Christian Marriage is a Calling
Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
The small conference room was filled with twenty eight young couples, obviously in love, hoping for a wonderful future together as married couples. They had already sat through two talks on this sunny Saturday afternoon when they probably would have loved to be at the beach or outside enjoying the weather. My talk was scheduled to be the last of the day. I was glad to be invited back to teach in the pre-marriage program sponsored by Catholic Charities. It is mandatory for all couples preparing for marriage in my Diocese.
As in the past, I was asked to give the talk entitled "The Sacrament of Marriage." I was happy to do so. I have lived this vocation of Marriage in Christ for thirty years. I know that it is just that-a vocation -a call to follow the Lord in a specific way and, in so doing, to grow in holiness, participate in the very life of God and in the continuing mission of Jesus Christ as He walks it out through His Body, the Church, of which the domestic Church of the Christian family is a cell.
The couples had already heard what are sometimes considered the "practical talks" of this day long experience, the ones concerning developing communications skills and developing a mutual approach to the stewardship of finances. They had participated in group experiences, private question and answer sessions with one another and group discussions; all intended to deepen their trust in one another. I believe that these efforts and talks will be helpful as they prepare to live out the daily realities of married life.
However, once again I wondered how much they had been introduced to the foundational vision for this Christian calling that they were responding to; this vocation to Marriage in Christ, this way of holiness and call to ecclesial mission. Christian marriage is first a calling to follow the Lord. All of the communications skills in the world and a good approach to financial stewardship will not, in and of themselves, prepare couples to be faithful to this Christian vocation for life.
My talk is on the "theological" dimensions of Christian marriage. I am asked to give the talk because of my theological training and my experience as a married man as well as a member of the clergy, a Deacon of the Catholic Church. I agree to give it whenever possible, partly because I am convinced that one of the reasons we see so little difference in the divorce rates between couples married in the Church and those who are not is because we have not done a very good job preparing couples for Christian marriage as a vocation.
It is hard to learn how to live in a house if you do not first know the floor plan or the architecture - and there is an architecture, what philosophers call"ontology" -an "essence" - an identity, to Marriage in Christ. After all, it is a Sacrament of the Church, a very participation in the life of God, a manifestation - in the real world- of His presence and purpose, a source of continual grace, and a call to holiness.
We need to ask ourselves some probing and important questions about how we prepare couples for marriage. Let me suggest a few.
In our marriage preparation programs, do we emphasize the vocational dimension of marriage in Christ? Are Christian couples really being "prepared" for Marriage "in Christ" as a call to holiness of life and mission? Given the hostility of our contemporary neo-pagan world, are Christian couples made aware of the challenges to fidelity and marital chastity that they will face? Are they taught the importance of the evangelistic and prophetic witness of their life together and the ecclesial dimension of their vocation? Are they evangelized and catechized?
If not, it is a shame and, we have ourselves to blame. What they need most of all is solid instruction on how to live this vocation out in an age that is increasingly hostile to their way of life. Failure to prepare them well could also result in a loss to the Church in this new missionary age into which she is called to continue the mission of Jesus Christ. After all, Christian families are the little platoons, the missionary units of the New Evangelization that is underway.
When I give this talk I explain that marriage is revealed in the natural law, a part of God's plan for the human community. It is not simply a social construct that can be changed by the whim of a legislature or some judicial pronouncement. I trace the history of marriage through the Old and into the New Testaments. I explain, through the wonderful letters of St Paul, how God thought first of the spousal union of Christ and His bride, the Church, and then He then made husband and wife look like it! That, though in the order of creation, something of what St Paul calls this "plan hidden from the ages" (Ephesians 3:8-9) is revealed, it is in Christian Marriage, through its participation in and with Jesus Christ, that it is all elevated, transformed and made full. The "good" that is the very human and natural relationship of marriage, thus becomes a real, substantial participation in Trinitarian Love! I speak of the nuptial mystery and help them to understand that it also lies at the foundation of the Christian vocation to consecrated celibacy, where a man or a woman forsakes marriage to one, to be married to the Lord and to His people.
I also make theology real by sharing personal examples from thirty years of living out of the vocation, I assure them that through the sacrament, grace will be given to each of the spouses - and to them together - to live this vocation sacrificially, joyfully, prophetically and for life. I have lived this vocation for thirty years with my wonderful partner in faith and ministry, my beloved bride. We have raised five children and now we have begun with grandchildren. It has been a very "real" experience of deepening lived love, one filled with struggle, mistakes, pain, failures and all the "real" stuff of human living. It has also been filled with true and lasting joy, human flourishing and grace, ah, yes, most of all, grace; that beautiful unmerited experience of the gratuitous love of God in Christ. We have experienced together the endless resources of the Sacrament, going back to the well, over and over again, through prayer, and receiving all that we needed.
