Given at the ninth annual Mass of Thanksgiving for Holy Matrimony on the eve of Pentecost, 14 May 2016 at 3.00 pm, at Westminster Cathedral.
A few days ago two charming young women, university students, came to interview me as part of their course in media studies. They had their questions ready. One caught me by surprise. They asked: what does the exhortation of Pope Francis, about love and the family, have to say to us young people?
I had to think quickly. ‘Pope Francis uses some great phrases,’ I said, ‘like “the family is the engine of history.”’ ‘Think of that,’ I said, ‘when you think of marriage. The engine of history!’ Then I gave an example of what the phrase might mean. It's my example: the Hillsborough enquiry. After 27 years the true account of what happened on that dreadful day has finally been established. So many great institutions were implicated in the misrepresentation of those events: the police, the judiciary in the first judicial enquiry, the media, and other branches of the establishment. But one institution came out of the whole, long, sorry story with great credit: the family. It was the families that fought, tenaciously, for 27 years, never giving up, never resting until their voices were heard and the truth had been told. This is an example of the family being the engine of history: making, reshaping history out of love for and commitment to each other.
So I said to these two youngsters: ‘when you are thinking of marriage, think of your partner as someone with whom you are going to make history. Think that together you will make this world a better, kinder, more honest place. God willing, you will work together, side by side, over many years, partners in a great project, as a real engine of history, a source of love for life. Don’t get tied up simply with the romance of it all, great as that is. This is a far greater project, far more noble and ennobling, far closer to God who alone is the true Lord of all history!’
I could tell by their faces: they were impressed! And that is exactly what Pope Francis does. He impresses us. He shines a fresh light on things we think we know so well. And in doing that he lifts up our hearts.
There is so much in the exhortation Amoris Laetitia that you would do well to read. So I thank Edmund for arranging a discount at the CTS bookshop on its sale price! The Pope’s words may well bring tears to your eyes as he reflects so beautifully on the qualities of love, as he writes about its tensions and delights, as he turns his gaze to married love becoming fruitful in a family, reaching across generations, fashioning its own history, in tears and laughter, in new starts and sunsets.
Pope Francis helps us to see our family life as a place where we truly meet God, and as a pathway along which we come closer to God. He asks us to search in every situation, even those at some distance from how we believe they should be, for ‘signs of love that in some way reflect God’s own love’ (294). He asks us to remember that ‘moments of joy, relaxation, celebration and even sexuality can be experienced as a sharing in the full life of the resurrection’.
So often, in our Catholic way of thinking, we have cast sexuality into the shade, if not into the darkness. We have let feelings of unease, or embarrassment, or guilt wash over that aspect of life. And there are reasons in our tradition why that has been so. But Pope Francis wants to shine a different light and help spouses to ponder and cherish such moments as experiences God uses to draw closer to himself those whose hearts are open to his mystery and longing for his tenderness.
This, I trust, is something that you truly understand and treasure. I hope that as you look back across the course of your loving you see many reasons to cry out again in the words of the Psalm we have already used: ‘Bless the Lord my soul; Lord God how great you are!’ This love, I pray, is something that gives rise in your lives to tenderness and compassion towards others, opening your hearts not only to each other but also to all within your circles, even to the awkward squad!
Today’s Mass, on the Vigil of Pentecost, puts all this experience in its true and deeper context. In the Gospel reading we heard of Jesus, in the temple, crying out: ‘If anyone is thirsty let him come to me!’ and promising ‘streams of living water.’ How often we are thirsty and dry; how often what once was thrilling and life-giving loses its power to refresh and restore. St John tells us that, in making this promise, Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who will come to quench our thirst and restore in us those fountains of living water.
Come Holy Spirit fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Kindle again that love which refreshes spouses in the deepest part of their beings. Kindle that love which is the heartbeat of family life. Kindle that love which makes our families truly creators of history, fashioners of the future and heralds of your Gospel.
This is my sincere prayer because, in this mystery of the work of the Holy Spirit, families are truly the flesh of the Church. Families are a place where the wonder of God’s presence amongst us is surely seen, a place where the sacrificial love of Christ so often finds expression in daily actions and daily service.
May God bless you indeed as you renew your marriage vows. This is an act which renews our Church. It is therefore a source of great joy for me and for all who love Christ’s Church. The renewal of your love today is also a great renewal of our wider society, for your love is a force for life, for kindness and courage, wherever you may be. For this we thank God today and trust that the Holy Spirit will always come to help us in our weakness (Rom 8.22), for without that help we can do nothing of our own.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them afresh the power of your love. Amen.
X Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster