Editor's Note: This item by Bishop Conley originally appeared on Catholic News Agency.
Last week, Pope Francis celebrated and witnessed the marriages of 20 Roman couples. The couples and their families attended Mass with the Holy Father, and he received their vows: their holy commitments to God to live the joy and the sacrifice of married love.
Some of the couples were young. Others were older. A few had children, or had lived together in cohabitation, or had received annulments—declarations of nullity—from previous unions. In short, Pope Francis performed the ministry priests perform around the world—he brought couples into a new kind of relationship with one another, and with God, through the holy sacrament of marriage.
I was ordained a priest in 1985. In nearly 30 years of ministry, I’ve celebrated countless weddings. I’ve learned that some couples who come for marriage preparation come eager for a sacramental union, and some come with very little formation in the faith. And all of them come with history—with the histories of their families, their relationships, and their lives in Jesus Christ.
Many of the couples who come to the Church for marriage preparation have never heard or understood the meaning of Christian marriage—of generous, committed, sacrificial love in union with Jesus Christ.
The daunting task of a priest is to ensure that no matter the history or the motivation, those who stand before the altar to profess the vows of marriage are prepared and committed to a vocation of self-sacrificial, holy, and sacramental love—committed to becoming saints together.
A good priest helps couples to embrace the sacrificial call of marriage, and to reject the lies of the world about false relationships—the lies of cohabitation, of contraception, of “trial marriage,” or easy divorce. In marriage preparation, a good priest prepares couples for the cross of marriage by revealing to them the beauty of Christ’s redemptive love from the cross. To prepare couples for marriage, a good priest is charged with teaching the real meaning of love.
I’ve learned in nearly 30 years of ministry, that no priest can adequately prepare a couple for marriage in the months he spends with them before the wedding. Real preparation for marriage begins in the home—in the witness of loving and married parents who embrace the holy vocation of family life.
In Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II said that marriage preparation begins “in early childhood, in that wise family training which leads children to discover themselves as being endowed with a rich and complex psychology and with a particular personality with its own strengths and weaknesses. It is the period when esteem for all authentic human values is instilled, both in interpersonal and in social relationships, with all that this signifies for the formation of character, for the control and right use of one’s inclinations, for the manner of regarding and meeting people of the opposite sex, and so on. Also necessary, especially for Christians, is solid spiritual and catechetical formation that will show that marriage is a true vocation and mission.”
“Believing” said Pope Francis in Lumen Fidei, “means entrusting oneself to a merciful love which always accepts and pardons, which sustains and directs our lives, and which shows its power by its ability to make straight the crooked lines of our history.” Marriage preparation—in fact, preparation for any vocation—begins with being taught to believe in the merciful and trustworthy love of God.
I pray that some of the couples married last week before Pope Francis received that kind of marriage preparation. But, in the throes of widespread family erosion, of ubiquitous contraception, pornography, and divorce—in the throes of the culture of death—I suspect that many of them did not.
Next month, the Holy Father will begin a synod with bishops from around the world, to discuss the family. Much of the preparatory discussion has centered on ministry to the divorced and remarried. This ministry is important. In the Diocese of Lincoln, we’re preparing for a broad initiative to invite divorced Catholics to spiritual healing, and to assist them in working with the diocesan tribunal to resolve their marital situations.
But if we want to prevent divorce to begin with, the Church must seriously address the questions of family life, and of marriage preparation. Divorce is a symptom of the culture of death. Broken families beget more broken families, broken marriages beget more broken marriage.
St. John Paul II said that “the future of humanity passes by way of the family.” If we want to overcome the culture of death, we need generations of families rooted in Jesus Christ, and generations of husbands and wives well-prepared to love with the merciful and powerful love of God. In short, if we want to overcome the culture of death, we must do it by attacking the problem at the root—by allowing Jesus Christ to heal families.
I pray that the upcoming synod will help families to encounter Jesus Christ, and his love for them. I pray that parents—even unmarried or divorced parents—will witness to the sanctity of marriage, and thus prepare their children for a lifetime of discipleship in the vocation to which they are called. And I pray that the synod will encourage pastors around the world to address the question of family life, and marriage preparation as seriously as the Church prepares young men for priesthood, or young men and women for consecrated life.
In many places, and in many families, revolutionary change is needed in preparation for married life. And the Church must find ways to ensure that those who wish to be married can undertake the significance of the vocation they enter—even when this means delaying a wedding. In the midst of broken families, it is the Church who must shoulder much of the responsibility for preparing couples to embrace the cross of married life.