Keys to a good Christian marriage

Prayer, openness to life, forgiveness are essential in order to love as Christ loves

Archbishop John Nienstedt presents a plaque to Richard and Georgianna Knapp of St. John the Baptist in Excelsior following a Mass celebrating Archdiocesan Marriage Day at the Cathedral of St. Paul June 11. The Knapps were honored for being the longest-married couple in attendance. They celebrated their 70th anniversary May 1. Three other couples at the Mass also are celebrating 70th anniversaries this year: Fran and Jim Linstroth (June 6) of Lumen Christi in St. Paul, Clarence and Lorraine Bender (July 17) of Maternity of the Blessed Virgin in St. Paul, and Doug and Marion Bengson (Oct. 11) of St. John the Baptist in New Brighton. The archdiocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Life estimates there were 600 people at the Mass, which also recognized couples celebrating 25, 50 and more than 50 years of marriage, and included renewal of vows and a reception afterward. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

The following is the homily given by Archbishop John Nienstedt on June 11 at the Cathedral of St. Paul to mark the archdiocese’s celebration of World Marriage Day.

“This is the day the Lord has made,
let us rejoice and be glad!
This is the day the Lord has made,
let us rejoice and be glad!”

What a great day this is, a day to celebrate and to affirm the beautiful vocation of marriage, a calling given by God in and through the church, the beloved bride of Christ!

To the many gathered here today to celebrate this vocation, I thank you. Now more than ever, we need to proclaim with full voice the inviolable dignity of this sacrament, a sacrament upon which so much depends. Thank you for your presence.

And to those celebrating anniversaries today, I thank you in a special way. Your witness and loving perseverance is a powerful sign of hope in our world. You have proclaimed by your commitment to the church and to one another — “It can be done. Promises can be kept. Love can triumph over tragedy and trial.”

For that message of faith, hope and love, I thank you on behalf of the church.

Challenging age

It is no secret that we live in an age of willfulness and relativity. The source of these spirits, spirits that drive so much of our public discourse and public policy, is multifaceted. But at their foundation, these two attitudes — “I will have what I want when I want it,” and “Feelings are what matter, not facts” — flow from human sinfulness.

All sin is a great “no” to the will of God, given to us by both the natural law and the authoritative teachings of the church. God’s law imposes limits upon us all, and forces us to confront realities that do not always console or comfort.

One such law is the law of love, a law known in a certain though obscure way through human experience, but clarified and strengthened through revelation. To love another, that is, to choose to link the good of another with one’s own, is a deep hunger within the human heart, as is the desire to be chosen by another, to be recognized as worthy of another’s attention and concern.

All of us experience this desire in one way or another. We can fight it, we can deny it, but in the end, we long to be loved and to be accepted. The natural consequences of an upbringing without such love is obvious — poverty, violence, depression and an inability to manage the stresses of the world. But even in the absence of faith, a family in which authentic love is found and lived is a fertile ground for human maturity and virtue.

The gift of revelation sheds light upon this mystery of love. We are, after all, made by Love for love. And so our tendency to love, or, if you will, our hardwiring for love, is no accident of evolution, but rather the deliberate foundation of our existence. We are made by a God who is a communion of persons united in love, a love which is this God’s own divine life. It is impossible to properly understand the mystery of human existence without reference to this source.

Sign of unity

All of the diverse forms of love that we experience in this life — the love of father for his son, the love of a mother for her daughter, the love of a child for her parent, the love of a man for a woman and a woman for a man — are echoes and manifestations of the mystery of love that is God.

God has chosen one such kind of love, the romantic love of husband and wife, to be a fitting image or symbol of Christ’s union with his church. Like the love of Jesus for the church, the love of a Christian spouse is meant to endure hardship and difficulty, but also to share triumph and joy.

It is impossible to understand the mystery of Christ without the church. Christ is now found in, and with and through his church. So, too, by means of their vows and the consummation of that choice on their wedding night, husband and wife are no longer two, but one flesh, a living sign of the unity of Christ and his church.

Naturally, Christian spouses do not always live up to this high calling, this vocation to be a living image of the love between Jesus and his church, anymore than the priest or religious always live up to their own profound calling.

Truly, we all hold the mystery of love in earthen vessels, regardless of our particular vocation. But let this day of rejoicing be a day to recommit yourself to being the image of Christ’s love you are called to be. It is never too late to begin again, or to strive for that ideal that has been given.

Allow me to be so bold as to offer the married couples in our midst today some practical points as to how this vocation to be a living image of Christ and his church might be strengthened and better embraced. I am aware that some here today have been married longer than I have been a priest. All the same, allow me to offer a few brief words of wisdom even to these cherished elders.

The first and most fundamental point is the priority of prayer in the Christian vocation of marriage.

Prayer is essential

While all Christians must be people of prayer, a Christian spouse learns how to love [a] husband or wife from his or her time with God in private prayer. Without prayer, without the sacramental life of the church, marriage quickly becomes merely a human project, an effort of the will.

My brothers and sisters, make time for prayer, no matter what it costs you, in terms of time or effort. Intimacy with God will lead to the capacity for intimacy with your spouse. Learn from Christ how to love as he loves, unconditionally, profoundly, even unto death.

A second point is the importance of embracing the church’s teaching on human sexuality and marriage, totally and unreservedly.

Deliberate and willful contraception has no place in Christian marriage, which is a mystery meant to be a living sign of Christ’s complete openness to the will of the Father.

While the church is absolutely clear that there are, in fact, moments in a couple’s life when the postponement of children is morally acceptable, the fact remains that children must always be recognized and welcomed as the gift that they are, and not simply as ornaments in life, to be welcomed simply whenever I deem it appropriate or acceptable.

Openness to life, as well as a commitment to enjoy the gift of sexuality in a way that is always open to new life, is meant to be a defining feature of marriage, and without it, marriage quickly becomes solely about me and my wants, rather than that which God wants or even what my spouse wants.

Hung Pham, left, and wife Helen renew their wedding vows during Archdiocesan Marriage Day at the Cathedral of St. Paul June 11. They belong to St. Adalbert in St. Paul and have been married 15 years. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Forgiveness is key

Finally, the gift of forgiveness must be given and received liberally within Christian marriage.

To hold on to past hurts is to condemn oneself to half a life, a life of shadows. Christ does not desire such a life for us — he has come so that we might have life, and have it to the full.

Of course, to forgive does not always mean to forget. In the case of grave moral failures, to forget is not often possible. Even less does it mean the absence of consequences or the evaporation of feelings of anger or disappointment at the faults of another.

But to forgive is a choice: It is to choose to pray for the other.  It is to let go of “getting even.” It is to admit willingly and openly the other as human and to embrace one’s own part in the failures of the other. To forgive is a great act of love. And, for the Christian, it is a response to Christ’s commandment.

My dear brothers and sisters, may God the Father continue to bless your marriages and the families you have raised and cherished. May Jesus Christ teach you how to love as he loves his beloved bride the church. And may the Holy Spirit, who can make all things new, animate and direct your hearts so that you may work together for the salvation of all and the sanctification of the world.

“This is the day the Lord has made,
let us rejoice and be glad!
This is the day the Lord has made,
let us rejoice and be glad!”

Category: Commentary, Featured, Spotlight