27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Did you hear about the bald man who married his comb? He promised, “I’ll never part with it.”
Yes, today’s gospel passage, which treats the topic of divorce, invites us to reflect on what value marriage has in our society and the world at large, but more importantly, what value does marriage have in the life of the husband and wife, who have entered into this exclusive relationship. Let’s begin by looking at the current state of affairs. According to “Statistics Canada, over 40% of Canadian marriages are expected to end in divorce before the couple reach their 50th wedding anniversary.” (www.collaborativedivorce.com)
Why is that? Why are marriages falling apart? What can we do, as a church, to help strengthen marriages and prevent their collapse? And for those who are already separated or divorced, what ought to be the church’s pastoral response? Put another way, Does Marriage matter any more?
From the Catholic Church’s standpoint, the answer to that fundamental question is a resounding YES. Marriage is first and foremost, an “intimate partnership of life and love which is a good for the souses themselves.” (AL 80) In 1 Corinthians 7:7, we’re told marriage is “a gift” from the Lord, a vocation. (AL 61) And so, to bring to light the gift of marriage and the family, Pope Francis published a post-synodal exhortation, called the Joy of Love, or Amoris Laetitia in 2016. He and those who were involved in the synod, wanted to exhort all of us, to reflect on, and the find appropriate pastoral responses to, what marriage is called to be, in the eyes of the church, and why we should all seek to protect and foster healthy. life-giving, resilient marriages, not only in our church, but in society as a whole.
To begin, the exhortation sees four virtues which can help spouses persevere in marriage: generosity, commitment, fidelity, and patience. (5) Generosity means always being ready to have an open heart, mind and soul to what one’s husband or wife is communicating. Commitment means not running for the door at the first instance when things get hard, but to strive to overcome any hurdles or pitfalls that may present themselves over the years.
Fidelity means having an exclusive loving relationship only with one’s husband or wife and choosing to respect boundaries that will not enable anyone or anything to threaten that exclusive, loving relationship. Patience means not expecting perfection from one’s spouse but always accepting one’s spouse with all their faults and foibles, as they work on becoming a better husband/wife with each passing day.
In this regard, the synod participants lift up the qualities of love expressed in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8, as a helpful daily reminder of what love ought to look like, day in and day out. St. Paul writes, “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
In being kind, and never rude, the document suggests that it’s helpful to use the words ‘please,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ often. (AL 131) In not insisting on its own way, each spouse recognizes that his/her beloved communicates in different ways and that effective dialogue means becoming an active listener, always striving to understand each another’s point of view, being aware of one’s emotive responses when one’s beloved speaks, and responding with love when disagreements can’t be easily or quickly resolved.
St. Paul summarizes his treatment on love by saying that love “bears all things” (1 Cor 13 7b). This means “holding one’s peace” about what may be wrong with another person. It implies limiting judgment, checking the impulse to issue a firm and ruthless condemnation. Although it runs contrary to the way we normally use our tongues, God’s word tells us: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters” (James 4:11).” For “Being willing to speak ill of another person is a way of asserting ourselves, venting resentment and envy, without concern for the harm we may do.” (AL 112)
Scripture goes on to say that, “Love believes all things.” (1 Cor 13:7b) The document clarifies that in this context, the word ‘belief’ is not to be interpreted in its strict theological understanding, but is closer to what we mean by ‘trust’ today. (AL 114) It means going beyond lying to one’s spouse and being able to speak the truth from one’s heart in a vulnerable and non-threatening way.
Paul then continues by saying, “Love hopes all things.” (1 Cor 13:7b) In other words, love doesn’t despair of the future, but gives one’s beloved the opportunity “to change, mature and radiate unexpected beauty and untold potential.” (116)
St. Paul ends his treatment of love by stressing, “Love endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:7b) The exhortation explains that “this means that love bears every trial with a positive attitude. It stands firm in hostile surroundings. This ‘endurance’ involves not only the ability to tolerate certain aggravations, but something greater: a constant readiness to confront any challenge. It’s a love that never gives up, even in the darkest hour. It shows a certain dogged heroism, a power to resist every negative current, an irrepressible commitment to goodness.” (AL 118) “Love does not yield to resentment, scorn for others, or the desire to hurt or to gain some advantage. The Christian ideal, especially in families, is a love that never gives up.” (119)
Another vital aspect of marriage, from the Catholic perspective, is that the love of the husband and wife is open to generating new life, in the form of children. (AL 11) Amoris Laetitia makes the point that “the children who are born “do not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfilment.” (AL 80) Indeed, the document stresses, “the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love. (AL 11) So when spouses have children, they’re co-creators with God, in building a community of love, much as the Trinity is envisioned as a communion of three divine persons united together in love as one Godhead.
It must be stressed, that in the church’s view, the sacrament of marriage isn’t a social convention, an empty ritual, or merely the outward sign of a commitment, but “is a gift given for the sanctification and salvation of the spouses, since “their mutual belonging is a real representation, through the sacramental sign, of the same relationship between Christ and the Church.”(AL 72)
That’s the ideal, that the church would like to see, everywhere and in every place. But are there times when a marriage may end in separation or divorce?
Amoris Laetitia says, “In some cases, respect for one’s own dignity and the good of the children requires not giving in to excessive demands or preventing a grave injustice, violence, or chronic ill-treatment. In such cases, separation becomes inevitable. At times, it even becomes morally necessary, precisely when it is a matter of removing the more vulnerable spouse or young children from serious injury due to abuse and violence, from humiliation and exploitation, and from disregard and indifference. Even so, “separation must be considered as a last resort, after all other reasonable attempts at reconciliation have proved vain.” (AL 241)
The Synod Fathers noted that “special discernment is indispensable for the pastoral care of those who are separated, divorced or abandoned. Respect needs to be shown, especially for the sufferings of those who have unjustly endured separation, divorce or abandonment, or those who have been forced by maltreatment from a husband or a wife to interrupt their life together. To forgive such an injustice that has been suffered is not easy, but grace makes this journey possible. (AL 242)
At the same time, “divorced people who have not re-married, and often bear witness to marital fidelity, ought to be encouraged to find, in the Eucharist, the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life. The local community and pastors should accompany these people with solicitude, particularly when children are involved or when they are in serious financial difficulty.” (AL 242)
Finally, the document asserts, “It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. “They are not excommunicated” and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community. These situations “require careful discernment and respectful accompaniment. Language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided, and they should be encouraged to participate in the life of the community. The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity” (AL 243)
–A great pastoral response to the sometimes difficult realities with which our separated and divorced brothers and sisters are often faced. May we strive to support all separated, divorced and married people in our church and outside of it too, as we strive to bear witness to the love which is the hallmark of our Christian life.
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