a slow but steady healing and growth,” Archbishop Nichols said.
“In that love, each can accept the need to change” and “to compromise for the sake of ‘we,’ rather than insist on ‘me.’” That, said the archbishop, “is part of the miracle of marriage.”
Taking such points into consideration enables people to grasp what the church’s lofty words about marriage imply for the life of a couple, the archbishop indicated. He told couples that their own love “is a sharing in the mystery of God, who is love.”
Bishop Bambera quoted the writer Madeleine L’Engle in his homily in Scranton’s cathedral. She once wrote, speaking of marriage, that “the growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys.” She said:
“I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert times are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without.”
Bishop Bambera commented that those sentiments were “probably closer to the reality” of the lives of couples celebrating anniversaries “than some of the ideal notions of marriage that we’ve heard time and again.” Yet, he proposed, those words by L’Engle are “more closely aligned to Gospel values than we might imagine.”
The key to understanding the church’s “lofty notion of marriage” is found in love – “what we expect from it and what it expects from us,” Bishop Bambera said.
God’s love is reflected in a marriage when the spouses’ love is kind, when it only is “tempered by considering that another’s good and well-being is just as precious as their own,” the bishop said. And God’s love is reflected when a spouse’s love “does not seek its own interest, but seeks the well-being of another.”
To love in such ways is to follow the “pattern of life and love shown by Jesus himself,” Bishop Bambera said.
He recalled someone once saying that “all marriages are happy; it’s the living together afterward that causes all the trouble.” Bishop Bambera proposed, however, that “perhaps a better way of expressing such sentiments would be to say that in the living together as husband and wife, we find a fertile environment for living out the Gospel in an authentic manner.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.