Marriage & Religion

Rev. Vincent O’Malley, C.M

Etymologically, the root of the word “religion” means to bind. Religion binds us to God, and to one another.

God enters into married life. When a man encounters a woman with whom he wants to spend the rest of his life, it is a grace from God. Similarly, when a woman encounters a man with whom she wants to spend the rest of her life, it is a grace from God. Many people go through life wishing to be married, but never meeting the right person. Finding that right person truly is a gift from God. I ask couples preparing for marriage to identify explicitly what characteristics of the other person singled out that person from the hundreds if not thousands of other members of the opposite sex whom people might meet at school, church, work, at the beach, or in a bar. Thousands of other persons have decided not to marry that person; what have you perceived in that person that makes you desire to marry that person? Name the grace; describe the traits that you think are unique, and that you uniquely see. Write down what you perceive in this person. Most married persons probably wake up some days, and wonder, “What have I gotten myself into? Why did I ever make this commitment?” And on days like those, it is important to remember that original grace. For that reason, write down the grace that attracted you and holds you to your intended spouse.

Jesus enters into married life. Marriage, when celebrated in the Catholic Church, is a sacrament. In the exchange of vows, it is not just the couple who promise to be with each other for the rest of their lives, but Jesus too becomes present in this marriage. A Catholic marriage is made not just between two persons, but among three persons: husband, wife, and Jesus. Jesus, through the grace of the sacrament, promises to support the couple in good times and bad times, in sickness and in health, till death do you part. Jesus is a third person, a third party to the commitment. His presence is sacramental, i.e., spiritual and effective.

In the early 1980’s, the Knights of Columbus funded a grant which studied the mores of Catholics in the USA. Granted, over the past twenty years, the percentages may have changed regarding the mores, but I suspect the changes are slight, not significant, and point to trends rather than fluctuations. One of the sociological findings was this: Catholic marriages had the same divorce rate as non-Catholic marriages, which divorce rate exceeded fifty percent, unless the couple went to Sunday Mass each week, in which case the divorce rate plummeted to 2%. Further, if the couple prayed together each day, the divorce rate dropped down to one-tenth of one percent: 0.10%. This information is astounding when compared to data that first-time marrieds currently have a divorce rate of 54%, second-time marrieds have a divorce rate of 73%, and third-time marrieds have a divorce rate of 93%.

In conversations with couples preparing for marriage, I say clearly, “Do you want this marriage to last?” The rosy-eyed couple replies affirmatively, and enthusiastically. Then I add, “If you want this marriage to last, you will both be at Mass each Sunday. If both of you are not at Mass each Sunday, then the odds are more than 50-50 that this marriage will not survive.” A safe bet is that a Catholic couple who do not go to Mass each Sunday, will not last in their married life.

Why does Mass have such an impact on married life? Going to Mass each Sunday may seem to some people to have little impact week to week, but over the years, the impact accumulates.

Like most of our regular activities, whether eating, drinking, smoking, working, studying, writing, laughing and talking with friends, the day-in and day-out impact seems negligible. But over the years, we gain weight, noses become bulbous, lungs become blackened, bones become tired, knowledge grows, books become published, and deep friendships emerge. Similarly with praying and going to Mass, grace begets growth in our relationships with God and with one another.

Mass does make a positive impact on married life. First, after the priest greets the people at Mass, he prays for God’s mercy, saying: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” This regular admission of our individual sins and the need for mercy reminds all church-goers including married couples that consciously or unconsciously we offend each other, and we need to make up with each other, at least on a weekly basis, if not more often. We hurt each other, especially the ones whom we love most, partly because we have the highest expectations of them. If we did not love someone, we would hardly care what they did, but if we love someone, we care a great deal about them and what their behaviors might be doing to them. And in our genuine care, we say things that hurt the ones whom we love most. And so, praying “Lord, have mercy,” recognizes our sins, and our need to be forgiven, and to forgive. Second, church-goers hear the Word of God.

We hear lots of words outside of church, good and bad, and none of them is half as profound as the Word of God which we hear in church proclaimed to us, and explained to us. In hearing the Word of God, we draw from the wisdom of four thousand years of human and religious history. Third, Mass-attendees, in the state of grace, receive the Eucharist, which Jesus instituted at the Last Supper. This sacrament embodies and communicates God’s divine life. Recipients of this Body and Blood of Christ share spiritually and really in God’s divine life. Divine power becomes present in the soul of those receiving the sacrament. As St. Paul says about the accumulative impact of grace, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” (Gal. 2.20) Fourth, Mass is not an individual activity, but a communal activity. We see, hear, speak with, and enjoy friends. Friends support us in our values and behaviors. Friends support us in our religion.

Caveat. In fact, not all marriages last. Ideally, marriages ought to last, but, in fact, not all will last. There are situations of incorrigible abuse, whether physically, psychologically, emotionally, economically, spiritually, and probably other ways too, in which more harm than good occurs. If the attitudes and activities that give rise to these situations cannot be changed to meet the standard of the four fundamental aspects of married life (for each other, for children, for mature adults, and forever), then, annulment may be the only faith-filled and reasonable response to those situations. God generally does not ask what is impossible for us or injurious to us.

Read other writings by Father Vincent