Understanding the Meaning of Marriage

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Column by Andre McCarville

Marriage. What does it mean? Why is it important? Is it outdated? Do we really need to have marriage anymore?

Questions like these are flying around contemporary society. Many are wondering what the purpose of marriage is, and why the Church seems to think it is so important. But the reality is that the Church does think marriage is important. Critically important. It is why we honor married couples at the outdoor Mass in Loretto, and we hold an Anniversary Mass in both Altoona and Johnstown. But what is it about marriage that is so pivotally important?

To understand its importance, first we need to understand what it is. What is marriage? It is more than just the commitment of two people to each other, although that is certainly an important part. Love between the spouses is critically important, but still it is not the entirety of the marriage covenant. To help us understand the meaning of marriage, we need to look at what questions the Church asks of a couple as they are preparing for it. In summary, the questions are:

“Have you come here freely?” 

What do we mean by freedom? Freedom isn’t doing whatever you feel like. I may want to be a doctor, but to become a doctor I have to study. I may not feel like studying. I may feel like binge watching something on Netflix. If I do what I feel like, I won’t become a doctor because I won’t learn the material and I’ll fail my exams. In that sense, what I feel like doing is controlling me and taking away my freedom. It is becoming a form of slavery for me. Real freedom is following the deepest yearnings of our hearts which are given to us by God. These yearnings are for meaning and purpose in life, and for the highest virtues which include loving God and loving others. Yet these yearnings are not necessarily what we feel like doing. If we only do what we feel like doing, we are in slavery to sin.
So back to the question: Do you feel forced into marriage? Are you doing this because others expect this of you or that society feels you need to do this? If you are not marrying freely, then you are not giving yourself in love. Just as God created us with free will so that we could freely love Him in return for His love for us, we also are called to freely give ourselves to our spouses. If it is not a gift but a mechanistic response, or a decision made out of fear or necessity, it has missed the point of marriage.

“Are you prepared to love and honor this person?” 

This word “prepared” is important. It implies that you have taken time to learn how to be a good spouse, and that you are committed to doing so. You are not just going off of your feelings or emotions. You can be very excited about getting married, but not be prepared for it. Dr. Ted Sri has an interesting analogy: If you are excited about being a pilot, that doesn’t mean we should get in a plane with you at the cockpit. It isn’t until you are successfully prepared that we should trust you at the controls. The same is true for marriage. The feelings of excitement and love can fade as conflicts and difficulty arise. If you are prepared to love and honor the other person, you will have a better grasp of how to deal with the hard times than if your relationship is based solely on emotion. Emotions come and go, whereas preparation and commitment can lead to something more enduring.

“Will you accept children lovingly from God?” 

I knew a family with five children. When they celebrated their Anniversary, they didn’t do it by going out on a date. They actually got a birthday cake and celebrated with their children. Why? Because they considered their Anniversary the birthday of their family. Every year the children knew that they all were there together because their parents said, “I do” so many years ago on that date.

Marriage is the start of your family. Even if you do not have children, you and your spouse have begun a new family. If God does bless your marriage with children, your family is where they are going to find their security and their sense of self. Additionally, it will be the central place their faith will be taught and nourished. When we consider how important parents are in the lives of their children, and how much good a strong family can do, we realize that what we do with marriage is of immense significance for the future. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the future of marriages and families will be the greatest influence in the course of human history.

The family is the domestic Church. What this means is that if you are married, your spirituality needs to reflect that dynamic. You are no longer just responsible for yourself, but rather for the spiritual life of your spouse and your children. Each family is meant to articulate the faith to their children, and raise them in the faith. A good start to this is frequent participation in the Sacraments such as Mass and Confession, as well as praying before meals and bedtime. But this is only a start. We should read the Scriptures as a family. When someone is sick or injured we should pray as a family. When we have a difficult decision to make, our family should know that the first thing we do about it is pray.  We should have regular devotions, daily if possible, that we do as a family. Our faith life should then encourage us to acts of charity, which we should try to do as a family whenever possible. Finally, as Mary-Rose Verret says, a Catholic family should act as a missionary outpost of the Church. What she means by this is that in every Catholic family, we should see the love of Christ reaching out to a world in desperate need of the Good News. It should not just be coming from the church building, or fall solely on the priest.

The family is also one of the greatest images of God. In the Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II explained how God’s love for his people is so greatly mirrored in the love of husband for a wife, as outlined in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5. That love isn’t static. It necessarily bears fruit. Strong families are one of the clearest reflections of the love of God in the world.

