It came up again. It was during the Liturgy and Spirituality class that the discussion veered into the hot topic of why separations and annulments are so rampant in the Catholic Church. Fr McManus, our erudite professor was rather insistent that it was two sacraments that have seen great fallout in recent times. They are, in his opinion, the sacraments of Reconciliation and Matrimony.
My hand was sprung into action and shot up into the air to give my 2 Singapore cents worth of comment to this statement. I felt that being the only ordained priest in the class, I had the experience behind me, to not only give an alternate opinion, but also to back it up my claims with concrete examples. When I was given the nod to contribute, I had this to say: “Although the two sacraments you mentioned have experienced much negativity and a poor reception, one of the things that have caused this is due to the misunderstanding of what the Sacrament of Confirmation truly is. It has been the greatest challenge of catechists and priests to get that part of life and faith formation right in order to prevent the later fallout which is almost bound to be seen in the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Matrimony.” The professor did not seem to be surprised.
It was part of the course’s aim to uncover the spirituality behind each of the Sacraments of the Church celebrated in the Church’s rich Liturgical tradition, which ultimately serves to give each person encountering Christ in that sacrament to a richer and deeper mystical spiritual life. This has always been the purpose of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, where two baptized Catholics, entering into a spousal union, become the means in and through whom each party becomes lifted to a higher level of union in Christ with the Holy Trinity. In short, it is not just the notion of a life that is shared between Peter and Mary that is celebrated in Holy Matrimony. Whilst this may be good and wonderful on the basic human level, the Church’s desire and aim is that in this sacred union, Peter and Mary become, as it were, the conduits through which each one lives their own baptismal life to the greatest level possible so that each one’s life becomes a living testimony of great holy union with God. And they will do this when each one in the sacramental marriage become as loving as Christ, as forgiving as Christ, as selfless as Christ, and as single-minded in giving his or her entire self to the other in imitation of Christ who had given his entire self to the Father out of love, because the Father, as John 3:16 tells, had loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish by may have eternal life.
Admittedly, this does seem to be the “holy Grail” of married life, and would appear to be the Quixotic aim which for many many couples, for the most part may just remain an ‘impossible dream.’ But perhaps it is because most couples do not have the notion of just how utterly powerful and life-giving the persons of the Holy Trinity are for each other and for the existence of the entire universe that most have only a vague idea of what a true marriage is.
What we get exposed to forms our ideas. I don’t think that this statement can be refuted or dismissed as a generalization. What do most couples going into marriage get exposed to? Nowadays, these “exposures” would be the idea that a marriage is a wedding, and that it costs a lot to get married. The dress has got some prime importance, and that the wedding day is the “bride’s day”, so she is at liberty to do just about anything she wants, including getting a standing ovation as she walks up the church’s aisle, exposing half her body to all and sundry in God’s house. No one really pays much attention to the scripture readings at the Mass, and everyone is waiting for the supposed ‘big moment’ of the kiss (which is something that is non-existent in the rubrics of the liturgy of the Rite of Marriage but which many priests turn a blind eye to), and from that moment on, just about everyone in the church can’t wait for the Liturgy of the Eucharist to be over so that they can get to the next more important part of the wedding – the photographs and the eating and partying.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not a party pooper and I do think that there is a time for partying. But if scant attention is paid by couples as to what a true marriage is constituted from, and whose image and likeness the marriage ‘body’ is called to imitate and draw its graces and spiritual energies on, it’s no wonder that so many marriages are going downhill from the wedding day on.
There is really very little theology that people want to appreciate in marriage, and that is a shame, because it is when there is a proper and healthy understanding of where the marriage theology is drawn from, and where it is helping couples to aim towards, most couples will just coast along in their married life, and just hope that they can cope with the pains and struggles that will inevitably come about when married life is lived out.
Our professor was lamenting that when he sees couples coming to him for marriage, there is just so much spiritual ‘slack’ that he needs to pull up just to get the couples to meet the Church at where Mother Church wants to meet them at the spiritual level when they get married. Many Catholics are not even confirmed in their faith, and to ask for a Sacramental Marriage at that point does seem to show not only a deficient appreciation of the faith, but also a sad understanding of what a sacrament does to a person’s life.
Am I convinced that there is a very great problem that the Church is facing when dealing with couples wanting to get married? Without a doubt. I am also convinced that one of the ways that this can be addressed is to form our youth well, but to be fair to them, the way that many of them have been educated and formed in life, parents and by their school systems often stymie the formation of hearts and minds that good catechesis tries to undertake. If parents would supplement what catechesis does at home with constant and consistent discussion and reflection on the part that God plays as a central role of life, it will go a long way in getting youth to centre their lives in a more grounded way.