My dear faithful,
I was at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Cork last weekend and within the space of 24 hours two members of the faithful asked me to preach a sermon that would cheer them up, lift their hearts and give them encouragement. This set me thinking. It’s true, many – perhaps the majority - of the sermons we priests preach are about sins in faith and morals: all very negative and gloomy. But then again, perhaps it has to be this way for, to direct someone along the right path, it is often necessary to stop a soul going down the wrong path. If a stranger asks for directions, it is clearer to say, “See the pub on the corner? Don’t take that left; carry on to the next” than to describe the correct path by landmarks that you can’t see so clearly.
Or another simile: if you are speeding along a road, you never see big signs with flashing lights saying “Smooth Road Ahead” or “Straight Road, Nice Surface, No Obstacles”; you only see the big signs and flashing lights when there is danger. I suppose, that’s why so many sermons are about errors and sins, or at least why it seems that way.
In this edition of Ite Missa Est, I do not wish to be negative and gloomy, but I do wish to point out a massive hole in the road – one that poses a significant danger to supernatural life and earthly felicity, and one that more and more of our faithful are falling into. The hole, as you can guess from the title, is that of mixed marriage. For the purpose of this editorial, in order to avoid negative gloominess, therefore, I will dwell not on the deficiencies and prohibitions of mixed marriages (you can read about these in the following article), but on the glories of an unmixed marriage. These glories are to be found in their clearest exposition in the Roman Catchism more commonly known as the Catechism of the Council of Trent which is quoted as italisised text below.
Different names for marriage
First of all, we should look at our terms.
Marriage is synonymous with matrimony which is derived from the fact that the principal object which a female should propose to herself in marriage is to become a mother; or from the fact that to a mother it belongs to conceive, bring forth and train her offspring.
It is also called wedlock (conjugium) from joining together, because a lawful wife is united to her husband, as it were, by a common yoke.
It is called nuptials, because, as St. Ambrose observes, the bride veiled her face through modesty - a custom which would also seem to imply that she was to be subject and obedient to her husband.
All these names bring out something of the finality, the essence and the relationship within marriage.
Mixed marriages in the strict sense are those between a Catholic and a baptised non-Catholic. More broadly - and for the purposes of this editorial - they include marriages between a Catholic and an unbaptised non-Catholic.
Now, before elucidating the glories of the sacrament of an unmixed Christian marriage, it is necessary to distinguish between marriage in the order of nature and marriage as a sacrament.
Marriage as a natural union
Most theologians define marriage in the natural order as The conjugal union of man and woman, contracted between two qualified persons, which obliges them to live together throughout life.
Its essence is the particular contractual obligation and tie between a man and a woman, and its making is in the mutual, external and actual consent of the spouses on their wedding day. Its purpose, as instituted by God, is the propagation of the human race; its purpose, as manifest in the natural inclinations of man, is companionship of the opposite sex, mutual support, desire for children and a remedy for concupiscence.
Marriage as a sacrament
Here is a real gem from the Roman Catechism:
Matrimony is far superior in its sacramental aspect and aims at an incomparably higher end. For as marriage, as a natural union, was instituted from the beginning to propagate the human race; so was the sacramental dignity subsequently conferred upon it in order that a people might be begotten and brought up for the service and worship of the true God and of Christ our Saviour.
Thus, when Christ our Lord wished to give a sign of the intimate union that exists between Him and His Church and of His immense love for us, He chose especially the sacred union of man and wife. That this sign was a most appropriate one will readily appear from the fact that of all human relations there is none that binds so closely as the marriage-tie, and from the fact that husband and wife are bound to one another by the bonds of the greatest affection and love. Hence it is that Holy Writ so frequently represents to us the divine union of Christ and the Church under the figure of marriage.
So, in making marriage a sacrament, the union between husband and wife is made into an outward sign of inward grace by which the spouses are made to share more intensely in the Divine Life. They then live in their state of sacramental marriage so as to become instruments in the Divine Plan to people heaven with souls.
What is more, the sacrament of marriage is not only an outward sign of inward grace; it is also, by its bond of affection and love, an outward sign of the union of Christ with His Church – it is a sign of that union for which we were made. We could even say that is the sign of the Beatific Vision – a sign of heaven!
“Steady on!” you might say. “In reality, married life bears little resemblance to heaven!” This is true in varying degrees for all marriages, but not because of a deficiency of the graces that come with a sacramental marriage, but only because of the obstacles that husbands and wives place in their way.
The Triple Blessing of Sacramental Marriage
When a husband and wife share the theological virtues, that is, when they believe what the Church teaches about the duties and the ends of marriage, when they have full confidence in the graces of the sacrament, and when they love each other with a supernatural love, then the special graces of the sacrament have their full effect and their marriage will manifest its triple blessing.
The first blessing, then, is a family, that is to say, children born of a true and lawful wife. So highly did the Apostle esteem this blessing that he says: ‘The woman shall be saved by bearing children.’ These words are to be understood not only of bearing children, but also of bringing them up and training them to the practice of piety; for the Apostle immediately subjoins: ‘If she continue in faith.’
The second advantage of marriage is faith, not indeed that virtue which we receive in Baptism; but the fidelity which binds wife to husband and husband to wife in such a way that they mutually deliver to each other power over their bodies, promising at the same time never to violate the holy bond of Matrimony.
The third advantage is called the Sacrament, that is to say, the indissoluble bond of marriage. As the Apostle has it: The Lord commanded that the wife depart not from the husband, and if she depart, that she remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband; and let not the husband put away his wife. And truly, if marriage as a Sacrament represents the union of Christ with His Church, it also necessarily follows that just as Christ never separates Himself from His Church, so in like manner the wife can never be separated from her husband in so far as regards the marriage-tie.
But, of course, these blessings are enjoyed in proportion to the practice of the theological virtues within marriage.
Mixed marriage blessings?
Now, while a sacramental marriage between a Catholic and a baptised non-Catholic is possible (with a dispensation), the experience of its blessings will necessarily be limited by the fact that only one spouse exercises the theological virtues.
And in a non-sacramental mixed marriage, without the graces of the sacrament available even to the Catholic party (n.b. whether there can be the sacrament for one spouse and not the other is disputed), the blessings – while also possible – are even less likely to be felt as such. All of this is borne out by the admonitions and examples of the Old Testament, the teaching of the popes, the law of the Church, the sorrowful witness of every priest and the statistics of Catholic practice.
But, so as not to end on a gloomy note, for all those who find themselves in a mixed marriage, you must pray to St. Nonna of Nazianus, the mother of St. Gregory of Nazianus, that she may procure the grace of conversion for your spouse.
And for all those who are desirous of entering the state of holy matrimony, confide yourselves to St. Joseph whose prayers for a good and holy spouse brought him the Blessed Virgin Mary! It goes without saying that you shouldn't marry if St. Joseph would disapprove of your choice.
In Jesu et Maria,
Rev. Robert Brucciani