Marriage and family today: the crisis, the calling

Listen to mp3 file
Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Year A:
Dec. 29, 2013
Sir 3:2-6, 12-14; Ps 128; Col 3:12-17; Matt 2:13-15, 19-23

Three years ago, I had the privilege to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of other priests. Of course, one of the places we went was Nazareth. There, we visited the large church called the Basilica of the Annunciation—marking the spot where the angel Gabriel visited Mary and invited her to become the Mother of God; where she said yes; and thus the very spot, marked, where the Word was made flesh.

But there on the same property is a smaller church, the Church of St. Joseph. It was there that we celebrated Mass. This church contains artwork not only of St. Joseph himself, but of the Holy Family: of our Lord Jesus, and his mother the Virgin Mary, and his foster-father St. Joseph. And it was impressive to consider that perhaps on that very spot, or very near it, our Lord Jesus had spent most of the years of his earthly life, growing up in the Holy Family.

Pope Paul VI was impressed too, when he visited there nearly 50 years ago. And he said that we find in Nazareth, “a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like and even to understand his Gospel.”

On this first Sunday after Christmas Day, the Church invites us to consider the Holy Family—hearing again one of our few Scriptural windows upon their lives, this year, the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth, as St. Joseph acted to protect them from danger. And the Church invites us to consider again our own families, and the vocation—the calling—the marriage and family.

What is the state of the vocation to Catholic marriage in the U.S. today? It is in crisis. When we compare statistics for 40 years ago and for today, this is quite clear. Compared to 1972, the percentage of all adult Catholics who are married has dropped by 26%; the percentage of young-adult Catholics who are married has dropped by 31%. (source) And surely we all know many personal anecdotes that are consistent with this.

In a sense, this is not a surprise in this society, where attitudes toward marriage are a wreck and are getting worse. Do you think that I am referring to the increasing legalization of same-sex marriage? Yes! But this is only the latest step in a series of steps down the wrong road; and it would never have happened without the others. Other steps have included

  • the legalization of divorce, especially of no-fault divorce; and from this, the phenomenon of prenuptial agreements that plan a divorce before the marriage even begins;
  • the legalization and spread of contraception and abortion; and of the use of pornography, especially by men but also by women;
  • and even work conditions that pull families apart, or require both parents to work; or school conditions that replaces parents in children’s lives with teachers and peer groups.

It is a situation such that any man might well expect, like St. Joseph, to receive the visit of an angel in a dream, warning him to flee to another country, to protect his marriage and his family.

What does the government expect from your marriage? Nothing! What does society expect? Worse—something short-term, while it’s fun. But what does Jesus Christ expect?

Ah, what does Jesus Christ expect?

Jesus expects that each of us will say yes to the vocation, the calling, that he gives us—whether it be to priesthood, or to consecrated life, or to marriage and family—and that we will live it out like him: with faithfulness, with commitment, with generous and sacrificial love; in a way to makes us more and more saints and cooperates with his project of redeeming the world.

Did you think that you had an option of an easy life of pleasure?—and of emptiness? No, that is what the world offers. What Christ calls every one of the baptized to, without exception, is something quite different. It is not optional whether a follower of Christ will make life-long vows to some group of people, to love and to serve them. No, that is what Christ calls each of us to! It is only a question of how, and to whom. Whichever one of the three states of life it is—holy orders, or consecrated life, or marriage and family—it will be a hard life; and it will be an amazing life!

If you are called to marriage and family in Christ, the number one thing you are called to recognize is that your spouse is an eternal being—created good, but wounded by sin, whom Jesus wants to save and turn into a saint. If he succeeds, then, as C.S. Lewis wrote (in “The Weight of Glory”), your spouse will one day be such a glorious creature that, if you could see them now, you would be tempted to worship them; but if that project does not succeed, then they will become the stuff of nightmares. You did not marry your spouse so that they could fulfill you; only God can do that! You married them so that the two of you can be disciples of Christ in partnership on the road to heaven, growing in goodness, growing in love, leaving behind all sin and selfishness; helping each other to become saints.

And the second thing you recognize is that your openness to children—which is not optional in Christ’s call to marriage—they too are eternal beings with an eternal destiny, whether of glory or of horror. Indeed, in that moment of conceiving those children, it is not only the two spouses who cooperate, but God himself who enters in, directly creating each human soul. And those newest souls you have the chance and the responsibility to form: not only bringing them for baptism and the other sacraments, but bringing them to Mass, teaching them to pray, telling them about God and Jesus and the saints and the stories from the Bible.

It is not easy! The Catechism (paragraphs 1655-56) notes that, just as in the first centuries of the Church, Christian families “were islands of Christian life in an unbelieving world,” so too they often are again today. And so the Second Vatican Council has called families again the Ecclesia domestica, the domestic church. For here, then, your home becomes

the first school of Christian life and “a school for human enrichment.” Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous—even repeated—forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life. (1657)

This call to marriage and family is not easy, especially today—but it is amazing! Our Lord Jesus is the Light of the World. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it! When we follow him; when we walk together faithfully, priests and consecrated religious and families, through this world; we will make it all the way to join the Holy Family in the joy of heaven.

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