Deo gratias, there is always a steady stream of couples arriving at the Oratory to make enquiries about marriage preparation. London universities and the employment provided by local shops and hospitals ensure that these enquirers come from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds. However, one factor that many do seem to have in common is that, by the time they have decided to be married, they are already living together. It would serve no purpose to be seen to become hot under the clerical collar about this. That which according to the Gospel is clearly gravely sinful has, in the view of most of our contemporaries (including many of those who have been through the Catholic school system), become the norm.
The priest has the responsibility of informing such a couple that his role is to help them to prepare as thoroughly as possible for the wondrous blessings that God will rain down on them in the Sacrament of Matrimony. He probably needs to explain from scratch the nature of a Sacrament – how each Sacrament has been instituted by Our Lord Himself as an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, and how the sign actually brings about the grace that it signifies. In exchanging marriage vows, a couple will become one flesh in a covenant overflowing with divine grace. And it is in the “marital act”, when husband and wife unite physically as one body, that this bond is consummated and made indissoluble. This covenant provides the context of faithful commitment and stability that God desires for the procreation and nurturing of children.
Most young people who care to have anything at all to do with the Church today are looking for authenticity. Nowadays there is little social pressure to have a religious wedding, so if a couple does turn up seeking marriage in a Catholic church, then we should assume that they are open to exploring and living according to the Catholic understanding of marriage. Once they realize that, if the vows they will exchange on the big day are to have the “feel” of authenticity, it is essential that they are not already living as if they are “one flesh”, then they are usually willing to make the required adjustments in their life. The considerable inconvenience that this often involves on a practical level helps to focus their minds on the momentousness of the decision they have made to marry in the Church, and brings home the supernatural character of Holy Matrimony. To benefit from the life of grace, they first of all need to be in the State of Grace. Once they understand how Holy Matrimony as a state of life is nourished and supported by the other Sacraments, then, with the help of Confession and Holy Communion, they are able to make the most of what the Church has to offer spiritually as they lay the foundation for a new life in the months leading up to their marriage.
The appetite for authenticity on the part of young couples thus provides priests with an invaluable opportunity. But it also presents a challenge. Gross scandals involving abuse of status and betrayal of trust in recent decades have made many sensible and good people understandably reluctant to take the ecclesiastical hierarchy seriously as a voice of moral authority. In these circumstances, priests can hardly be surprised if, when extolling the beauty of virginity and holy purity, or explaining the sinfulness of cohabitation and contraception, the response from the audience is the glazed expression that denotes disconnection.
This is when that weird and wonderful phenomenon that Teutonic theologians love to call “the lived experience of the people of God” can really come into its own. If we are gullible enough to believe what is communicated through much of the media, then we might feel compelled to concede that supporting traditional Catholic wisdom on marriage means committing ourselves to a lost cause. The actuality on the ground, however, is that the Oratory parish (and the same must be true of many Catholic parishes) contains a good number of young Catholic couples and families who are actually making a very serious effort to do things the “Catholic way”, and who have embraced the Church”s doctrine on chastity and marriage. Once sceptical newcomers are introduced to the “lived reality” of this priceless human resource, they find a culture which they probably assumed had gone the way of the Dodo in the 1960s. And when they see the fruits that come through the sacrifice and virtue involved in the authentically “Catholic way” of marriage and family life, they find themselves hard-pushed to deny its attractiveness.
Of course, that wider family that is the Catholic parish will also include members who have not been called to marriage, and those whose lives have been blighted by the hardship of break-ups and other complications. The Church on earth is not an “elect” of the righteous who have attained perfection. We are all of us sinners, and the Church is a field hospital in which we each come to receive healing and to assist in the binding each other’s wounds. A healthy parish is one in which kindness, humility and friendship attract sinners to repentance and onto the gold-paved road to sanctification. But it is still the young families with children who will always be the most precious jewels, on the human level, in a parish’s crown. The “lived reality” of their witness is more eloquent to the beauty of the family than any sermon. Their existence proves that it is possible to build and sustain a Catholic culture in today’s world.
Proclaiming the viability of the Christian family and Christian married life with credibility and resonance is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Synod of the Family which takes place in Rome this October. Much supernatural assistance is required. During this month of the Rosary, let us offer many prayers to Our Lady Queen of the Family with this intention.
Fr Julian Large