As a young priest, some time ago now, I gave a sermon about family life. Standing at the door of the church after Mass, many people kindly thanked me for my remarks. I remember one older lady, a grandmother, who did not do so. As she passed by, in typical Liverpool fashion, she remarked in a voice loud enough for me to hear: ‘I only wish I knew as little as he does!’
Well, let me say very clearly today, that I too am a member of a family. I was born into a family, grew up in a family. I too have lived through the ups and downs of family life, the arguments, the dining table full of tension, the times of unhappiness, as well as those of joy, of spontaneous laughter, inexplicable to the outsider, and of solemn awe at the wonder of it all. Certainly, I am no expert. But then no-one is. Each of us may know well our own family experience, but none of us has the right to generalise and project as normal the story or pathway that we have experienced. And in each of those stories, God is most certainly present, guiding, prompting, consoling us in a unique and precious way.
This is the wonder we contemplate today: the wonder of God's call, the vocation, that each of us is living.
Pope Francis has a way of speaking about our experience. He calls it God’s call to holiness. Now that is not the way in which we think of our lives. But it is true. The way our lives unfold is God's call to holiness, even through all the failures we experience or, I might say, especially through those failures.
So today, before we begin to ponder the task of marriage preparation, this is the context we need to grasp: that we are made for holiness; that the pathway of our lives is best understood as God’s call to holiness. The best, most rewarding way of looking at all that happens to us is to see it as steps on a journey to closeness to God, a closeness that will come to its completion in our final entry into God’s presence and our surrender into the embrace of God’s love.
In his teaching Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis says:
‘I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile…Very often it is a holiness found in our next door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, remind us of God’s presence’ (GE7).
He continues by saying that this holiness, to which we are all called, grows through daily actions, the small gestures which are the building blocks of family life.
Such holiness is the work of the Holy Spirit. In the lives of the saints, he says, the Holy Spirit writes a clear narrative of some aspect of the wonder of Jesus so that we may understand it more clearly and grasp it more nearly.
This is true in the life of each one of us.
In preparing for this talk, I thought about all that I have learned from my parents. I asked myself: ‘What aspect of the life of Jesus has the Holy Spirit composed in their lives that I might learn and treasure?’ This is my answer.
In the life of my father, I can see a story of great perseverance. Through thick and thin - and there was plenty of it - through moments of rejection and great difficulty, he stuck to his word, to the promises he gave. I can remember the day, in circumstances which I need not describe, when he said to me: ‘This will require great perseverance.’ He was right. And he was faithful. This was the Gospel he wrote for me in our family life.
My mother. She was different. A wonderful person who approached every day as a gift of God and wanted nothing more than to live it in generosity. Her favourite saying, which is written into my heart, was this: ‘This is the day which the Lord has made, so let us rejoice and be glad in it!’ And that is what she did, even on days when she was reduced to tears, or marked by patient love, ready to carry any cross.
So today, let us truly follow her word and recognise that this too is a day made by the Lord, such that we may rejoice and be glad in it!
Now, in the light of the Holy Father Pope Francis’ Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL), I am going to talk about the love of couples who are preparing for their vocation to marriage. I will reflect briefly on the role of parish families in this preparation, and because marriage preparation is ‘just the beginning’ (AL218), as the Holy Father says, we also have to consider how we continue to accompany and support couples throughout their marriage and family life, helping them ‘to keep dancing towards the future with immense hope.’ (AL219). This hope, Pope Francis says, is the leaven that makes it possible to look beyond arguments, conflicts and problems, and live fully in the present. In close harmony with my parents’ lessons, Pope Francis concludes that the best way to prepare a solid future is to live well in the present moment (AL219).
As you know, I come from England. In our culture, as I’m sure in yours, we have been profoundly moved by the Holy Father’s reflections and teaching in Amoris Laetitia.
