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Vol 41 No 1

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James Quillinan

Neil Darragh

Helen McCabe
THE FAMILY IN AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY: Christianity's contribution to understanding the family and its role

Francine and Byron Pirola
MARRIAGE IN THE LIFE OF THE PARISH: He sent them out two by two ... Luke 10:1

Brian Lewis

Marie Farrell RSM

Desmond O'Donnell OMI




Marriage in the life of the parish
He sent them out two by two ... Luke 10:1


When we in the Church think about marriage and family life, mostly we think in terms of supporting couples. We look primarily towards marriage and family life as a group in need, and we focus our energies on providing support services for them such as counseling, welfare, financial assistance and so on. This approach has a rich history in the Church and is well developed through a vast social welfare network. It is important work and part of our Christian responsibility. And by and large, we do this very well.

However this approach is also seriously limited. It is grounded in a mentality that focuses almost exclusively on the needs of families, and thus overlooks their giftedness. Rarely are married couples called forth for leadership in Church life specifically because of their coupleness or sacramental charisms. The troubled and dysfunctional situations in families tend to dominate our attention and subsequently, our perspective of marriage is skewed towards the problems and needs of family life.
In 1980, Pope John Paul II convened a synod on ‘The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World’. The papal encyclical Familiaris Consortio was published shortly afterwards. In it, the Pope went to great lengths to emphasize the giftedness of marriage and family life, especially their evangelizing capacity. ‘Family, become what you are…the family has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ for the Church His bride’ (no. 17).

‘Evangelization, urged on within by irrepressible missionary zeal, is characterized by a universality without boundaries…The sacrament of marriage takes up and re-proposes the tasks of defending and spreading the faith, a task that…makes Christian married couples and parents witnesses of Christ ‘to the ends of the earth,’ missionaries, in the true and proper sense, of love and life’ (no. 54).

In this year of the twenty-sixth anniversary of Familiaris Consortio, it is timely to turn our attention to the role of the marriage and family life in the parish. Marriage is an under-utilized resource in parish life. Before we can effectively empower married couples to take up leadership in parish life, we need to understand just exactly where the power of the Sacrament of Matrimony resides.

The Power of Marriage
The power of marriage for renewing the Church and society rests in the very nature of the sacrament. Matrimony is the vocational sacrament in which the vast majority of adult Catholics live, and yet it’s capacity for teaching, renewing, and leading the Church is largely overlooked.

All Sacraments reveal and witness to a dimension of God and our relationship with him. Matrimony witnesses to the passionate, intimate love of Jesus for his bride, the Church. St Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians spells it out very clearly. After describing how husbands are to love their wives in imitation of Christ, and wives are to regard their husbands as they regard the Lord, he quotes scripture: ‘‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’. This is a great mystery, and I am applying to Christ and the church.’ (Eph 5:31-32).

In commenting on this passage of St Paul’s, Pope John Paul II noted that the Sacrament of Matrimony had a ‘bidirectional’ nature. ‘As we can see, the [spousal] analogy operates in two directions. On the one hand, it helps us to understand better the essence of the relationship between Christ and the Church. On the other hand, at the same time, it helps us to see more deeply into the essence of marriage to which Christians are called.’ (Theology of the Body, p. 313) In other words, not only can couples look to Christ and the Church to learn how to love each other well, they as a couple can teach the Church about how Christ loves the Church, and how we as His bride, are to respond to Him.

Thus married couples are called to teach the Church about the nature of Christ’s love; to offer inspiration and leadership in our parish communities.

Couples teach the Church that God’s love is as intimate as it is benevolent, and that his Kingdom is more relational, like a family, than legalistic. Like a passionately ‘in love’ couple, Jesus’ love for us is urgent, personal and intimate. He longs to be close to us, to be one with us, to be in communion. The ‘one flesh’ union of husband and wife is not just a physical joining of their bodies for brief and occasional moments. Nor is it their compensation for having to endure the difficulties of marriage and family life! No, their sexual union is a sacred gesture and is instrumental in what Pope John Paul II called ‘a communion of persons’—the interpersonal communion of body and soul between two persons in a mutual self-gift.

The passionate married couple thus illuminates and images the Eucharistic communion—Jesus gives his body and sheds his blood in a total outpouring of love for his bride, the Church. When a couple make love, they too give their bodies and shed their blood (i.e. lay down their life in service) to each other in the image of Christ. And just as husband and wife become ‘one flesh’ in sexual communion, so also do we become one flesh with Jesus in Eucharistic communion.