Once again on this day I was confronted by the presumptions that we have too often made concerning the couples who approach the Church for marriage preparation. We presume that these wonderful folks have been evangelized and properly catechized. Yet, my experience in teaching these classes has confirmed that they, like so many in the Church, are in need of the "New Evangelization" that Pope John Paul II wrote about so frequently - and which Pope Benedict XVI has undertaken as a major priority of his service to the Church and the world.
After my presentation, I opened the floor for questions and answers. Though it started out slowly, it soon flourished into a lively and wonderful experience. Of course, the teaching of the Church concerning openness to life was one of the first topics. It usually is. I spoke openly of conjugal love and the truth and liberating effect of Churches teaching on the unitive and procreative dimension of conjugal love and the call to give ourselves away in love. I spoke of the theology of the body and the marriage act as an expression of the gift. I told them that what the Church proclaims is a prescription rather than a proscription, a path to a life of fullness and the way to true love which always expands its circle of embrace. I also gave numerous examples of how God always provides and spoke with candor and conviction of the experiences my wife and I have had in raising five children.
The questions and answers all confirmed what I have already come to experience; my role is mostly evangelistic and catechetical in this program. These wonderful couples need to hear the Gospel. They need to be told that Jesus Christ not only is at the heart of their love and vocation, but must become the foundation for the future of their life together if their marriage is to truly be a Christian marriage. I shared freely about the many experiences that Laurine and I have had of God's intervention in our lives, in difficulties and struggle, and of the practical realities of our daily married life. I shared from my own heart and held nothing back.
We could have gone on in the question and answer period but I was prompted, I believe by the Holy Spirit, to ask them two questions: how many of them prayed together and how many of them went to Mass together. They were very honest in their response. Out of the 28 couples, only three went to Mass together. I certainly did not "correct" them once they admitted this. Rather, I shared with them about the beauty of the Eucharist as a fountain and source of strength and of the connection between the Sacrament of the Eucharist, where Jesus Christ gives Himself completely to us as a bridegroom to a bride - and Marriage, where, in Him, they would be invited to give themselves in love to one another. I could see from the look in their eyes, that very few had ever heard this.
Then it happened, a moment I will never forget. I asked the couples how many prayed together. Only one couple out of the twenty eight raised their hands. This presented an opportunity to "evangelize" even more overtly and directly. I spoke to them about prayer as an invitation into a conversation, a dialogue with a loving Father. I spoke of prayer between spouses as a wonderful source of continuing strength. I shared about the many different ways of praying, drawing from some personal examples from my own marriage and family life.
Then, I said:
" O.K. Now, you will have the opportunity to begin to pray together. It will be like riding a bike. Once you get started, it will become a naturally supernatural experience. Your capacity to pray will grow as you grow together. It will become a deep well at which you will always be able to draw water. The Lord is here, in this place, with us. He is waiting for each of you, together, to come to Him and tell Him that you love Him. He is eager to share His love and give you a tangible experience of the grace that He will make available to you throughout your life together. In a moment, after I lead us in prayer, I am going to ask each of you to turn to your beloved and, together, I want you to pray. Just talk to the Lord. Say a prayer that you both know, sit in silence, do whatever is most comfortable, but pray"
I opened the prayer and then asked them to continue with one another.
As I walked to the back of the room, I found that the representative of Catholic charities was in tears. Soon, I noticed many others in the room were crying as well. Many were smiling. Many with eyes were closed, were holding held hands. There was a wide variety of types of prayer happening, but it was really happening. It was an extraordinary moment!
About five minutes later I returned to the podium. I asked all the couples to stand, led them in a concluding prayer and gave the blessing and dismissal. Though it was well past time to leave, many chose to linger. They were visibly and deeply moved. Couples waited in line to share with me about their experience of praying together. Finally, I was able to leave.
While driving home, I prayed and reflected on the experience. I also determined that I will do all that I can to encourage engaged couples to enter fully into all that the Lord and His Church have for them as they prepare for the marriage Sacrament and their life together. After all, Christian Marriage is a calling and twenty eight couples had heard the Good News!
Deacon Keith Fournier is a Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia who has been married for thirty years. A graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law, He served as a human rights and constitutional lawyer for twenty five years. He currently serves as the Senior Editor for Catholic Online and is a Contributing Editor of Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports. His latest book, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life", from Thomas Nelson Publishers, will be available in book stores at the end of the month
Third Millennium, LLC
http://www.catholic.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-5510
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