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The Sacrament
of Marriage

by Mary and James Kenny

Before a candlelit altar, a young groom takes the hand of his bride and vows: "Today I commit my body and spirit to you. I promise to try always to make our relationship grow through openness in communication; through trust in your willingness to work toward our mutual good; through faith in our love for each other even when that love seems hidden for the moment.

"Today I promise you the freedom to grow and develop your talents and capabilities. I promise to rejoice in your personal growth and to work out with you any problems this growth entails.

"Today I pledge to join with you in a union that is meant to be fruitful. I promise to join with you in establishing a household that is open to the needs of others, where we can, so far as we are able, provide a place of warmth and belonging to those who have none."

As this example shows, many Catholic brides and grooms today write their own marriage vows. The vow presented above covers three important areas for union and growth in the Sacrament of Marriage: mutual commitment, personal freedom and fruitfulness. We will explore these elements further as we probe more deeply into the nature of Christian marriage.

What is Christian Marriage?

Traditionally people have thought of marriage as a legal contract. On one level, it is that, but there are some essential differences. Unlike other legal contracts, the marriage contract is based on love. Marriage is not, as the German theologian Father Bernard Haring reminds us, a business contract for the purpose of getting a job done.

Marriage differs from a legal contract in that it is an open-ended contract, "for better, for worse." A legal contract attempts to spell out all possible conditions which might arise in the given situation. A decade or so ago, some couples attempted to write just such contracts for marriage. Most married people laughed. In marriage you make an unconditional promise, not knowing where the promise will lead, what the promise will entail. The unconditional promise is the essence of Christian marriage.

Unlike trial marriage partners who hedge their bets and say "maybe," Christian marriage partners take a great risk and give an unconditional, resounding "yes!"

Who can make such a total, unconditional promise, not knowing what the future will bring? Christians do, and Father James Burtchaell, theologian at the University of Notre Dame, suggests that Christians must therefore be considered a little bit crazy. Who can make such a promise? Only those people who were crazy enough to make another unconditional promise—to commit themselves to Jesus Christ in faith, again not knowing what faith will demand or where faith will lead. For in their relationship with each other, they are likewise daring to trust in the power of Christ's love shared in and through the Christian community.

Formerly Catholics often thought of the Sacrament of Marriage as a one-time blessing given at the wedding. Indeed the sacrament has a special significance on the wedding day itself but the sacrament and its power continue. Today there is more emphasis on the lifelong graces of marriage and on the couple's response to those graces. Sacramental marriage is not a one-time magic shot to see couples through life. Rather it is a lifelong blessing available to those couples who pledge themselves to fidelity, growth and service. As they continually reaffirm their "yes" to each other, they acknowledge, draw upon and witness to the power and presence of Christ in their lives.

The permanent, open-ended unconditional pledge is frequently misunderstood. Isn't the Church old-fashioned? Why insist on permanence? The promise "for better, for worse" is not made by the Church. The promise is made by the bride and groom, who believe in Christ's word and in the kind of love he reveals. The Church witnesses and affirms their promise, and takes it literally—assuming people mean what they say.

What is Christian marriage, then? The Church's understanding of marriage, after reflection on God's word, can be summed up in this way:

Marriage, as a Christian sacrament, is a lifelong and faithful union of a man and a woman mutually committed to sharing their life and love together. Modeled after and strengthened by God's own love for his people, it's an intimate partnership in which each person gives the other freedom to grow and which is directed toward bearing fruit.

Now let us take a closer look at the three important aspects of marriage mentioned earlier and incorporated into this definition.

Mutual Commitment and Growth

The total pledge of Christian marriage is a promise of faithfulness in body and spirit. Faithfulness does not mean a complacent "settling in," a resigned sense that now we are stuck with each other whatever we become. Rather, faithfulness is commitment to grow as a couple in mutual support and affection.

  • Mutual growth demands a concentrated effort to develop communication skills. Good communication is neither a matter of luck nor a natural endowment. It is a skill that can be learned. When partners share goodwill, mutual trust and the desire to communicate, they develop these skills by practicing them in their life together. When communication is difficult or becomes blocked, they might turn to one of the many books on communication such as The Intimate Enemy: How to Fight Fair in Love and Marriage by George Back and Peter Wyderi (Avon paperback books). Partners in a Christian marriage are committed to try throughout life to improve communication.