Sexual communion is a sacred rite; a deeply holy and sacramental act for the married couple. It is no accident that sexual union is considered so essential to the establishment of the sacrament of Matrimony when the couple marries. ‘Indeed the very words, ‘I take you to be my wife-my husband’ refer not only to a determinate reality, but they can be fulfilled only by means of conjugal intercourse.’ (John Paul II, Theology of the Body, p. 355.)

Married love is a powerful witness and teacher. It images, and makes real, the profound mysteries of our faith and is thus worthy of contemplation and reverence.

We must now turn our attention to more practical considerations. How, specifically, can a typical parish put this theology into practice. We’d like to offer a smorgasbord of suggestions and case stories.

1. Raise Couples for Ministry
There are many ministries and jobs in the parish that flourish when undertaken by a couple with an awareness of their sacramental gifts. The following are a sample of some ways that parishes are engaging this idea.

In this version of the ‘children’s Liturgy of the Word’, couples are rostered as the catechists. This has a number of advantages including the important benefit to the couple themselves. Whenever we do kidsChurch in our parish, we learn so much more about the gospel. Our parish priest is a marvelous homilist, but there is no substitute for having to teach a subject yourself in order to really think about the topic. Sharing in this personal growth encourages the spiritual intimacy and development of faith for the couple. A second advantage of having couple catechists is that it gets the fathers involved. Most parish ministries are supported by women. Most of the teachers in our schools are also female. There is nothing wrong with women teaching children the faith. There is something seriously wrong when there are only women teaching our children the faith. By structuring the kidsChurch programme such that couples take on the catechesis, we ensure that the children hear from and experience a masculine perspective.

Baptism Preparation
We were delighted when our parish priest asked us to help him establish a home based Baptism preparation course. He had a model from his previous parish which we adapted and documented. The home based setting not only allowed us to both present the ninety minute programme, it also encouraged both parents and the siblings of those to be baptised to attend. The welcoming atmosphere of a family home made it hospitable to families. This was especially significant for families of mixed faith where the non-Catholic parent would be inclined to stay at home with the other children.

Sacramental Preparation
The same principles can apply to the sacraments of reconciliation, communion and confirmation. Home based and couple led small groups encourage deeper reflection and ownership among the parents of the sacramens. It also helps to avoid the sense of children being batch processed for the sacraments. The RCIA would also benefit from the presence of the ‘domestic church’—ask a couple to host the RCIA group in their home, and/or have a couple present the topic of marriage to the group.

Marriage Preparation
There are few who can argue with having couples as the preferred presenters of marriage preparation. It may be difficult to source them, but it is generally accepted as the ideal. While some parishes provide their own marriage preparation, most parishes outsource it to other groups such as Centacare, Engaged Encounter or other local initiatives. We have personally been involved in two parish-based programmes—Evenings for the Engaged and Embrace. Both are run over six sessions from the home of the presenters.

Some large parishes employ a youth minister to run programmes for various age groups. For those more average sized parishes with a limited budget, diocesan youth workers and charismatic covenant communities offer programmes and special events to which youth from all over are welcome. One of the few parish based youth programmes available to any sized parish is Antioch (16-20 years old). The Antioch Youth movement has been very successful in Australia, largely due to the involvement of married couples in the adult leadership. These couples bring a sacramental awareness and the practical experience of parenting to their role. They also offer a unique and vital perspective on sexuality and relationships, which is perhaps the hottest topic for young people of this age.

Marriage and Family Parish Councils
Mostly we form our parish leadership group (parish council, parish pastoral council, etc.) around individuals who can offer various skills such as being an accountant or a good organizer. If you want to make a statement about how important marriage is, ask a passionate couple to be on the council, not because she’s pious or he’s so generous with his handy man skills, but because of their marital spirituality. Ask them because they bring the important charisms of unity, hospitality and intimacy.
Better yet, establish a dedicated ‘council’ or working group of couples to undertake the pastoral planning for marriage and family life in the parish. Empower them with real responsibility and authority. This is part of Pope John Paul II’s vision for the renewal of marriage and family in the establishment of the Pontifical Council for the Family in 1981. His hope was that each diocese and parish would have it’s own council of couples dedicated to evangelizing the Church through the family.

2. Education and Leadership Formation
Of course, part of activating and empowering Matrimony in the parish is cultivating couple leadership. Parishes generally do well in promoting formation and spirituality with an individual focus. Few actively target the development of couple spirituality and leadership.

