This is the first in a series exploring the theology of the Sacrament of Marriage, the virtues and skills needed to live the reality and aides to help discern if you are marriage ready.
I was recently in Milan for the Seventh World Meeting of Families. What an inspiring meeting! This global meeting is held every three years. It is sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family and a “host” local diocese—in this case, the Archdiocese of Milan.
The meeting is made up of a theological conference, workshops (which take in more pastoral themes), an evening festival with lots of music and Sunday Mass with the Holy Father.
I was there as part of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ delegation. We were led by Bishop George Rassas, auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Bishop Rassas is a member of our bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.
Oh, by the way—the next World Meeting of Families will be held in 2015 right here in the United States in Philadelphia (plan on attending!).
Catholic families, clergy and religious from all over the world were there. Children and youth of all ages swarmed around delegates and bishops. Educators promoted their programs while theologians reflected on the gifts God has given us in marriage and the family. I spoke with mothers from Angola, England, and South Africa. I discussed marriage ministry with bishops from Indonesia, Peru, and Brooklyn! And of course, we had Mass (all one million of us) with the Holy Father (now Pope emeritus). Era certamente una grande festa!
Given the nature of the Congress, all the presentations were focused on some aspect of marriage and the family be it from a biblical, anthropological or sociological perspective. Understandably, everyone I spoke with was involved with marriage ministry in some way or another. Despite the cultural differences, I quickly noticed that the topics of the presentations as well as personal conversations could be grouped into three themes:
1. Catholics need to rediscover and fall in love with Jesus and His Church.
2. Single Catholics need to be encouraged and prepared for the Sacrament of Marriage.
3. Marriages and families need to be supported by everyone (family, friends and government policies).
As you can imagine, this made me think of you!
On the way home from such a rich event the above three themes “marinated” in my head. I wondered … what could I share that might help you in your journey toward marriage? I’ve come up with a simple resolution: I’ve decided to focus my reflections on the above three themes. In order to do that, you’ll find me writing on Catholic spirituality (our relationship with Jesus), the theology of the Sacrament of Marriage, and the virtues and skills needed to live the reality (including why you should learn about Natural Family Planning now!). Hopefully, I’ll also include some discernment aides at the end of each article to help you explore if you are Sacrament of Marriage ready.
Let’s get started!
Since I’m still “pumped up” by the World Meeting of Families, I thought I’d encourage you to read (if you haven’t already) and reflect on the theology of the Sacrament of Marriage.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is always a good place to start because it summarizes Catholic doctrine in easy-to-read sections. It also has all doctrine referenced from authoritative sources such as Sacred Scripture, Apostolic writings in ecumenical councils like Nicaea (325 AD) or the Second Vatican Council (1962-65 AD), and orthodox theologians of the Church such as St. Augustine (354-430 AD), etc. Click here to reference the entire Catechism online.
If all this seems overwhelming to you, take a look at the U. S. bishops’ pastoral letter on marriage. It’s called, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan. Although this document is a long one (about 66 pages), it neatly summarizes Catholic teaching with lots of quotes from the Catechism. Click here for the sections on the Sacrament on Marriage.
If that is still way too much for you, consider digesting it in “chunks.” To help you, I’ll devote a few reflections to Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan (from here, I’ll just call it “The Marriage Pastoral”).
Marriage is a Gift
It’s important to remember that our faith teaches us that marriage is an original gift from God to men and women. So, from the start marriage is “gift.” Let’s consider the nature of gifts to gain a bit of insight on the nature of marriage. One cannot force a gift. Gifts are given freely by the giver. And, here’s a note worthy thought—gifts are often given “by surprise.” Isn’t it memorable when someone sends along a gift that is unexpected? Oh there may be an event, like a birthday or graduation when one would expect a gift, but for the most part, even in settings such as these, there is no law that the gift “must” be given! Gifts are not gifts unless freely given by the gift giver.
There is also one more thing that is important to know about the nature of gifts—they need a receiver, someone needs to accept the gift. For a gift to be fully a gift—in all its happy giftedness—there has to be someone who actually accepts the gift. There is a lovely reciprocity between the freedom of the giver who is excited to give the gift and the receiver who gratefully accepts the gift. And, there is nothing sadder than an unopened gift.
It is important to keep the idea of the nature of gift in mind when we turn to our faith. We all know that the Lord God is the ultimate gift giver! He is generous beyond our wildest imagination. That’s why the Psalmists can sing, “His mercy endures forever!”(Ps 136). Our Christian faith tells us that all is gift. God has literally given us an embarrassment of gifts—human life made in His image, the created world, the call to participate in His love through Jesus our Savior, the receiving of the Holy Spirit, the “indwelling of the Trinity” in our very lives—all is gift!
Within creation, God set aside one gift that would be unique—marriage. Marriage is both a natural and a supernatural gift from God. It is the reality where the opposite sexes come together in the most intimate of unions—the one flesh union. In marriage the potential to bring new life into the world can be both celebrated and protected. In my next post I will explain marriage as a natural and supernatural gift from God.
Theresa Notare, PhD, is the Assistant Director for the Natural Family Planning Program, Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC.
Aides for Discernment: “Are you marriage Ready?”
Questions to ask yourself as you discern whether you are marriage ready can include the following:
What do I think of gifts? (“Gifts” can be items, time shared with a person, or help of some kind.)
Do I like gifts?
Do I place “requirements” on gifts?
Do I not like gifts? If so, why?
How do I react when a gift is given to me?
Do I say “thank you” and mean it? Do I have a grateful heart?
What do I do when I get gifts that I don’t want (including help from some people when doing a challenging task)? Can I see the generosity in their gift giving to me?
How could my approach to gift giving and receiving predict how I am in relationships?