To couples seeking marriage, the Church needs both to be welcoming and to present a “clear vision” of the sacrament, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster said Thursday at the World Meeting of Families.
Marriage “is rooted in the love of God and is to be an expression of the faithfulness and fruitfulness of God’s love,” he said in a keynote for the World Meeting of Families in Dublin Aug. 23.
Sacramental marriage is “intertwined with the love Christ has for his Church” and includes sacrifice, forgiveness, and healing. “Our teaching is a rich vision that informs all that we want to share with those who are starting out on married life,” he said.
Addressing the subject of marriage preparation, Nichols offered advice for how parishes can help engaged couples to embrace the Church’s vision, even in the face of an increasingly secular view and focus on the wedding “industry.”
Underpinning all marriage preparation should be a focus on God’s call to holiness, he said. As Pope Francis wrote in the exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, holiness can grow even through small, everyday actions – the building blocks of family life.
“This wider vision of marriage, as understood in our Catholic teaching and way of life, shapes all of the work of marriage preparation,” he said.
Good marriage prep, he noted, should include expressions of solidarity with the couple, that they do not have to journey through engagement and married life alone. Those involved in leading marriage prep should also remember to be humble and to trust in God’s grace, remembering that the Holy Spirit should be the first guide of the couple.
He urged priests to emphasize the importance of prayer, especially teaching couples to learn to pray together with scripture; he said to choose one’s words carefully, so that the hearts of young people can be reached with the truth of marriage, also recognizing that not all couples begin with the desire to go through the process of marriage preparation.
Encounters with older married couples can also be a good resource for engaged men and women, helping them ask themselves and think about important questions about their hopes and expectations for marriage, he said.
The gift children are to parents and to the Church should be discussed, Nichols noted, as well as the importance of honest, thoughtful decisions on planning a family together, “taking into full account the teaching of the Church, their own welfare, and the welfare of other children.”
He said to address the “gift of sexuality, the gift of the body,” including the physicality present in the marriage liturgy itself, such as when “couples join their right hands to declare their consent to enter the covenant of Holy Matrimony.”
Nichols also stated that the key to understanding marriage preparation correctly is to view it as a journey which continues long after the “I do’s,” through the lifelong project of building a future together.
“On this journey one quality is very important. It is this: learning to sense how and where God is present.”
Following the wedding, look for ways your parish can continue to be intentionally welcoming to married couples, celebrate marriage, and offer support such as enrichment opportunities, or childcare, so spouses can spend quality time together.
Nichols concluded by emphasizing that there is no such thing as an “average” or “normal” marriage, that “everyone is different” and all married couples will go through periods of difficulty. Couples and families often need resources and support, but they should always be “on offer” and never forced, he said.
In the face of challenges “many are tempted to ask: ‘Can I be broken, fragile, and holy?’ Yes,” he said. “We may indeed carry a deep sense of failure, guilt or shame. We may judge ourselves to be unworthy. This is what we bring to the Lord, for holiness is his business.”