There are a number of excellent options that provide education and ongoing formation for couples. Examples include the Celebrate Love seminar, Marriage Encounter Weekend, Australasian Teams, Couples for Christ, Focolare and the Parenting Colloquium. While some of these initiatives can be run as a parish event, it is not necessary to do so in order to access them. The most important thing is for the parish to advertise and encourage couples to participate in these renewal experiences, not because the couple ‘needs’ to, but because the parish ‘needs’ the couple to take up leadership. In our experience of recruiting and running Celebrate Love seminars, couples are wary of an invitation that suggests ‘it will be good for them’. No one likes to be judged as inadequate or at risk—especially when it comes to their marriage. Rather, appeal to the reality that their marriage is capable of making a great contribution to the parish in a leadershipcapacity.

It can be difficult for couples with young children to attend such programmes, as child care is always an issue. One practical way a parish could assist would be to encourage a mutual child-care between families, or call on parish teenagers to help out. Another possibility is to combine resources with neighbouring parishes to host a renewal experience for the deanery.

3. Prayers for Marriage and Family Life
We pray for what’s important to us. If we really value marriage and the contribution that it makes to parish life, we should pray for it. Every week. Every Mass. Every opportunity.

For several years we ran ‘The Movement of Continuous Prayer for Marriage and Family Life’ in our parish. We recruited thirty-one parishioners/families to pray for one hour a month and assigned one day of the month to each. A booklet with suggestions and reflections on marriage and family life in all its different expressions was provided. Each day, a parishioner or family would pray from their home for the marriages and families of the parish, personally and by name. It gave us all a greater sense of being connected to these families and it raised our awareness and appreciation of marriage and family in our community.

Other simple ways a parish can enter into prayer for marriage:

• Acknowledge and pray for couples who are celebrating significant anniversaries.
• Each quarter, have a blessing at mass for expectant families. A pregnancy is the fruit of sacramental love between husband and wife and should be approached with reverence and awe.
• Include prayers to strengthen marriage in the Intercessions at Sunday Masses.

4. Welcome Families and Couples
Many priests tell us that there just aren’t the couples or families at Mass to call on to do these ministries. Part of an active marriage ministry is building a family-friendly culture at the Sunday liturgies.

With five children, including a four year old with more testosterone than the rest of the family put together, we are very sympathetic to the difficulties families face in just getting to church on a Sunday. For those families where only one spouse is Catholic, there are additional challenges to overcome. Things that families tell us make a difference include:

• The restlessness of small children being accepted. The parish priest can offer leadership here by making an effort to thank parents of young children for coming, greeting the children and treating them as full members of the parish (which by their baptism they are!). When well-meaning parishioners give a noisy toddler ‘the glare’ (we’ve been on the receiving end too many times) the parish priest can counter it by including the toddler and parents.
• Welcoming newcomers. When new families arrive it helps if there is someone around to welcome them, explain what’s available in the parish, introduce them to other parishioners. In our parish a married couple has taken this on. They make a point to remember the names of newcomers, and will often follow up with hospitality.
• Having toys available in an appropriate part of the Church where parents can still participate in the mass and toddlers can occupy themselves.
• Children’s liturgy of the word or handouts to help young children engage in the readings.
• Contemporary music that is easy to sing, lively and relatable to families.
• Food! Morning tea is a big hit with the children in our parish at Kensington!
• Whenever possible, engaging children or families in the parts of the mass—offertory, encouraging children too young to receive communion to come for a blessing, having the children stand around the altar at the consecration. One of the priests we know asks the children to copy his hand gestures throughout the consecration. This keeps little ones focused on what’s happening and minimizes the visual distraction of wiggling children to the rest of the congregation.
• Encourage family-orientated initiatives. Passionist Family Groups, parish family picnics, parish ball games after mass all help build community with a family focus. They also make it easier for a non-Catholic spouse to participate in the parish life.

Pope John Paul II said: ‘The future of humanity passes by way of the family’. These sentiments have been echoed by Pope Benedict XVI. ‘Today it is necessary to proclaim with renewed enthusiasm the Gospel of the Family’ (Dec 3rd, 2005). Let us take up the challenge to make the vision of these great leaders a reality in the lives of ordinary Catholic families.

Francine and Byron are the co-authors and national directors of Celebrate Love and Embrace. They are members of the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council advising the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life. They have been married for nineteen years and have five children.