Beyond the Church, the family is also the cornerstone of a strong society. The government cares about marriage specifically because strong families will make a strong country. According to ChildTrends, children who are raised in low-conflict homes with both of their biological parents statistically tend to do better than children who are not. Additionally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 8.4% of married couples with children are in poverty, while 12% of single fathers and 25% of single mothers are. If we want a strong, secure, well-adjusted nation, we need strong families.

If families are so important, how do we nurture strong families in our churches? There are a number of ways, and if married, we should start with ourselves before we turn outward. Married couples can model good families. Many people have not seen a lot of examples of solid, happy, faith-filled families. Working every day to be a better husband or wife, a better father or mother, is essential. Don’t just take for granted that you are already doing all you can. When you have an opportunity, read books about it or talk to couples you know who exemplify a good marriage. The Family Life Office has many good books to borrow on these subjects. This way the world can see the beauty of family life lived out day to day.

Pray as a family. You can do this as a daily one-minute devotion or a longer period once a week. You can pray the Rosary together, or talk about the Sunday readings before going to Mass. You could get a Children’s Bible or a book on the Saints to read together as a family. Little acts like these go a long way to helping your family develop their own spirituality.
Go on dates with your spouse. You really need to go on a date with your spouse once a month. You don’t need to go out to eat every time, and movies actually aren’t the best dates. Instead you could have a picnic or go for coffee. You could even go sit in the basement and talk while your kids are asleep upstairs. The best dates are the ones where you can sit and talk with your spouse, and look them in the eye. Often we stop looking at each other in marriage, which is a major problem. Make certain you are looking at and speaking with your spouse about things that matter to them, and not just tasks you would like to get done. This allows you to keep your relationship based on concern for the other person, and not based on what is expedient.

Don’t try to win every argument with your spouse. Let them win sometimes and let your own ego or preference go. This is a form of loving your spouse. Men in particular are called to “Love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.” (Eph 5:25) Christ was willing to die for His bride. Men need to be willing to do the same, physically, mentally and emotionally. When we let go of the little things we can focus on what really matters in a relationship.

Spend 10 minutes a day of one-on-one time with each of your children. Let them pick the activity, within reason. This will give your child the attention they need to thrive, and it will provide countless memories for you to treasure.

If you are not using Natural Family Planning (NFP), please consider taking another look at it. NFP is NOT the Rhythm Method. Rather, Natural Family Planning is a beautiful way of understanding and working with the human body’s physiological processes to space births, or to help get pregnant. It is completely natural, and once you learn how it works, it is free to use for the rest of your life! It also allows everyone (men and women), a better understanding of how the human body works and what they are going through at different times. NFP can foster communication and may even help bonding to happen on a deeper level.

There are some things we can do to help other marriages as well:
Help people, families in particular, to connect. When they say, “It takes a village to raise a child,” it doesn’t mean that everyone and their brother gets to have a say in how you raise your children. It means that we need real community and solid support structures to help us through the struggles of family life. Many people have moved away from their own parents and siblings to a new area, and lack the support that a family could normally give. Additionally, when a couple is having marital trouble, they need friends to turn to. As Church, let’s help to be that support for one another. Watch each other’s kids so that parents can get things done around the house. Provide a listening ear when a friend is struggling.

When a friend comes to you and they are having difficulty in their marriage, do not suggest to them to get a divorce. The Church certainly does not want anyone to be trapped in an abusive situation – whether physical, verbal or psychological. But when it is not a case of abuse, often the spouses are struggling to keep their marriage together and looking for support. They may not have been considering divorce yet, and just need help. When someone hears their problems and suggests divorce, it often is a blow to them, and leaves them feeling more helpless. If you know a couple that is struggling, the best thing to do is to listen to them. Let them share their struggles with you. A compassionate ear allows a
person to get out what they’re feeling and to see the situation from a new perspective. And sometimes an outsider can see what an insider cannot. Sometimes you will see that one spouse is acting callously or selfishly. You may need to call them out on it so they are able to see it clearly, but always do so with compassion and gentleness. If the couple needs more help than a listening ear can give, there are great programs for married couples who are going through difficult times. Retrovaille and Marriage Encounter are two such programs. Encourage them to attend one of these or seek the help of a counselor. The hard times will come for all married couples. As far as possible, let’s try to encourage each other through them.

Marriage is a beautiful gift of God, and as Church we need to celebrate and promote it. We will be doing this in the near future at the Anniversary Masses to be held in Altoona and Johnstown. These are Masses celebrating those who have been married for 1, 5, 10, 25, 40, 50, or 60+ years. The Anniversary Mass will be celebrated in Altoona on Sunday, September 15 at 2:00pm at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, and in Johnstown on Sunday, September 22 at 2:00pm at St. John Gualbert Cathedral. How else can you celebrate the gift of marriage in your own life?

Andre McCarville is the Director of Family Life and Missions for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.