FRANCINE and BYRON
I. WHY MARRIAGE IS IMPORTANT TO THE PARISH
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
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
has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living
reflection of and a real sharing in Gods 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
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 its 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 Pauls, 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
Christs love; to offer inspiration and leadership in our parish
Couples teach the Church that Gods 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 personsthe interpersonal communion
of body and soul between two persons in a mutual self-gift.
The passionate married couple thus illuminates and images the Eucharistic
communionJesus 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
II. HOW CAN THE POWER OF THE SACRAMENT BE UTILIZED IN THE PARISH SETTING?
We must now turn our attention to more practical considerations. How,
specifically, can a typical parish put this theology into practice. Wed
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 childrens 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.
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.
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 churchask
a couple to host the RCIA group in their home, and/or have a couple present
the topic of marriage to the group.
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 programmesEvenings 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 shes pious or hes 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 IIs 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 its
own council of couples dedicated to evangelizing the Church through the
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 riskespecially 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 whats 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
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
4. Welcome Families and Couples
Many priests tell us that there just arent 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 (weve 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 whats 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.
Childrens 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
Food! Morning tea is a big hit with the children in our parish
Whenever possible, engaging children or families in the parts of
the massoffertory, 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 whats 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
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