Prior to the Synod on the Family, we held a programme of listening across the dioceses in England and Wales. Families told of ‘living out their love as best they can’ in a changing culture. One said ‘My family is the most precious thing to me… We never stop loving our children, even when we don’t always agree with what they are doing.’ Another: ‘Children are born or adopted or blended into our families. Relationships are sustained. Relationships fail. We gain sons and daughters, nephews, nieces, brothers and sisters. And for each new arrival, we adapt and change’. Parishes spoke of the need to make room for all God’s children – ‘they are part of us’. Some asked: ‘How can we better understand marriage as a vocation?’ to which others responded, ‘In the living of it… but no-one tells you that your daily living is a vocation.’ Some spoke of the role of the family: ‘To love, and to teach love, and to discover how our love fits with God’s love and the Church’s love’. And of marriage preparation and support for marriage and family life, families spoke of being so glad of it, believing that the Church has something very special to offer.
So what is this ‘special thing’ that we can offer?
Following all the listening, and in consultation with theologians and marriage preparation practitioners, our national marriage and family life team drew together our Guidelines for the Preparation of Couples for Marriage. These Guidelines closely reflect the teaching of Pope Francis on marriage preparation.
At their heart is a key quality: marriage preparation as an expression of welcome and solidarity. We strive to offer a warm welcome, and a clear vision, to those who seek to be married. That vision includes our teaching about marriage, how it is rooted in the love of God and is to be an expression of the faithfulness and fruitfulness of God’s love. We have a vision of marriage being intertwined with the love Christ has for His Church, a love which includes sacrifice, forgiveness and healing. Our teaching is a rich vision that informs all that we want to share with those who are starting out on married life.
In some cultures, and certainly in England and Wales, marriage has become a very ‘private’ thing. Couples are often caught up in the ‘industry’ of weddings, centred on the couple’s big day, easily losing sight of the family or community context for marriage. As Catholic families, and as the Church, we want to embrace this moment, helping couples to see the wider richness of the step they are taking and making clear our hopes and dreams for couples in their grace-filled calling to marriage and family life.
This wider vision of marriage, as understood in our Catholic teaching and way of life, shapes all of the work of marriage preparation.
Here are some characteristics of good marriage preparation:
1) We say: ‘Your hopes are ours! Please know that as you set out to love each other and build a life-long marriage together you don’t have to do this alone. We are here for you, and we will journey with you. Your love is contagious and life-giving for us all’ (cf AL207). ‘Be assured that God is with you in your love, in all its ups and downs, the good times and the bad. So treasure and share the experiences of your journey. They will bring you surprising treasure! They will renew and sustain you as a couple and a family.’
The Holy Father urges greater effort on the part of the parish in our shared responsibility to welcome and accompany families, stressing the witness of other families, particularly for couples who come knocking at the presbytery door asking to be married. Let’s be ready as a community.
2) Pope Francis also teaches us that part of this vision is that we are to be ‘humble and realistic’ (AL36) and always to trust in God’s grace. This means that in marriage preparation, we must remember that the Holy Spirit has been there before us and will continue to accompany that couple in their lives. This reminds us of the importance of prayer. We can pray into a deeper reality a couple’s commitment to each other. Everyone comes to a marriage bearing wounds, large and small, from their past: disappointment, hurt, a sense of failure or loss of self-esteem. These and many other sorrows can be soothed and transformed by this new and lasting relationship, supported by our love and prayer.
3) We also ‘need to find the right language’ to use (AL40) to reach the hearts of young people and appeal to their capacity for generosity, inviting them to take up the challenge of their vocation with enthusiasm, courage and heroism. Here we have to recognise that there is a gap between formal language (in theology or liturgy) and a family’s everyday language, although Pope Francis seems to bridge that gap quite remarkably! We also have to recognise that not a few couples start with little desire for marriage preparation.
Finding the right language and good communication are key to any relationship. In marriage preparation, couples can learn new skills for good communication, keeping a relationship open and healthy. In our country, poor communication is cited as the main reason for relationship breakdown. Little things like sulking, being critical, shouting, can be so destructive, and lead to isolation and detachment. Getting to know one another as a couple is not always smooth and painless: each of the spouses has to be a bit vulnerable in order for the other to know them more deeply. They might prefer to keep some things hidden!