    Openness is an essential part of communication. Many marriage differences are so trivial that partners are ashamed to face their own pettiness. She plans a busy weekend when he would prefer to sleep late and relax. He leaves clothes, towels and newspapers lying around while she struggles for neatness and order. When faced with such differences, some people flare up in anger, others withdraw into pouting or silence. Neither action promotes understanding. Mutual growth demands the open expression of feelings precisely at the times when openness seems most difficult and withdrawal seems most attractive.

  • Mutual growth demands a delicate balance between assertiveness and surrender. Each partner must learn when to assert his or her own needs and wants and when to yield graciously to the wants and needs of the other. In that delicate balance, perhaps more than anywhere else, lies the secret of living together in lasting love.

  • Mutual growth demands a positive outlook. On the wedding day, the bride or groom is seen as the best possible choice for a lifetime partner. No matter how many differences arise, no matter how many negative qualities appear, people retain good qualities.

    For example, a methodical, highly organized woman chooses a partner whose spontaneity and impulsiveness charm her. Later, when his impulsive decisions frighten and irritate her, she may want to attack him for his decisions. If she is wise, she will recognize that she chose this man and continues to need him precisely because his personality balances her own. In a marriage committed to mutual growth, partners do well to keep their sights firmly focused on the positive and lovable qualities in each other.

  • Mutual growth demands renewal. Marriage enrichment programs recognize a couple's need to get away together, to examine and renew their love. A special date with a spouse, a late dinner together, a weekend getaway for two all renew and deepen the affection which makes marriage not a business contract, but a union based on love.

  • Mutual growth demands trust in the love a couple shares, even when that love seems to wane. All marriages face dry spells. Pressures from the outside world intrude. One becomes preoccupied, the other is away from home a lot. Weariness dulls the homecoming. The energy necessary to renew the marriage is just not available. Sometimes both can face the problem squarely and begin to plan positive alternatives. Sometimes they have only trust, the simple, quiet conviction that they will weather this dry spell and continue to grow because they took each other "for better, for worse," and meant it.

Personal Freedom

Paradoxically, the permanent, unconditional pledge of Christian marriage makes possible a personal freedom unknown in other unions. Christian marriage says two people are committed to each other, not merely under certain circumstances, but totally. They are partners and helpmates.

Sometimes people view marriage as the end of personal growth, something to "settle into" after they have developed their personal talents and achieved their personal goals. On the contrary, in a vital marriage each partner continues to develop individual gifts and to discover new abilities.

Total commitment enables Christian marriage partners to say to each other: "You will grow and change, and so will I. We know that; we expect it. Growth arid change are not things to fear but are part of the adventure that is our life together. If growth leads you to success in paths I cannot follow, I will rejoice in your victory. If change means loss of health or disappointment, I will still be there. If change brings differences between us, we shall work them out. You do not have to be afraid to grow. You do not have to fear what growth will do to our marriage. Before all else, we are committed to working out our life together."

'Directed Toward Fruitfulness'

In Marriage in the Modern World, Father Bernard Haring tells us that marriage is a union based on love "directed toward fruitfulness." In that rich phrase lies sufficient challenge to make a marriage vital for a lifetime. Lovers about to be married often see only themselves in the marriage commitment. Marriage seems to involve just two, the cozy cottage, lovin' all the time.

However, love does not work that way. Love expands outwards. Mature lovers also love the world. That love for the world and everything in it is not merely a good feeling. It is part and parcel of the marriage commitment. Christian married love is necessarily directed outside itself toward others. Married couples live not only for personal growth, not only for mutual growth, but for something which is greater than themselves.

Raising children is the usual and natural expression of fruitfulness in marriage. Too often legalism has clouded our whole attitude toward children. Catholics have to have children, don't they, while non-Catholics do not? The more children you have the better Catholic you are, because, after all, you sacrifice everything else for the sake of children.

The Church has a consistently positive view on the bearing and raising of children because Christian marriage is directed toward fruitfulness. Married love expands to embrace others. Never has the Church set numerical quotas on children, nor has the Church ever claimed parents of large families were already canonized. There can be loving large families, loving small families, and loving childless couples. But never can Christian marriage be loving and at the same time unfruitful.

