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Synod Aside, Marriage Formation Lives and Dies in the Parish

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A family whose tenderness moves out to the margins? The most effective agent of evangelization in the world

While not discounting the gathering of bishops in Rome over the coming weeks, it is important to remember that the renewal of family life will most likely not be accomplished by the Apostolic Exhortation that follows the Synod. Rather, as John Allen once noted in a public address, ecclesial renewal begins at the local level, with individual charisms. How a parish does marriage formation might, in the end, be more important than any document the Synod releases.

Much is presumed on the part of the marrying couple about the nature of marriage. Their view of marriage may be informed by an impossible standard of personal and social happiness that marriage brings about. They may imagine that the universe has placed a single person in their lives whom they are destined to marry.

For this reason, the first thing that marriage formation must do is to invite the couple to consider those assumptions that serve as obstacles to fruitful marriage. This cultural analysis should be integral to catechesis from the time of adolescence onward. Approaches to marriage formation that simply build communication skills without dealing with these problematic assumptions is akin to constructing an earthquake proof structure on top of a sand foundation.

Of course, the way to address these cultural assumptions is not to tell the couple how wrong they are. Marriage formation at whatever stage should invite the couple into a form of apprenticeship in which well-formed families provide the counter-narrative that is healing.

At present, one rarely hears the Church’s proclamation of the Good News of marriage. Marriage homilies tend to be panegyrics of the uniqueness of a couple’s love. This preaching places the focus of the Rite of Marriage upon the couple, not God’s action. The Good News of marriage is that this human relationship, this mundane reality of love, is precisely one of the ways that God has chosen to save humanity.

The couple is to present to the world a sacrament of divine love not simply at the moment of their nuptial consecration. Rather, they mediate to the world the love of Christ and the Church in the context of their relationship, of their family life, of their vocation to serve one another.

The kerygma of marriage is thus not an instrument to bludgeon the couple with. Rather, it is a reminder to the whole Church that the sacrament of marriage is a vocation that each of us is responsible for. Do we open new couples into our home? Do we provide a space in our parish that acknowledges the difficulty of this vocation, rather than holding up some idealized 50s vision of what family life consists of?

Perhaps, the area where formation is most needed around the sacrament of marriage is the responsibility to mission. Marriage, like all other sacraments, is not simply for those who receive sacramental grace. And the families that such marriages create are schools of tenderness. The virtue of tenderness cultivated among families is very same virtue that incarnates Christ’s love for the world. A family whose tenderness moves out to the margins, to the unloved, is the most effective agent of evangelization in the modern world.

I have seen this in my vocation to adopted fatherhood. In spending time with my son, I have learned the virtue of tenderness by trial. I have learned about the smallness of my own heart, how quickly I am annoyed by my son’s cry for attention. I have discovered the depths of prayer in watching my son kiss an icon. I am far more cognizant of the sorrows of my undergraduate students, fatherhood making me more attuned to the care I must offer to these young women and men.

Family life has formed me anew for Christian mission in a way that nothing else could. The pastoral care of all families, for this reason, is not simply one aspect of the Church’s mission. Rather, it is the privileged way of renewing the Church in the vocation toward self-gift, which is at the heart of evangelization. If marriage formation does not begin with this sense of mission as the end goal, then it is inadequate from the beginning.

 

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D. is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy in the Institute for Church Life and Associate Professional Specialist, University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love and editor of the Center for Liturgy’s blog, Oblation, where you can read a longer exposition on this topic.

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