Homily of Bishop Christopher Jones, Bishop of Elphin
At the National Novena in Honour of Our Lady of Knock, Knock Shrine
– hope for the sick and suffering
– hope for the broken and wounded
– hope for young people
and today our theme is hope for the family.
Celebration of Marriage Anniversaries
On Sunday 28 June this year our Cathedral in Sligo was filled to capacity with married couples and their families. They had come to celebrate twenty-five, forty, fifty, sixty and sixty-five years of married life. It was a celebration full of joy, of gratitude, but above all full of hope – hope for the future of marriage and family. It was essentially a celebration of fidelity – the fidelity of all those couples to their marriage vows, to their families, to their faith, to their God to their Church and to their family prayer and Sunday Eucharist. During the ceremony I became aware of the priority that fidelity must have in all our lives.
Recent research carried out by ACCORD, the Catholic Church’s marriage care service, confirms that the marriage rate in Ireland has increased in the past ten years. While 12% of couples in Ireland chose long term cohabitation instead of marriage the family based on marriage is still the fundamental unit of society.
All of this should give us great hope at a time when soap operas night after night present promiscuity as if it were the norm and as mass media would give the impression that most marriages end in divorce.
The Challenge of Recent Years
It is true that in recent years because of huge social and economic pressures there has been a significant increase in the breakdown of marriage, in the number of children reared by single parents and in the number of couples who have opted for long term cohabitation. Indeed we all know single parents and cohabiting couples who are making heroic efforts to prepare their children in love for life.
Hope for Marriage And Family Life
Catholic Couples Who Opt For Marriage Invariably Come to the Local Priest
Thank God even to this day when a Catholic couple decide to get married they will invariably call to their local priest. This again is a great sign of hope for the future of marriage and family life. This gives the priest a grace-filled opportunity to sit down with the couple and explain that: “we are delighted you have decided to get married and to get married in the Church. And we will do everything possible to facilitate you. However you must be prepared to invest energy and time in the preparation.”
The Book Of Genesis
I have spoken about the richness of revelation and the church’s teaching on marriage and family life. In the first Book of the Bible – the Book of Genesis and in the very first account of creation we are told that God created humanity in His own image and likeness when He created them male and female. “God created man in the image of Himself, in the image of God He created them, male and female. He created them (Gen. 1.27).” Man and woman, in the complementarity of their sexuality, are called to image, to reflect, to reveal the love of God on this earth.
Let us now for a few moments reflect on how the unity and love of man and woman in marriage make visible God’s love on this earth.
God is Love
St John in his first letter tells us that God is love (Ch.4:8). This is the only place in Sacred Scripture where God is compared or identified with something else. The fact that God is love means that wherever we find love we find God. The God we believe in is not a lonely God. He is a community of life and love – a community of persons – Father Son and Holy Spirit.
The Father from all eternity is giving Himself as gift in love to His Son. The Son from all eternity is receiving the gift of the Father and making a gift of Himself in return to the Father. The love between the Father and the Son and between the Son and the Father is so profound, so perfect and so fruitful that it too is a person – the person of the Holy Spirit.
Scripture tells us that man and woman united forever in marriage are called to image or make visible something of the love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in their homes and in their communities.
The man is disposed in his very being, in his very nature to give himself in love to his wife. The wife is disposed in her very being, in her very nature to accept into herself the total gift of her husband in love and give herself in return as gift to her husband. The love at the heart of this total union of their bodies, minds and hearts is so profound and life-giving that it becomes, God willing, a child – a living image of God.
Scripture Gives Huge Significance To Marriage And Family
We can see here that Sacred Scripture gives huge significance to marriage and family and indeed makes huge demands in the sense that married couples and their children are called to make the Love of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit visible wherever they live.
Of course despite their greatest hopes and desires the life-giving love of a married couple may not always find expression in children. Some of them will adopt or foster children of other parents while others will find expression for their love in the service of their local community and church.
Understanding Church Teaching
There are of course those who continue to claim that our teaching on marriage and sexuality is narrow and negative. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more we reflect on Sacred Scripture the more we discover that sexuality in God’s plan is truly awesome. Pope John Paul II told us in his Theology of the Body that “nuptial love” revealed through sexuality is “the fundamental element of human existence in the world” (Theology of the Body 16 January 1980).
The Church has always been extremely concerned about marriage and the family because the future of citizens and of civilization are so dependent on them.
From the beginning to the end – the Bible is a story about marriage and love. It begins in the Book of Genesis with the marriage of Adam and Eve. It ends with “the wedding of the lamb” in the Book of Revelation – the marriage of Christ and the Church. God’s plan from all eternity is to draw all of us into the closest possible union with Himself.
Question To Be Asked
I believe that more and more couples will persevere in their life-giving love for each other and for their children if they are more aware of the sacred vocation of marriage in the eyes of God who calls them to bring His love to each other, to their children and to the world.
All through the Old Testament the love of God for His people is compared to the love of husband and wife for each other. In the new Testament the love of Christ for His Church is compared to the love of a husband and wife for each other in the sacrament of marriage. And in the New Testament Jesus gives awesome importance to marriage when he raises marriage to the status of sacrament. What God has put together let no man put asunder (Mt.19.6).
