Last month we introduced the Sacrament of Matrimony. In doing so, we also entered into the third and final category of the sacraments. First, we covered the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist. Then, we looked at the second category, the Sacraments of Healing: Penance (Confession) and Anointing of the Sick. Now, with marriage, we transition into the third and final category, the sacraments at the service of communion: Marriage and Holy Orders.
These two sacraments of Marriage and Holy Orders are given to us by Jesus, among other reasons, in order to help foster communion among God’s people. Marriage is primarily ordered to relationship and communion at the level of the spouses and family, while Holy Orders is ordered primarily toward relationship and communion among the local Christian community, namely, the diocese and the parish family.
Last month we saw how Jesus has elevated the beauty of “natural marriage” to the level of a sacrament by making it a means of sanctifying grace - a channel of divine life - for the married couple. Now we’ll take a closer look at what that means.
The best place to start is by taking a look at both the questions of consent and the vows that take place in a Catholic wedding. Like the other sacraments we’ve covered, where there is always a proper form associated with the sacrament, so too, in Marriage, there is a form or formula which is required for the sacrament to be valid.
Before the couple exchange their vows in the wedding, the minister asks the bride and groom three questions of consent that publicly establish that both the bride and groom know what they are entering into. These vital questions reflect some of the key “ingredients” for a Catholic marriage.
The three questions are:
Have you come here to enter Marriage without coercion; freely and wholeheartedly?
Are you prepared, as you follow the path of Marriage, to love and honor each other for as long as you both shall live?
Are you prepared to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and His Church?
Immediately after these questions, the bride and groom turn toward each other and exchange their vows, which typically use the following words: “I, N., take you, N., to be my wife/husband. I promise to be faithful to you, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love you and to honor you all the days of my life.”
Captured in these three questions before consent and in the vows themselves, the Church draws out four elements that define Christian marriage. The four elements are free, total, faithful, and fruitful.
These four qualities “define” for us what Christian marriage is meant to be - they are what the bride and groom promise to one another before God and His Church. These four qualities are what the married couple strives to live out each day for the rest of their lives.
As many of you know very well, these qualities are beautiful but they can, at times, be difficult to live. Therefore, it is important to recall that these four qualities are not given to us at random. Rather, they reveal for us the love that Christ has for His Bride, the Church, especially as He gave Himself on the Cross. There, He gave Himself freely and totally. He was faithful to His Bride even unto death. And lastly, His love on the Cross has proven fruitful, for it was through the Cross that the Church has spread throughout the world, bearing countless spiritual children down through the centuries.
By Fr. Michael Bovino