4). In marriage preparation, we can help the couple to discover the vocation they are receiving from God. We can ask: ‘How did you know he or she was “the one” for you?’ This is a lovely exercise for engaged couples to do with older couples. It gives the older couples a chance to tell their stories of how they met, what attracted them to the other, and something of their experience of marriage. Then the engaged couples tell their stories of falling in love. In discussing their hopes and expectations, they can ask themselves, ‘Do these match, and if not, is there room for growth, ensuring we are building on common ground?’ Can we as companions help the couple discern the deeper reasons that will keep them together in married life?
5) In marriage preparation, we seek to balance the call to love each other with the innate call to welcome the gift of children. There is, of course, a fruitfulness in both of these forms of generous love (cf AL151). What we can offer is a fuller vision, deepened through giving oneself and living for the other. Planning a family together is a great privilege. The couple must make their decisions honestly, thoughtfully, taking into full account the teaching of the Church, their own welfare, and the welfare of other children. Children are a gift and treasure for the parents and for the Church. Through them, the Lord renews the world.
6) In marriage preparation, we also can address the gift of sexuality, the gift of the body, as a vital part of the fruitfulness of marriage.
It can help to start with human experience from the very beginning, in the womb. In an ultrasound scan, you will see the baby already beginning to explore its environment and respond to touch. For a newborn, touch is critical to their sense of well-being and attachment to their mum and dad. A baby slowly discovers the joy of having a body – ‘here is one hand, and Oh,… here is another one’. The baby uses his or her hands to eat. In fact, the baby puts everything into its mouth. As we grow up, we use our hands to greet one another, to hold, to hug, to comfort, to play, to find our way, to look after each other. As lovers, you use your hands to share your love together. Blind people read with their hands, deaf people speak with their hands. They are so very precious!
Great strength passes through our hands: they are channels of energy, comfort, healing or love. In His life, Jesus used His hands in working miracles of healing and compassion. Most sacraments have some form of touch, giving and receiving, symbolising something of the power of the Holy Spirit. In the marriage rite, couples join their right hands to declare their consent to enter the covenant of Holy Matrimony. The wedding ring, given as a reminder of their love and fidelity, is placed on the fingers of the hand. Jesus was nailed to the Cross through His hands, the centre of power. Indeed, our hands, joined with those of others, can become a kind of power circuit, strengthening each other with a power we do not have as individuals. In marriage, you live out your love very profoundly not only through your hands but even more powerfully through your bodies - there is a power circuit indeed! You express your love in the ways you laugh and forgive, trust and share vulnerability, feel free together, full of tenderness, offering healing, warmth, and acceptance. Young couples need to know the treasure of Christian wisdom about love, learning, for example, the resonance of the phrase ‘This is my body, given for you.’ It is blessed, and a blessing linked to your spiritual growth, and central to your identity and self-understanding. This mysterious good news is to be shared in the preparation of couples for marriage. In this way, marriage preparation is an initiation. As Pope Francis says: ‘The time of engagement becomes a time of initiation into surprise - the surprise of the spiritual gifts with which the Lord, through the Church, enriches the horizon of the new family that stands ready to live in His blessing.’ (cf General Audience, St Peter’s Square, 27 May 2015, https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2015/documents/papa-francesco_20150527_udienza-generale.html).
7) We also have to remember that marriage preparation is a ‘journey’. This is key to understanding marriage preparation correctly. Marriage preparation is not something that happens once and for all. It continues in the lifelong project of building the future together, accepting one another as unfinished and needing to grow. By saying “I do” couples are not finishing something, but just starting. They are embarking on a journey. (cf AL218).