In his letter to Ephesians Ch. 5 St Paul sees the total self-giving of husband and wife in marriage as a sign of the total self-giving of Jesus for His bride the Church. It is good that we celebrate marriage within the celebration of the Eucharist because in the Eucharist we celebrate the love of Christ that continues through death forever. It is through sharing in the life and love of Jesus in the sacrament of marriage that the couple are empowered to love each other until death and beyond. It is in their love for each other that the married couple discover the presence and the power of God in their lives.
Marriage and Family
The family based on marriage is the smallest and yet the most important community in society. It is small and beautiful. It is in the bosom of the family that children are prepared in love for life. It is in the bosom of the family that children experience a sense of being loved, of being wanted, of being accepted – a sense of their own self-worth and self esteem. That is why Von Bremen said in his book Bread that is broken: “children who are deprived of love are ruined at their roots”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “the family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honour God and make good use of freedom” (CCC 2207).
Marriage and Family are Essentially About Relationships
Too often married couples do not realise that their greatest happiness and joy in marriage and family is going to come not from things but from their relationships – their relationships with God and with each other. It is true also that their greatest pain and suffering will come from betrayed and broken relationships. Yes jobs, houses, money and car are important but not at all as important as relationships.
The Impact of “The Celtic Tiger”
During the years of the Celtic Tiger married couples were forced by circumstances to invest so much of their time and their energy in their job, their house, their car and this placed pressure on relationships.
In so many situations, both parents worked away from home all day and children were taken care of by others in crèches or schools. When parents collected their children in the late evening they had little energy or quality time with each other or with their children. The pressure of work and of repaying mortgages preoccupied their minds and hearts and left less time or energy for their relationship with God through prayer or their relationships with each other and with their children.
Tragically we are now going through a time of recession where so many people are suffering the pain of debt and unemployment. We must continue to pray that our economy and employment will come right again and that all of us will endeavour to help each other through difficult times. This recession has forced many of us to reflect on our priorities. Let us support each other in order that we can get through this dark period. Let us start to revisit and rediscover the qualities essential for happy relationships, for example:
– fidelity to God, to Faith, to prayer and to the Mass;
– fidelity to marriage and family;
Family Rooted in Marriage is the Foundation of Society
Society depends on the family rooted in marriage to provide happy and healthy citizens. Indeed nothing is more destructive to the person, the family and society than dysfunctional and broken marriages. Tragically so many children who are victims of broken and dysfunctional families become liabilities for the State, because of juvenile delinquency, crime, drugs and gangland murders.
Therefore society through its government has a huge responsibility to support and promote family rooted in marriage. Indeed family rooted in marriage is enshrined in our constitution. Article 41.3.1 of our constitution obliges our Government to guard and protect the constitution of marriage with special care. Article 41.1.1. recognizes the family as a natural, primary and fundamental unit of society. Marriage and family existed before the State. The State exists for the family and not the family for the State.
The Responsibility of Our Government for Marriage and Family
It seems totally obvious to any reasonable person that if marriage and family are so important for parents, for children and for society that the government has a huge responsibility under the Constitution to promote and support marriage and family in every possible way.
Father Ron Rolheiser is an internationally recognized author on the spiritual life. He says “what is now evident is that there is a clear connection between the demise of the family and the increase in youth delinquency, crime, drug abuse, suicide, violence in general, bullying in schools, teenage pregnancies, personality break down and the weakness of community life.”
Surely our Government must never introduce any form of legislation that could possible undermine the importance and significance of marriage and family life in our country. Our Government must realise that change in legislation in the area of marriage and family will inevitably change the perception and attitudes of people.
As Catholics we believe that every child has the right to be reared by a father and mother, who in marriage, have publicly and formally given themselves to each other for life. Children desperately need the secure environment that lies in the bosom of the family rooted in marriage.
Pope Benedict XVI speaks via Video Link-Up to the World Meeting of Families in Mexico on 19 January 2009
Last January I had the privilege of representing the Irish Bishops at the World Meeting of Families in Mexico. At the end of the five-day meeting and after the concelebration of Mass by Cardinals, Bishops and priests Pope Benedict addressed us via video link-up. His words add the authority of the Vicar of Christ to what I have tried to share. He told us:
“The Family is an indispensable base for society and for peoples. It is an irreplaceable good for children worthy of coming into life as a fruit of love – as the fruit of the parents’ total and generous surrender. As Jesus shows us by honouring Mary and St Joseph, the family occupies a primary place in the education of the person. It is a true school of humanity and of perennial values. We have received life from others. The family founded on the indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman is the place where the person can be born with dignity and grow and develop in an integral way.
“The family is a school of humanity and of Christian life for all of its members with beneficial consequences for all people, for the Church and for Society.
“Today, more than ever before is needed the testimony and public commitment of all the baptized to reaffirm the dignity and the unique and irreplaceable value of the family founded on the marriage of a man and woman and open to life in all its stages. Legislation and administrative measures that support families in their inalienable rights and necessary to carrying forward their extraordinary mission should also be promoted.
“For its essential social function the family has the right to be recognized in its proper identity and not be confused with other forms of living together.
“The Christian response to the challenges that must be confronted by families and human life in general consists in intensifying trust in the Lord and the vigour that springs from one’s faith which is nourished by attentive listening to the word of God. How beautiful it is to gather as a family to allow God speak to the hearts of the family through His living and effective word. In prayer the family contemplates the mysteries of the life of Jesus, internalises the values it mediates and feels called to incarnate, to let those values become flesh in their lives.”
Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678