A Marriage homily

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On his death in April 2005 I commented in a homily that Pope John Paul II was the pope of my priesthood. His leadership, his teaching, his vision for the Church, shaped my priestly ministry. He was my guide, my father in faith, my inspiration. I owe him an enormous debt.

I don’t think I am alone in this appreciation of the influence on St John Paul II during the twenty five years of his pontificate. People speak of the “JPII generation” of young Catholics. He gave them a vision of Catholic life that inspired them. His legacy lives on in the hearts and lives of Catholics shaped by his extraordinary sense of what it means to be Catholic in the present age.

His vast body of teaching is still be mined today and his contribution to the understanding of marriage and family is one of his lasting legacies.

In his encyclical on the family in the modern world, Familiaris Consortio, he said at the beginning of this document,

Willed by God in the very act of creation, marriage and the family are interiorly ordained to fulfilment in Christ and have need of His graces in order to be healed from the wounds of sin and restored to their "beginning," that is, to full understanding and the full realization of God's plan.

Packed into these words is the essence of the Catholic understanding of marriage. An understanding wonderfully expressed by St John Paul II. Today I would like to unpack this sentence.

Firstly he says that marriage was “willed by God” as He created humanity. As God created human beings he did so with marriage in mind. We could say that we are designed for marriage. The way in which human male and female were created provided the complementarity which ensured a mutual attraction and a profound and lasting union bringing about a completion of each individual. It was never good for man to be alone.

After the creation of man and woman God saw what he had made “and it was very good”. Marriage is very good. God has designed us for marriage that it might be a pathway for human happiness. Yes, there are times of darkness, difficulty and pain, but living the reality of marriage leads to a happiness that is quiet and deep and real. There is an essential inner peace and joy experienced by a couple who have entered deeply into God’s plan. God wants our happiness. He delights in what marriage can offer a couple. Yes there will be many trials but these do not disturb the inner happiness.

His statement that marriage and family are “interiorly ordained to fulfilment in Christ” is a profound insight into the sacramentality of marriage. Marriage is far more than just a human institution, it is a transcendent reality and is appropriately celebrated as a Sacrament. For a couple on their wedding day it is an encounter with Christ who transforms their human love to new levels. The Pope is saying that the couple is caught up in the mystery of Christ. Of course, this is Pauline teaching where he speaks of the mystery of marriage being a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the Church. This is heady stuff, but let us for a moment hear what St Paul meant.

St Paul saw his life as a Christian in a most radical way. He would say that for him to live is Christ. A Christian couple, knowing this truth and embracing its high aspiration, can say that their marriage union is lived in Christ. Christ is in the midst of their life together. They know he is there. They have no doubt. He is their companion on their journey together. He is always ready to guide and assist them as their path together is lived out. He is never far away. He comes and acts when they ask him. He is drawing them up in him as much as they allow.

St John Paul then comments that a couple will have need of his graces “to be healed of the wounds of sin”. Every one of us is a sinner, and it is always very good to acknowledge this. We all suffer the wounds of sin. But there is a grace that heals. This is the sacramental grace offered to every couple who come before the altar. Christian married life is graced by the Sacrament of Matrimony. Grace, amazing grace, flows in their marriage to refresh, restore, renew.

The Christian is not one who is sinless, but one who knows the mercy of God experienced time and time again. A Christian couple will know that there is a grace operating in their lives that constantly renews their love, their joy, their peace. There is another presence, a healing presence. They know it, they taste it. It is mysterious, elusive but real. This is the very nature of grace.

As Christians we come to know that we do not have to depend on ourselves. We Christians learn to depend on God whose love for us is beyond our imagination. And love is bestowed over and over again.

The pope says that this redeeming grace takes the couple back to the “beginning”. The beginning that the Pope is speaking of is the original plan of God for human life. We are being restored to how it was meant to be, how God has always wanted it to be. Now this restoration will not become a permanent reality, but we will taste glimpses. We will know what God did want human life to be before the Fall.

Pope St John Paul II could see what marriage was because he could see the intention of the Creator. He could see the beauty of the plan of God and know also that it was possible to be achieved. He wanted to hold forth a marvellous vision that couples might embrace it, live it and discover that it was not simply a dream.

He understood the significance of the fact that human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. We have an individual worth and dignity often beyond what we believe of ourselves. We have a capacity to be drawn beyond ourselves. 

A Christian couple are drawn by their faith to come before God as they enter married life. They have discovered each other and have come to know a deep and beautiful experience of love for each other. They dedicate themselves to each other in love for the rest of your lives. And they do this before God’s altar. God rejoices in them and enters their lives in the grace of marriage and wants to create something new in them and for them.

We pray that God bless them abundantly and bring them in happiness to old age together.

Archbishop Julian Porteous