On this journey, many things will be learned, about each other, about likes and dislikes, about wider families, about the children. I was once told that often in life we set out choosing what we love - a vocation, a wife or husband, a child, a neighbourhood. But the real secret of life is to learn to love what we have been given. Only slowly does that gift emerge. Now on this journey one quality is very important. It is this: learning to sense how and where God is present.
Pope Francis often speaks of this quality. He calls it ‘discernment’. It is a quiet and gentle reflection on all that happens to us, trying to discern how and when the Lord is speaking to us, providing us with all that we need, even in the simplest of ways. And all of this takes place within the realities of daily family life. Discernment needs time and patience, a readiness to talk over together the events of a day and the precious moments of clarity and grace that can suddenly appear. They are not to be buried and forgotten as did the man in the parable of the talents who lived in fear. In this way we can grow in ‘an understanding of God’s patience and timetable, which are never our own’, says Pope Francis, continuing thus: ‘God does not pour down fire upon those who are unfaithful (cf Lk 9.54), or allow the zealous to uproot the tares growing among the wheat (cf Mt 13.29)... Discernment is not about discovering what more we can get out of this life, but about recognising how we can better accomplish the mission entrusted to us at our baptism’ (GE 174). And marriage is precisely one such mission.
8) Next on my list, and you might have been waiting for this, comes preparing for the wedding liturgy itself. Some may want to start with this, as a way of meeting the initial expectations of the couple coming to get married. But I think it comes best much later in the process. It can be called ‘immediate preparation’, approached after some more fundamental issues have been opened up. Sometimes, however, it may well be the best place to start – the only ‘open door’.
The wedding liturgy gathers together, expresses and blesses everything we believe about marriage – the commitment to a faithful, lifelong and fruitful union, utterly graced by God from beginning to end. Pope Francis speaks of the liturgy becoming the lived reality. ‘It is not a single moment that becomes part of the past and its memories, but rather it is a reality that permanently influences the whole of married life … the language of the body, and the signs of love shown throughout married life, all become an uninterrupted continuity of the liturgical language. Married life, in a certain sense, becomes liturgical.’ (cf AL 212-216) As we pray in the liturgy, ‘What they receive in faith they may live out in deeds’…
* The Lord be with you …. Do I believe it? Yes, it’s true. Yes, He is present with us as we begin our life-long partnership and He will never leave us;
* Have you come here to enter into Marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly? … Yes we have, and we will start each day with this same desire;
* Are you ready to love, comfort, honour, protect each other, forsaking all others, as long as you both shall live? …Yes… we are, even in the face of temptations;
* Are you prepared to accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church – Yes, we are;
* I take thee … to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish ‘til death do us part… Yes, even in the doctor's waiting room or by the hospital bed;
* I give you this ring… with my body, I honour you, all that I am I give you, all that I have I share with you…Amen! Yes!
The words and gestures and signs of the liturgy come alive in daily self-giving, in the rituals and celebrations of family life. Marriage becomes a living liturgy, a celebration of the presence of God and an ‘icon’ or sign of what God wants for the whole world. It is a ‘microcosm’ of “salvation history” – God’s way of working for all that is for our good. (AL221).
Many couples have said that the preparation for the wedding ceremony was a powerful moment for them. We have a great opportunity here to help young couples to be alert to this experience of liturgy, to be able to touch and nourish them in years ahead. Looking again at the wedding photographs can renew those moments of grace, as well as raise a bemused smile or two!
So, the couple has walked down the aisle. They have posed for all those photographs and the party has ended. But their vocation is beginning and the role of pastoral accompaniment remains vital. What does this mean in practice? Here are some headlines.
* Try to ensure that your parish is intentionally welcoming. Have ways of being on the lookout not just for newly-weds (for they might have been married elsewhere) but also for those who are newly arrived, whatever their stage in life.
* Give moments in which marriage is celebrated, either at the regular Sunday Mass or on special occasions (cf AL223). Across many dioceses in England and Wales, we have an annual celebration of Marriage. In my own Diocese of Westminster over 600 couples, with a combined total of 39,830 years of marriage, recently attended a Mass in Thanksgiving for Marriage in the Cathedral.
