A reflection on the readings for Sunday, October 3, 2021 — The Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
There are two important aspects of Church teaching that relate to today’s readings. The first is the beauty and indissolubility of marriage, and the second is the accompaniment that the Church offers to those who have suffered the pain of divorce. It can be a difficult task for a homilist to speak about both of these issues, but I will attempt to do so.
Quoting the Book of Genesis, Jesus tells us that in marriage “the two become one flesh,” and therefore “What God has joined, no one must separate.” In other words, when a couple is united in the Lord, they literally become one: one body and one heart. We call the union of husband and wife indissoluble because, united in the Lord, their marriage bond cannot be broken. It’s a truth based on the Incarnation itself: when God became man, he united his divinity to our humanity. The humanity and divinity of Christ are distinct yet inseparable. So, too, the union of husband and wife: each of them is distinct yet their union is inseparable, like the humanity and divinity of Christ. And their union is meant to be a visible reminder of the love that Christ has for his bride, the Church, and that the Church has for Christ, her bridegroom.
How is this indissoluble union brought about? Marriage is the only sacrament where the people receiving the sacrament are also the ministers. What do I mean? For example, in baptism, the person doing the baptizing—ordinarily a priest or deacon—is the minister because he is the one who baptizes. The priest is the minister of the Eucharist because he celebrates Mass and through him Christ is made present. The priest is the minister in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession) because he is the one who forgives sins in the name of Christ. The priest ministers the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to those in need of it. Ordinarily, the bishop is the minister of Confirmation.
Marriage is different, however. The priest is not the minister of the sacrament of marriage. The priest doesn’t marry anyone. While you have probably said something like, “Fr. Mike married us,” or “Fr. Ray married them,” the truth Is that we didn’t. Marriage is the only sacrament where the spouses minister the sacrament to one another; the priest simply receives the vows in the name of the Church. But it is the couple who ministers the sacrament to one another through their exchange of consent; and through their exchange of consent, and after their consent through the exchange of their very selves in conjugal love, they become one in this indissoluble union.
This is very important because it also helps couples to understand that just as they ministered the sacrament to one another on their wedding day, they are to continue to minister to one another daily. The sacrament of marriage is a lived reality. Daily, God gives grace to the couple to live their marriage as a reflection of the love between Christ and his bride, the Church. Spouses are supposed to help each other to grow in holiness. And if God has blessed them with children, they are to help their children to become saints.
Understanding that it is the spouses who minister the sacrament to one another also helps to shed light upon why the Church can declare a marriage null (grant an annulment). No one enters marriage with the intention of getting divorced. Yet divorce is a painful reality that many good people experience. (If you have been through a divorce, I want to encourage you to speak with your parish priest about the annulment process.)
Because the spouses minister the sacrament to one another, the annulment process involves identifying if one or both spouses went through the wedding without intending to live the sacrament as the Church requires (intending permanence, fidelity, and fruitfulness). Despite what many might believe, annulments are not Catholic divorces. An annulment states that while a wedding may have taken place, the couple did not actually enter into a sacramental (and indissoluble) union because something essential was lacking in one or both of them from the beginning. Reasons include a lack of maturity, a lack of psychological wholeness, or lack of freedom.
It is also important to understand that the Church wants to accompany those who have been through divorce. You are still part of the Church. Even today, there’s a common misconception that if a person is divorced (or divorced and remarried outside the Church) then he or she is cut off from the life of the Church. This is not true. You are not excommunicated (as Pope Francis has reminded us). You are part of the family of the Church. Also remember that even if someone is unable to receive Holy Communion at Mass, that does not mean that they aren’t part of the family. It does not mean that they are unable to worship God at Mass. There are many good and faithful people who come to Mass but—for one reason or another do not receive Holy Communion. They are still part of the family!
Some of you may know people who believe that they are cut off from the Church, and so you must let them know that they are not cut off from the Church, that they belong to the family of the Church. The Church wants to help them to heal, and the annulment process can be a big part of this healing.
A friend recently sent me a YouTube link to a wonderful homily on marriage. The priest was talking about his parents and how they lived a holy marriage. When the husband died, his wife gazed upon him and said, “You showed me who God is.” That is the marriage ideal: husband and wife are to reveal God’s love to one another. We know that many fall short of this ideal, but the Church wants to help couples to have holy marriages. The Church wants to help couples, and their children, to become saints for the Lord.
Image: Adobe Stock.
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Fr. Michael Najim was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Providence in 2001. He currently serves as the pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Westerly, RI.