February 4, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Vocation of marriage reflects
God's unending love for all

In January, the Church focused a spotlight on the awesome vocations to priesthood and consecrated life. This week, we turn the spotlight on the awesome vocation to married life.

Indeed, marriage is a vocational commitment for life that is no less challenging and no less graced than priesthood or religious life. It embodies the baptismal call to holiness. The fabric of family life depends on the role of committed parents. As marriage goes, so goes family life. As family life goes, so goes society.

Maintaining the marriage vows in our culture is every bit as challenging as maintaining chastity in the celibate state or virginity. Chastity is not valued in our secular culture. Far too often, neither is lifelong marital commitment. Leading public personalities eschew lifelong commitment, many ignore the institution of marriage altogether. Children—ultimately society—are the losers.

Christ recognized the sacred beauty and importance of marriage by his presence—and the working of his first miracle—at the well-known marriage feast in Cana. He left for us in his Church the sacrament of marriage, one of the seven sacraments instituted to give us the grace, the help, we need on the challenging journey of life.

If we are to grasp the importance of marriage as a sacrament, it is important to review how much we need God’s help in life. One need only reflect on his or her own experience at almost any age to know of our very real need to live with integrity and do the right thing in life. And one need only look around to see how woefully inadequate we are to find salvation if left to our own devices.

We not only need divine help, we need visible signs of God’s grace. And so Christ gave us the seven sacraments to sustain us on the path to salvation and eternal happiness in his kingdom. Jesus took the initiative to reach out to us through the ages, and he did it through the sacraments of the Church.

The sacrament of marriage is not some “take it or leave it” ritual invented by the Church. It is a gift from Christ for individual women and men, and it is also a gift for family life in our society. Let’s review the basic features of the sacrament of marriage.

Because of its sacred importance, a Catholic marriage is usually celebrated within Mass, or if there is a non-Catholic partner, within a Liturgy of the Word. The essential elements of marriage are 1) the free consent of the couple who promise to live in an exclusive lifelong faithful commitment to each other with openness to the gift of children from God and 2) the consent is given in the presence of the Church’s minister and two witnesses. Unique in the sacrament of marriage is the fact that the ministers of the sacrament are the husband and wife themselves in the presence of the Church’s minister.

What are the gifts, the graces, received in the sacrament?

One can name three. 1) There is the grace to perfect the couple’s love for each other and to strengthen the marriage bond. 2) There is help to live the responsibilities of married life. 3) There is help on the journey of life.

What is required for valid reception of this sacrament?

There must be no prior existing marriage. And each partner must be able and willing to give free consent to marriage for life. This latter requirement is more complex than it may seem on the surface—and therein lays the phenomenon of too many weddings that are not, in fact, marriages. Some couples do not accept their commitment as lifelong, but rather envision more of a “trial” marriage: If it doesn’t work, there is always divorce. Sometimes one or the other intended partner is not open to having the gift of children. Some marry because of some sense of being forced or pressured into a wedding without truly full consent. Some are simply too immature to understand the implications of a valid ­marriage.

Indeed, there are truly significant and beautiful implications in the vocation of marriage. The lifelong faithful union of husband and wife reflect God’s faithful and unending love for our human family. As a married couple establishes a faith-filled home, they are truly the domestic Church, the first cell of the Church.

Parents provide the awesome care and education, a lifegiving gift for their children. They accept the awesome responsibility of providing for the religious instruction that nourishes the faith of their children. Parents are the first catechists, handing on the life of Christ to their children.

The vocation of married life is a beautiful and awesome gift with the unique grace of God to live it confidently and generously. †

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