* Be on the lookout for ways of helping married couples spend quality time together, so necessary for a growing partnership. Some places provide babysitting help with children; others provide marriage enrichment opportunities. As Pope Francis says, ‘love needs time and space!’ (AL224).
* Encourage daily rituals at home. Patterns of saying ‘Please, Thank you, Sorry’ make such a difference, as does sharing both prayers and chores, parents giving nightly blessings to their children before they go to sleep. I remember them well, and they have shaped me for the rest of my life.
* Teach couples to pray together. This can begin with the passages of Scripture they choose for their wedding. This aspect of marriage preparation may be the first time they have approached the Scriptures together and a good starting point for shared prayerful reflection. Our pastoral work on behalf of the family must help people to be touched and formed by the Word of God in Scripture –comfort, challenge, guidance – a light for the path (cf AL227). Resources abound, many of them skillfully designed for family life. Some may prefer to say the Rosary together. That’s just fine, as that too is a Scripture-based prayer of the highest quality.
* Remember that marriage preparation, in the widest sense, begins at birth! As Pope Francis says: ‘Learning to love someone doesn’t happen automatically, nor can it be taught in a workshop just prior to the celebration of marriage. For every couple, marriage preparation begins at birth’ (AL208). Children need to know from experience that they are both loved and loveable. This is the foundation for healthy, strong relationships in adult life. The family is the place where the uniqueness and dignity of each child are first experienced, nurtured and grow towards maturity. For young people growing up, discerning their own pathway in life, or vocation, it’s vital that they sense marriage to be a vocation, and that there is both the time and willingness to give it the space and attention it needs. There are many excellent resources that support this vital ministry with children and young people.
* Remember, too, that there is no such thing as an ‘average’ or even ‘normal’ marriage. Every one is different. And all will have within them times or areas of difficulty and difference. Sources of support for couples and families are often needed. They are ‘on offer’ in a parish but never to be forced. A parish school can be a great source of such support, offering chances for mothers to meet together, to pray together (Have you heard of the movement called Mothers’ Prayers? - well worth discovering!), to support each other, even if just at the school gate. But why not invite them in! Parish support can be so important if one spouse comes from a different faith background. Showing respect, talking about shared values, leaving time for questions are all important aspects of pastoral support. After all, love is always a gift of God (AL228). Such moments emerge if, for example, a parish carries out sacramental preparation in a family format, with sessions for parents as well as children. These are great, not least for parents who have drifted away from the practice of their faith but who want to do their very best for their children. Many precious moments have occurred in such sessions!
I am getting near to the end! But it is impossible to speak about marriage and family life without a word about fragility and brokenness. Here we touch on one of the great themes of this Pontificate: the mercy of God. Pope Francis goes as far as to say that the name of God is mercy, for mercy is the shape, the form, taken by the love of God when it meets and embraces our failure and sin. (‘The Name of God is Mercy’ is a, book by Pope Francis).
Many are tempted to ask: ‘Can I be broken, fragile, and holy?’ Yes. We may indeed carry a deep sense of failure, guilt or shame. We may judge ourselves to be unworthy. This is what we bring to the Lord, for holiness is His business. We are recipients, receivers of His mercy and therefore of His holiness. Pope Francis affirms that all of family life can be a ‘shepherding in mercy’ (AL322), and in that way powerfully reflects the truth of our loving Father. Today, this is often our biggest challenge.
In conclusion a prayer, taken not surprisingly, from the marriage liturgy.
Let us pray:
May God the eternal Father keep you one of heart in love for one another that the peace of Christ may dwell in you and abide always in your homes. May you be blessed in your children, have solace in your friends, and enjoy true peace with everyone. May you be witnesses in the world to God’s love, so that the afflicted and needy who have known your kindness, may one day receive you thankfully into the eternal dwelling of God. Amen.