Father James Burtchaell affirms that it is not the number of children people bear but a generous attitude toward life and sharing and fruitfulness that marks Christian marriage. Outdated as it may sound to some, it is still very Christian to desire children, provided that desire is a generous expression of love made fruitful.

Most couples today will not have all the children biologically possible. In a truly fruitful union, their choice will not reflect relief at being spared this burden, but rather, regret that human finiteness prevents an unlimited expansion of their love.

A Larger Fruitfulness

Children are not the only expression of fruitfulness in Christian marriage. The couple that does not yet have children, the couple that will never have children, and the couple whose children are raised are all still called to fruitfulness. For Christians, marriage leads to family and family leads to household. A household involves more than a single set of parents and children; a household welcomes and shares with others on a temporary or permanent basis.

Formerly people turned to family throughout life to meet their basic needs. There they sought food and shelter and love. There they were born, educated, nursed when ill, cared for when old and buried at life's end. Today institutions have taken over almost all of these functions. Theologian and writer Rosemary Haughton suggests that families need to involve themselves anew in these traditional functions because institutional care is inadequate. Our systems of education, health care, care of the aged, welfare and prisons are not meeting all personal needs.

Family is the one institution that provides its members with a sense of belonging, of feeling related and having a heritage. Today, many people are cut off by distance or family breakdown from their family of origin. They have nowhere to turn for a sense of belonging. Christian couples and families therefore face the tremendous challenge of becoming households: to furnish a place of belongingness for the homeless child, the cast-off elderly person, the pilgrim seeking a way back to the world after a stay in a prison or a mental hospital, the teen who needs a breathing spell away from his or her own family.

For some families fruitfulness will mean permanent commitments to some people over a lifetime. For others fruitfulness will mean making room briefly and occasionally. For still others fruitfulness will mean a home perpetually marked by openness, hospitality and sensitivity to the needs of others.

A commitment to fruitfulness stretches a couple's embrace to many people. Commitment to others makes permanence in marriage not only an ideal but a practical necessity. On the practical level, if marriage involved only two people, and they discovered significant incompatibilities between themselves, their going separate ways might seem sensible. The scars incurred would only disfigure two. But when two people promise themselves to the world beyond their private lives, a network of interdependence is formed. Each needs and is needed by many others. The breakup of a couple is truly regrettable. The breakup of a household, however, is an upheaval which affects the very existence of all the members.

Because their marriage and the household they create are so vital, committed lovers learn to work out individual differences with each other, to weather dry spells, to subordinate their own needs to those of others. They are more than individuals, more than sharers in love. They are partners in an essential common task. In reaching out to others they can create a beautiful oasis and do the job which family does best: establishing a place of belonging, relatedness, stability and love in an unstable, lonely world.

Accepting the Challenge

Faithfulness to a shared relationship, freedom to develop as a person, fruitfulness through giving themselves to others—while these three areas for growth exist throughout marriage, their distribution is frequently uneven. Balancing the various aspects may be a problem. A person, occupied with several preschoolers, a seriously sick child, an aged, helpless parent or a teen who is a living challenge on every front, may wonder what ever happened to self-development.

At other times personal development seems to crowd out mutual affection and growth. He becomes president of the Jaycees. She takes up art classes when the youngest child enters school. He prepares to run a marathon. She becomes absorbed in a part-time job. While their lives are full, they have no time for each other.

The demands of a common task, while satisfying, may stretch both partners and lead more to fatigue and irritation than to deepening love.

Marriage is an open-ended commitment. No one knows where faithfulness to another, freedom for self-development and commitment to the outside world will lead. The one certainty is that both partners will change as time passes. If they accept challenges in all three areas, they may have arguments, they may grow tired and sometimes be overwhelmed, but they will never be bored with marriage or with each other.

Moreover, they will know that the grace of the sacrament, which is the presence of Christ himself, will remain with them and lead their faithful love to greater and greater fullness.

Mary and James Kenny co-author a weekly column, "Family Talk," for NC News Service, and their articles have appeared in Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, Catholic Digest, Marriage and St. Anthony Messenger. They reside with their 12 children in Rensselaer, Indiana.


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