Faith and Life

Family is the Permanent Catechumenate that the Sacrament of Marriage Needs

Pope Francis, in union with the overwhelming majority of Catholic bishops, priests, deacons, and lay faithful, has a deeply pastoral concern about the current state of marriage. In a recent address to students at a marriage and family life course in Rome, the Holy Father called for a permanent catechumenate for the sacrament of marriage, noting that “marriage is not just a ‘social’ event, but a true sacrament that involves an adequate preparation and a conscious celebration…the marriage bond, in fact, requires an engaged choice on the part of the engaged couple, which focuses on the will to build together something that must never be betrayed or abandoned.”

By calling for a permanent catechumenate, Pope Francis rightly recognizes that, for whatever reasons, couples are not being adequately prepared for marriage. In the short weeks or months that couples are required to meet with their pastor and take the required marriage preparation program, they receive crash courses in Sacramental Theology, practical “adulting” habits (basic finances and interpersonal skills, for example), and the moral and mechanical aspects of the human reproductive system. This is a lot to expect two people to understand and permanently incorporate into their worldview during a brief period of instruction.

It is interesting to note that the Holy Father appears to emphasize the instructional nature of a potentially permanent catechumenate on marriage:

So many times the ultimate root of the problems that come to light after the celebration of the sacrament of marriage is to be found not only in a hidden and remote immaturity suddenly exploded, but above all in the weakness of the Christian faith…the more the journey of preparation is deepened and extended in time, the sooner the couples will learn to correspond to the grace and strength of God and will also develop the ‘antibodies’ to face the inevitable moments of difficulty and fatigue of married and family life.

Taking his words at face value it is reasonable to conclude that the Pope’s vision for a permanent catechumenate of the sacrament of marriage would look something like a subject-specific RCIA program: robust pre-sacramental instruction and a period of post-sacramental mystagogia.

If that is the intention, it is, in all charity, a misguided solution. In the US, the general consensus among lay faithful about the Church’s marriage preparation programs is one of aggravated tolerance: bureaucratic red-tape and hoop-jumping are common descriptors. Certain outside-the-box initiatives, such as pairing engaged couples with long-time married couples for formation, seem to meet with some success, but have the double effect of accentuating the deficiencies of the predominant programmatic models.

But his use of the word “catechumenate” is curious, and worth careful consideration. In Church history, the catechumenate was an extended period of formation before admittance to the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion. Once initiated, the faithful supported each other in living out their witness to the faith they were formed in. Following that model, a catechumenate for the Sacrament of Marriage would include the same elements: a long period of formation before admittance to the sacrament, and post-sacramental communal support to live in witness to the theological, pastoral, and practical realities of the initiated.

That sounds a lot like the role of family.  holyfamily

Family is the primary formative environment. Our earliest and deepest impressions of marriage come from watching our parents, our aunts and uncles, and our grandparents. The significant theological connections between marriage, Christ and the Church, and the communion of Persons in the Holy Trinity are either cemented or contradicted in our sub-conscious depending on how early and often these things are spoken of and embodied in family life.

In Familiaris consortio, Saint John Paul II contemplated the immense value of the family to the Church and a life of faith. Calling it the “Domestic Church,” the saint expanded on his own profound declaration to the Church in Australia that “as the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Whether intentional or not, Pope Francis’ call for a permanent catechumenate for the sacrament of marriage circles back to the unique role of the family in the life of the Church and her long tradition of defending and articulating that irreplaceable value.

That brings us to the reality of the current crisis in marriage. The Church does have a long and beautifully articulated tradition in regards to marriage and the family, but somewhere along the line the natural family unit drifted from the larger parish family, and ceased to authentically imitate the divine image. In short, what is preached ceased to be practiced. We could call it a spiritual divorce of sorts; the mutual gifts of natural- and community-family ceased to reciprocate in imitation of God himself. The family, at every Christian level, is not acting in conformity with the truth of Divine Revelation.

What can the Church do to reconcile herself as a family and address the crisis surrounding the Sacrament of Marriage? She can prioritize the following:

Consistency of theological instruction: For those involved in marriage preparation, does the program or personal counsel prioritize the theological richness of marriage? Is the majority of a participant’s time spent contemplating how his or her participation in the sacrament will manifest the truth about God himself? Is the joy and excitement of this reality consistently infused into the formal preparations?

The institutional Church making an authentic reinvestment in families: Prioritize funds for family programs and activities like schools, sports, and clubs. Many families want to donate their time, talent, and treasure to support parish sports and a parochial school. A lack of personal funds are a detriment for some lay faithful, but for many, seeing the institutional Church prioritize funding for institutional needs over family-focused initiatives is a painful blow that encourages personal disengagement.

Prioritize a familial environment in small ways as well. Make it a point to highlight important milestones in the life of parish families: births, baptisms, weddings, and anniversaries (include Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders!). Welcome newcomers and visitors personally. Publicly support the presence of small children and special needs persons in all aspects of parish activity.

