Given on Saturday 23 May at the Mass for Matrimony at Westminster Cathedral.
A couple of weeks ago Andy Murray beat his old rival Rafa Nadal on the clay courts of Madrid. Full of the excitement of his victory he wrote these words on the lens of a nearby TV camera: 'Marriage works!'
Sports commentators didn't know how to react. The importance of marriage is not within their brief! But it is within ours, especially today on this wonderful occasion. You know that marriage works. And you know that, like professional tennis, it can be very hard work.
For both these reasons our celebration today is so important. You give a great witness to the importance of marriage today and to the richness of family life that can flow from marriage and be supported by it.
Today the legal definition of marriage has changed. The new definition has become so much narrower, focussing solely on the relationship between the partners. These changes in the law do nothing to dampen our confidence in the deeper, richer vision of marriage expressed in our Catholic faith and in your lives. We celebrate this vision, this invitation to a true pathway of the fullness of life, in our Mass today.
Look around. See the richness of life present here this afternoon: over 500 couples celebrating significant anniversaries, of whom 132 of you are celebrating golden anniversaries. Then there are 34 couples marking their diamond jubilees or even more, including Pat and Johanna Harkins whose anniversary is today, with the top spot going to Mr and Mrs Mojer who are celebrating 67 years of married life! Congratulations to you all!
Our vision of marriage is well expressed in the blessing that is given to husband and wife at the end of the marriage rite. Here it is, if you haven't forgotten it with the passing of the years!
'May God the eternal Father keep you of one heart in love for one another that the peace of Christ may dwell in you and abide always in your home.
May you be blessed in your children, have solace in your friends and enjoy true peace with everyone.
May you be witnesses in the world to God’s charity, so that the afflicted and needy who have known your kindness may one day receive you thankfully into the eternal dwelling of God.’
This triple blessing expresses well the three essential elements of our joyful belief in marriage, one that we seek to renew today and, indeed, at the forthcoming Synod of Bishops in October.
The first blessing proclaims that marriage is of God and that Christ is truly at the heart of a Christian marriage. Here we are reminded that marriage is truly part of God's creative genius, the wonderful complementarity of female and male, or woman and man, that causes us to say, 'yes, she, he, is my better half!' It's a complementarity that is worked at, and developed, over many years. It becomes a depth of mutual belonging and trust, such that when it ends it is like losing a limb, or, more truly, like losing half of one's very self. As Pope Francis has said, “Not only man as such, not only woman as such, but rather man and woman, as a couple, are the image of God. The difference between them is not a question of contrast or subordination, but instead of communion and generation, always in the image and semblance of God.” (Audience, 15th April 2015). Working hard at a marriage is working hard at making God more visible in our world. It is a very noble task and calling.
This first blessing also places Christ at the centre of every sacramental marriage. It is only by His presence, by His grace, that a marriage will come to its fulfilment. The working of this grace is different in every marriage. We all have rather different ways of keeping our Blessed Lord at the centre of married life. My father was reticent, not speaking much about these things. But he was strong and resilient in his focus on the Lord. The Lord was his rock. My mother, like many mothers, was more expressive, wanting visible signs, moments of explicit prayer, words of encouragement to help us every day to live by faith in every circumstance.
We have to remind ourselves, so often, that in a truly sacramental marriage Christ is actively present. Through the sacrament He gives His word, gives Himself, to this marriage. He is a partner in it. And He is always faithful. So we have to grasp the challenging truth that even when the human relationships within a marriage degenerate and break down, something recognised in a civil divorce, there remains in that marriage the Word of Christ, given and never revoked. So even a ‘broken’ marriage remains a source of grace for those who are part of it. From this arises a demanding and painful question: what is the grace of marriage that remains for the spouse in such a situation? Perhaps it is the grace of sorrow and repentance, the grace of being able to see and embrace the hurt done through that breakdown and the responsibilities that still flow from it? Perhaps that recognition is the first step on the pathway of mercy and of conversion.
The second blessing of the marriage ceremony says: ‘May you be blessed in your children, have solace in your friends and enjoy true peace with everyone.’
Here we are reminded that the loving sexual relations of husband and wife are fashioned to provide not only a source of deepening love and mutual belonging but also to bring to birth the next generation of beloved children, nurturing them into maturity. Today so many of you give wonderful testimony to the joy of being parents and indeed grandparents. Recently, I was privileged to meet Her Majesty the Queen. Mention of her great grand-daughter, Princess Charlotte, brought the most brilliant of smiles to the face of Her Majesty! There will be many such smiles at the celebrations of wedding anniversaries, signs of the wonderful service of stability and love offered by families to the well-being of our society. I thank you for such service!
Families, strengthened in love by the grace of Christ, are at the heart of the life of the Church, too. Marriage and family is never entirely private or self-contained. Remember that the law requires the doors of the Church to be open during a wedding ceremony so that others may enter and witness the event. Indeed, at every phase of marriage and family life, help is often needed from the wider family or from the church community. We always have so much to learn about how this is best achieved. Here, too, your experience is invaluable. So today I invite any of you to let me have any considered experience which you think would help me to prepare for this forthcoming Synod of Bishops. Please do let me know!
Now we come to the last of the triple blessing. Here, too, the vision of marriage as a true sacrament of the love of God is made so clear. This is the third blessing:
‘May you be witnesses in the world to God’s charity, so that the afflicted and needy who have known your kindness may one day receive you thankfully into the eternal dwelling of God.’
These are wonderful words. They urge us to understand that the gift of God's love is never given to be kept enclosed within a single relationship, be it in friendship or in marriage. God's gifts are always to be fruitful, not buried in the ground out of selfishness or fear. Only when love is shared, when it flows out in care and concern for others, does it flower to its full beauty and potential.
I remember vividly the family home in which I grew up. There was a constant stream of visitors, often neighbours or friends, sometimes the lonely or the troubled. My mother was a kind of magnet! Not often was our house quiet. Sometimes I can remember wishing so fervently that they would go and leave us in peace. But I was learning important lessons, lessons which you know and which, I am sure, you are passing on within your family traditions too. And here may I put in a special word for those couples who have not been blest with children. You often lead the way in this kind of generosity and fruitfulness. Your love finds another kind of generativity, especially when you are rooted in Christ and seeking to be an expression of His compassionate love for all in need. Thank you, again!
In my view, the best of the blessings comes at the end. It is the blessing of a welcome into the joys of heaven! Here, I suspect, is a great secret that is often hidden. The finest purpose of married love, indeed of every sincere and profound love, is to do everything possible to help the beloved get to heaven! That is where our love will come to its ultimate fulfilment and that is our greatest privilege. So, with tongue in cheek, may I suggest that the next time you are infuriated with each other that there is a wider horizon to be sought! Through love, acceptance, insistence on all that is true, compassion for weakness and forgiveness, you tutor each other in the ways of the Lord, preparing each other’s hearts to receive the ultimate and greatest gift of all.
This is indeed the work of the Holy Spirit. So today we pray for each other, for every one of your families: 'Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and renew the face of the earth.' Yes, this is our prayer, that through each one of your families, and through so many more, the love of God will renew the face of the earth, starting around your table, within your homes, reaching out to wider families and friends, even to those who are lost and in need, coming finally to that fullness of heaven where all things, even our most painful burdens, will be resolved and renewed in Christ.