Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Some years ago, I heard John Allen give a talk in which he was asked when the bishops of the Church would institute some particular reform that the questioner found important for ecclesial renewal. Allen responded by reminding the entire audience that it is not the primary ministry of the bishops to “renew” the Church. That the body of bishops gathered in Rome at the Vatican is fundamentally a “conservative” one (for good reason) and for that reason ecclesial renewal is best accomplished through charisms of both lay and ordained Catholics, who renew their parish at the local level. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, and Dorothy Day were not participants in a Synod of bishops sponsored by the Vatican. Yet, their witness to holiness has renewed the Church for countless generations.
While not belittling in the least the gathering of bishops in Rome over the coming weeks, it is important to remember that the renewal of family life will not ultimately be accomplished by the Apostolic Exhortation that follows the Synod. Nor for that matter will the Synod lead to doctrinal development around marriage itself, specifically related to divorce (although reading secular media’s portrayal of this ordinary Synod, either conservative or liberal, you get a sense that this is the purpose of the entire gathering). The orientation of this particular Synod is the pastoral state of family life and marriage in the present not simply Western world. The document preparing for this Synod notes:
Today’s society is characterized by a variety of tendencies. Only a minority of people lives, supports and encourages the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, seeing in it the goodness of God’s creative plan. Marriages, whether religious or not, are decreasing in number, while separation and divorce is on the rise. People are becoming increasingly aware of the dignity of every person — man, woman and child — and the importance of different ethnic groups and minorities, which — already widespread in many societies, not only in the West — are becoming prevalent in many countries.
In various cultures young people are displaying a fear to make definitive commitments, including a commitment concerning a family. In general, an extreme individualism, increasingly becoming widespread, focuses uppermost on gratifying desires which do not lead to total personal fulfilment.
The development of a consumer society has separated sexuality from procreation. This fact is also one of the underlying causes of an increasing decline in the birth rate, which, in some places, is related to poverty or the inability to care for children; and in others, to the unwillingness to accept responsibility and to the idea that children might infringe on freely pursuing personal goals.
The Synod on the Family is concerned about ways of responding in mercy to those who have experienced divorce. But it is at least equally concerned about a crisis of commitment; about the separation of sexuality from self-gift; about the decline of marriage as a whole; and the poverty that makes family life difficult throughout the world. Bishops, though having teaching authority in the Church, can only do so much about the “crisis” of family life in this broader sense. For this reason, what is most needed is renewal from the ground-up.
Thus over the coming weeks, I will be introducing three things that a parish might do, which will in the end be more important for ecclesial renewal than the Synod itself. These three things include a renewal of marriage formation, seeing the family itself as agent of mission, and ministering to those on the margins in particular.
A Renewal of Marriage Formation
Louis-Marie Chauvet notes that one of the consequences of the renewal of the rites of the Second Vatican Council is a clash between an anthropological reason for asking for a sacrament and the liturgical-sacramental reason presumed by the Church. He writes:
Whereas the ritual of baptism, for instance, proclaims that baptism is the sacrament of the faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, numerous people who ask for the sacraments are faraway from this faith that they have not just forgotten everything they learned in catechism but in many cases believe only in a vague deism, when they have not reached a sort of practical atheism. The least one can say is that the ‘system of the practice,’ the faith content which theoretically precedes the practice, is in disharmony, even in contradiction with the ‘practice of the system,’ the request addressed tot he church for the sacraments (The Sacraments: The Word of God At the Mercy of the Body, 175-76).
For example, it is likely that a couple approaches a parish looking to participate in the rite of marriage for reasons that include parents’ who insist that they be married in the Church; because the parish provides a proper aesthetic background for marking this occasion; because they have a vague sense that the Church should be part of this momentous occasion. And on and on. Yet, the Church’s own theology of marriage assumes (or hopes) that the couple comes to the sacrament out of faith–because the couple desires their union to become an image to the world of Christ’s love for the Church.
These are competing narratives, neither of which may be dismissed with ease. Catholicism has continually baptized “anthropological” reasons for receiving a sacrament. Still, it is ultimately dishonest to undervalue the Church’s robust sense of marriage for the sake of welcoming couples (with the vague hope that the rite will have its effect no matter what). Marriage formation requires acknowledging and purifying the anthropological reasons for approaching the sacrament, while also announcing the nuptial kerygma at the heart of the liturgical rite.
For this reason, marriage formation will have a three-fold character.
Social and Cultural Analysis of One’s Own Assumptions Around Marriage
Much is presumed on the part of the marrying couple about the nature of the marriage that they are preparing to undertake. Their own cultural view of marriage may be informed by a nearly impossible standard of personal and social happiness that marriage brings about (“you complete me”). They may imagine that the universe has placed a single person in their lives whom they are destined to marry; and thus if they find themselves attracted to another person, then they must move on. On an individual level, they may not acknowledge how their own view of marriage is shaped (or misshaped) by their parents. They may imagine that their love is the most “unique” love in the world, such that there will be nothing in the world that would rip them apart (there is; it’s called sin).
For this reason, the first thing that marriage formation must do is to invite the couple to consider those assumptions that serve as potential obstacles to the sacrament of marriage. In fact, this cultural analysis should begin not when the couple has come for marriage but should be apart of the kind of formation for marriage that begins in adolescence. And should continue even after the marriage has taken place. Approaches to marriage formation that simply build communication skills around finance, child-rearing, etc. without dealing with these problematic assumptions is akin to building an earthquake proof structure on top of a rotten foundation.
Of course, the way to address these cultural assumptions is not to tell the couple how wrong they are. Rather, marriage formation at whatever stage should invite the couple to come to see marriage anew alongside the Church’s ministers. It must invite the couple or the adolescent into a form of apprenticeship in which well-formed families provide the counter-narrative that is ultimately healing.
In good parishes, this happens organically. When I think about the four years that we spent in Boston as a married couple, I cannot help but think about Peg and Bill LaRoche. During our first years of marriage, the LaRoche’s manifested to us what hospitality looked like; how to love one another in the midst of suffering; how to serve the poor as apart of one’s married life. These years of informal formation were integral to discerning what it meant for us to be infertile. How our infertility could become to the world as gift of love instead of a disease affecting only us. The assumptions that we had about the ease of marriage were transformed by the LaRoche’s who said little. But provided us an icon of sacrament love that was purifying.
Proclaiming the Kerygma
At present, one rarely hears the Church’s proclamation of the Good News of marriage, even in homilies for the Rite of Marriage itself. These homilies tend to devolve into a panegyric of the uniqueness of this couple’s love. That this marriage, above all others, will survive the test of time because this couple shares in common a love of hiking, of singing, of whatever was discerned during the preparation for the sacrament.
Yet, this kind of strategy is to place the focus of the rite of marriage not on God’s activity but upon the couple’s. The Good News of marriage (as in all the sacraments) is that this human relationship, this mundane reality of love, this particular history, is precisely one of the ways that God has chosen to save humanity.
O God, who consecrated the bond of Marriage
by so great a mystery
that in the wedding covenant you foreshadow
the Sacrament of Christ and the Church,
grant, we pray, to these your servants,
that what they receive in faith
they may live out in deeds.
The couple is to present to the world a sacrament of divine love not simply at the moment of their nuptial consecration. Rather, they mediate to the world the love of Christ and the Church in the context of their relationship, of their family life, of their vocation to serve one another.
The family created out of this union, present already before children are born (if they are to be born), is a blessing and responsibility to the Church. It is the entire Church, particularly at the parish level, that is responsible for assisting this couple in fulfilling their vocation. The kerygma of marriage, the proclamation of Good News, means that we are responsible for one another. That we must be in solidarity with all families, especially those on the margins (a topic to be dealt with later).
The kerygma of marriage is thus not an instrument to bludgeon the couple with. Rather, it is a reminder to the whole Church that the sacrament of marriage is a vocation that each of us is responsible for. Do we open new couples into our home? Do we provide a space in our parish that acknowledges the difficulty of this vocation, rather than holding up some idealized 50s vision of what family life consists of?
The Mission of Family Life
Perhaps, the area where family formation is most impoverished around the sacrament of marriage is the dearth of attention paid to the responsibility of “mission” in married life, a theme that I will treat more fully in a later piece. Marriage, like all other sacraments, is not simply for those who receive sacramental grace. Rather, marriage is for the world. As the document preparing for the Synod notes, the mission of the family is one of tenderness:
Tenderness means to give joyfully and, in turn, to stir in another person the joy of feeling loved. Tenderness is expressed in a particular way in looking at another’s limitations in a loving way, especially when they clearly stand out. Dealing with delicacy and respect means attending to wounds and restoring hope in such a way as to revitalize trust in the other. Tenderness in family relationships is the virtue which helps people overcome the everyday conflicts within a person and in relations with others. In this regard, Pope Francis invites everyone to reflect on his words: “Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us, or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today! The patience of God, the closeness of God, the tenderness of God.”(Homily for the Midnight Mass on the Solemnity of Christmas, 24 December 2014).
The virtue of tenderness cultivated among spouses, among siblings is very same virtue that incarnates Christ’s love for the world. A family whose tenderness moves out to the margins, to the unloved, is perhaps the most effective agent of evangelization in the modern world.
I have seen this in my own recent vocation to adopted fatherhood. In spending time with my son, I have learned the virtue of tenderness in a way that I have never known before. I have learned of the smallness of my own heart, how quickly I am annoyed by my son’s cry for attention. I have discovered how I am opened ever more deeply to prayer by watching my son kiss an icon. I am now far more cognizant of the needs of my undergraduate students, fatherhood making me more deeply attuned to the care I must offer to the sorrows and joys that make up their life.
Family life has formed me anew for Christian mission in a way that nothing else could. The pastoral care of all families, for this reason, is not simply one aspect of the Church’s mission. Rather, it is the privileged way of renewing the Church in the vocation toward self-gift, which is at the heart of evangelization. If marriage formation does not begin with this sense of mission as the end goal, then it is impoverished from the beginning.