Co-dependent with this is a revitalization of the institutional Church to her apostolic and pastoral roots. The lay faithful yearn for shepherds who are simple, honest, joyful, and trustworthy, as Christ himself is. Be that for us.

The lay faithful making an authentic reinvestment in the Catholic faith and the Church as a second home and family: Go to Mass every Sunday. Get involved in parish groups and activities. If there is a need, fill it. Get to know the priests and fellow parishioners. Attend formation classes and Bible studies. Be the family that the larger Church family needs us to be.

Faith and Life

New Theories and Old Traditions

 

In the protective recesses of Yale’s museum is an ancient fresco fragment. To the average eye it is humble in appearance: the outline of a woman, bending down to what seems like a well. The long-held belief, logically, is that the fresco depicts the Samaritan woman at the Well, from the Gospel of John, Chapter 4.

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This simple fragment has been at Yale for decades, but is having a renewed moment in the spotlight because researcher Michael Peppard is proposing a new interpretation of this work of art: the fresco is not the Samaritan woman, but Mary at the Annunciation!

If you are at all familiar with the Lukan version of the Annunciation, you are already saying to me, “but Melissa, there is no well in the story. This guy is off his rocker!”

And you would be correct, if Mr. Peppard was not basing his theory off of another ancient text: the Protoevangelium of James. The Protoevangelium of James is a popular work testifying to Mary’s holy beginnings, upbringing, and early time with Joseph. It is a bold move on Mr. Peppard’s part to use this text since it is apocryphal, but not completely out of turn. The Protoevangelium of James is alluded to by Ss. Jerome and Justin Martyr, among other early Church luminaries, and continues to leave an impression on Catholic tradition and Her liturgical calendar. It may not be far off to say that the only reason the text remains apocryphal is because despite it’s lack of heretical over-or-undertones it never gained the universal traction and approbation that the canonical books did.

But you know one place where the Protoevangelium of James would have been very popular? In Syria, where James the Lesser (as far as scholars can tell) is believed to have preached after Pentecost! And this fresco fragment happens to be an artifact from Dura-Europos, a border settlement on the Euphrates River in modern-day Syria.

Aleteia featured the endangered site of Dura-Europos and Peppard’s fresco interpretation, and besides being a sucker for all things archaeology and Church history, I was struck by a bit of background information that the article offered:

The wall painting was taken from the small baptistery of the 3rd-century house church. Christians had met for liturgical celebrations there before Constantine allowed Christianity to be practiced openly, said a 2014 article at Vatican Insider:

The church in Dura-Europos kept its function as a private house on the top floor; but on the ground floor, around 230 A.D., a small room containing no more than 60 people became a Christian place of worship. The frescoes on the walls prove this; there are the first known representations of the Good Shepherd, the healing of the paralytic and Jesus walking on the waters with Peter. It is worth remembering that the very idea of a church separate from private houses could exist only after the 313 A.D. edict, through which the Emperor Constantine recognized Christians’ freedom of religion.

It is worth remembering that the very idea of a church separate from private houses could only exist after the 313 A.D. edict…” Wait, what? In the early Church, churches were…domestic? Who would have ever thought of a domestic Church?

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Sadly, the reality we often forget about the early Church is that it did not have the luxury of material ability to put the boundless love of God on radiant display as in later centuries. In fact, the treasury of stone, marble, stained glass, art, and ornamentation that many of us take for granted, or take as the epitome of faithful expression, is really just the Catholic version of Solomon’s Second Temple. And that is okay!

But the reminder that the Church began, survived, grew, and conquered within the home is much-needed today. Saint John Paul II re-proposed the Domestic Church to the world, and started a frenzy. The simple Well-woman fresco, having yet another moment to evangelize to those who have the courage to hear, is also re-proposing the domestic Church but in a very specific and simple way: bring back the practice of sacred spaces in the home!

I know many people who already do this, but I know many more who don’t. I’ve wanted to set up a sacred space in our home for a while, but it just hasn’t happened yet. When we move to O’ahu in June, planning what wall gets to be our sacred space is #1 on my list.

A sacred space (a Holy Hot-Spot? called it!) is a single location in your home that you designate as a center for prayer, meditation, and a frequent visual reminder to keep Christ front and center in your life (and the life of your family). Like the home-Church in Duro-Europa, pictures and icons that speak to you and your family should decorate the area. A crucifix is a must, as is Scripture and a selection of prayers and other devotionals. Statues are always good, especially to hold your rosaries. Candles, smells, and bells are at your pleasure; add a holy water bottle and you are set! Really, just take an afternoon to browse Monastery Icons and go nuts.

Most importantly, gather your family around your Holy Hot-Spot daily. Pray, read, or just talk about your day, but do it at that sacred place in your home. Invite your parish priest over for dinner and ask him to bless the area. Use it well, and share it with others. A time is coming, as it was in the beginning, where the Church may only be allowed behind the doors of our homes. And that is okay too. It worked the first time, didn’t it?