Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Marriage, From the Pulpit

Since my "NFP Battle" post has been linked to by some Really Big Blogs, it's gotten a tad more comments than my usual posts do (heck, more then five would have been "a tad more," but who's counting?). I especially liked the comment from an anonymous poster (timestamped 2:53) which in part reads:

It seems that the conversation about NFP has sometimes gotten boxed into a corner and there's very little coming from the pulpit that addresses married life specifically that has clarified any of the confusion or soothed any of the burden of trying to make a marriage work with another human being. I have heard 1 sermon in the last 20 years about NFP specifically and heard only very general comments about the marital bond during Sunday homilies. Doesn't it make sense that a lot of people are in the dark about how to improve their marriages and obtain that wonderful marital bonus of "wonderful communication as a benefit of NFP" when the average Catholic hears little or nothing from the pulpit about it?

This is, I think, a very just observation.

There are several times during the liturgical year when it would be very appropriate for the priest at Mass to discuss the subject of marriage and family life from the pulpit. I'm not talking about the secular holidays of Mother's Day and Father's Day, either: instead, any time the Gospel makes some mention of the topic, or when the epistles touch on the marriage imagery used to represent the Church, the priest could take the opportunity to say a few words about the vocation to which an overwhelming number of people are called in every generation.

Perhaps a few people are blessed to attend parishes where the subject is, indeed, brought up on a regular basis, but I had to think about it, and I honestly don't think I've ever heard a homily on the subject of the vocation of marriage. Sure, maybe it's been mentioned a time or two somewhat tangentially, but you'd think that given the fact that so many Catholics are called to the married state there'd be the occasional focus on this topic.

Of course, I know that there are other times within the life of the Church that marriage gets its share of the attention--during marriage preparation classes, for instance, or when a retreat is offered for married couples. But such things are likely to be few and far between, while marriage is every day, day in and day out--and if a husband and wife need some encouragement or some direction or some reminders or just some sense that they're doing the best they can, well, a retreat that took place five years ago when your children were too young for you to leave them with a sitter so the two of you could go isn't going to be much help.

Now, plenty of lay Catholic writers speak and write on topics related to marriage and the family, but as my anonymous commenter points out, such people often come from really wonderful marriages (which is quite natural, when you think about it). Still their addressing of the problems and quirks of married life aren't necessarily going to be helpful to people who are struggling in some way, and may even tempt them to believe that the faults in their marriage are specific to their marriage, and quite likely come from their own particular spouse, since everybody else is so happy...

Which is not really a productive way of looking at things.

But a priest, especially a pastor, can speak about the vocation to marriage in more general and more spiritually-focused terms. He can look to the writings of many saints on the topic of Holy Matrimony; he can draw from his own memories of his parents' lives together; he can speak with many different married couples within the parish, to hear from them what their problems or concerns or vocational struggles are like.

He can exhort and remind and encourage all married people to take seriously the Church's teachings on marriage, on the openness to life and the sinfulness of artificial contraception; he can also discuss NFP in a balanced and focused way.

He can talk, especially, to married men, to fathers, because he himself is a father; though his fatherhood is quite different it is no less a constant challenge to live sacrificially, and to die to himself for the greater good of his parish family--an analogy that ought to be quite moving to husbands and fathers who have not forsaken the joys of matrimony and its consolations in the way the priest has, but who do sometimes forget that there is no "I" in "spouse," and that they, too, are called to die to selfishness or the desire to live as they did when they were unencumbered with a wife and children.

He can remind wives and mothers that men don't respond well to constant nitpicking or nagging, and that they, too, are called to die to selfishness, and not to insist on having everything their own way. He should warn gently about the poisonous feminism that sees marriage as a battle between two opposing rival forces, where every dispute becomes somehow symbolic of a male/female power struggle; instead, he should tell them, for followers of Christ marriage is a powerful symbol of another sort, of the union and mystical cooperation between Christ and His Church, which ought to be grounded in sacrifice and harmony, and productive of both physical and spiritual fruitfulness.

He should challenge both husbands and wives to seek to outdo each other in their demonstration of charity, peacefulness, patience, cheerfulness, kindness, compassion, and heartfelt consideration each for the other. He should remind them to seek opportunities to converse as eagerly as they seek opportunities for a different form of intimate contact, and to practice the art of compromise when disagreements arise, as they will. He should speak seriously of the duty to set a good example for the children, to raise them in faith and surround them with love.

In all of this he can point to the Holy Family of Nazareth as the model for all Christian family life, and encourage devotion to the Holy Family among his parishioners, especially for the sake of strengthening marriages.

I think that if a pastor were to take it upon himself to preach in this vein about marriage a few times a year, the benefits for his spiritual family would be immeasurable.


Alexandra said...

Interesting...same experience here. I've been a Catholic for 42 years, and I cannot remember one sermon about NFP! I'm sure there were a few somewhere in there, but I sure don't remember. The vocation of marriage is brought up frequently, but never NFP. John Paul II brought it to the forefront for me.

molly said...

You and your anonymous poster raise some wonderful questions Red! As usual, you give lots of good meat to chew on here......thanks!

Lori said...

We had a priest who would pray for "vocations to the priesthood, and to marriage" in the prayers of the faithful every Sunday...I always thought that was nice.