Holy Matrimony

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Two wedding rings around a gold crossThere’s a story about a traveller lost in the Irish countryside, who pulls up alongside a farmer and asks the way to Tipperary. “Ah,” says the farmer, “If I were trying to go to Tipperary, I wouldn’t be starting from here!”

The Gospel we’ve just heard touches on the sensitive and often painful subject of divorce. It’s a reality we can’t avoid in Church, because it’s a subject Jesus didn’t avoid in his preaching and teaching. Even the language our Lord chose is challenging – “anyone who divorces one partner and marries another is guilty of adultery”. Why would Jesus teach such a thing? To understand this, we have to understand the big picture of Christian Marriage, and I want to address my words today especially to those teenagers and young adults among us – you who are not yet married but are considering your future. If you are not such a person, then I offer you these words as wisdom for you to pass on to the young people in your lives. But before I offer you this advice – my “Directions to Tipperary” – I should first speak to those among us who wish they were not starting from here.

Many among us will have known the pain of a failed relationship. I want to remind you that simply being divorced against your will, or even agreeing to a divorce to settle the finances of a past relationship, is not in itself a sin. A Catholic who is merely divorced is not automatically barred from Holy Communion. As for a Catholic who enters a new civil marriage without the Church annulling their previous marriage, I have no power to soften the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, but I do echo the words of recent Popes who thank you for your faithfulness to attending Mass while refraining from receiving Holy Communion. Pope Francis has recently acted to make it simpler to pursue an annulment, and I am always willing to make an appointment to speak to anyone who wants to discuss their marital situation. Perhaps the Bishops meeting in Rome this month will find further ways to extend the mercy of Christ, but whatever the Church does will have to honour the very difficult teaching present in today’s Gospel.

And now, my message for our young people.

My dear young friends, have no doubt that God loves each one of you and has a plan for your life. Most of you will be called by God to enter a state of Holy Matrimony. And I use such old fashioned language rather than the word “Marriage” because what the Church calls “Marriage” and what the society around us now calls “Marriage” are two very different things. I want to share with you today, God’s vision for Holy Matrimony.

How would you like to have one person in your life whose top priority was your well-being? Someone who would always be loyal to you, no matter how you offend them? Someone who would work to help you in good times and in bad? Someone who would always tell you that you are loved and cherished, even when tired or distracted? Someone who will forgive you and take you back however you might fail them?

God would like you to have such a partner in life. But there’s a catch. For you to have someone like that as a partner, you must be that partner to someone. And that’s quite demanding!

What sort of parents would you like to have? Two who would always work hard to make up a quarrel as soon as possible? Two who always pull together, not apart? Two who never force you to choose between them?

Once again, do unto others as you would have them do unto you – if you want to have such a parent, you must be such a parent.

I can’t imagine a child wanting their parents’ relationship to fail rather than be healed. I can imagine a person wishing to try a series of different relationships rather than enjoy the blessings and challenges which come with an exclusive partnership. But serial relationships come with a price. You know how a piece of sellotape loses its sticking power if you use it two or three times? In the same way, the more relationships you allow to reach a very intimate level, the less depth and freshness each one will have.

When Jesus read the Book of Genesis, he saw in it a clear message from God-the-Father that God’s plan was for a man and a woman together to become one flesh, and to form a family unit, a unit which no earthly power should dare to divide.

If what Jesus teaches is true, it has serious consequences.

We’re not free to define marriage as we see fit. Holy Matrimony can only exist between a man and a woman.

We’re not free to declare that a marriage has ended. Holy Matrimony is founded on a pledge to be faithful until death, in sickness, poverty, and ‘for worse’. Each partner in Holy Matrimony has promised, in advance, to be faithful to their spouse even if that spouse should fall into a 20-year coma or run off and abandon them.

Nor should we try before marriage anything we should keep as a gift to our partner on our wedding night. Jesus doesn’t speak about that in today’s Gospel, but he does warn us to avoid lust, and St Paul writes at greater length about the kind of purity which is expected of Jesus’ followers.

“Wait a minute, God, what business is it of yours? It’s my body, after all.”

Actually, no. St Paul says that if we are Christians, our bodies belong to the Lord and we must use our bodies to give glory to God. Today’s Second Reading reminds us that even Jesus Himself couldn’t avoid suffering when He was obedient to His Father’s Will. We are free to say that we don’t want to do God’s will. We are not free to pretend that God hasn’t made the laws which Jesus shows us in today’s Gospel – and the same God who made the laws knows better than any one of us the agonies which take place in the human heart when we’re drawn to any relationship outside those laws.

God loves us, and makes these laws for our own protection. Above all, God doesn’t want a single human being to be a tool used for someone else’s pleasure and then abandoned. St John Paul II wrote at length about how terrible it was for one human being to merely use another, part of the writings we now call the Theology of the Body.

So my dear young friends, God’s plan for you is that, unless you are called to the single life, you should enter a state of Holy Matrimony. This is not easy; it requires you to be a living sign of how faithful Jesus is to us – and the Lord will never abandon us in His Church, no matter how we might fail and sin. Be the committed partner you want your husband or wife to be for you. Be the loving parent who embodies the very best of what your parents are for you. Be a servant of God who follows God’s plan for Holy Matrimony, not your own – and God’s blessing will go with you always.

  • You can read my more extended reflection on Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality.
  • Lots of resources for Supporting Marriage are available online.
  • Thanks to Kaye Smith for first showing me the ‘sellotape’ analogy.

Home Mission Sunday

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year BHome Mission Sunday.p15hms

Today is Home Mission Sunday, and we’ve received a letter sent from all the Bishops of England and Wales together. You can read the full text in the parish newsletter, but I’m going to pass on our bishops’ message in my own words.

Each one of us who is Catholic shares in the duty of making Our Lord Jesus known to the people around us, inviting them to hear His Good News and join our church. We call this ‘evangelisation’, and when done in our local community, that makes it our ‘home mission’. We’re called to deepen our own faith, so that we can share it with others, sensitively and confidently. 

Pope Francis shows us that the true heart of faith is hugely attractive. He shows us how to let our faith be seen. He does this by making clear the great mercy of God, the mercy that he has received and that he shows to all. The mercy of God is God’s love in action, reaching out to every person, to each one of us in our weakness. Mercy is God’s tender embrace in lifting us up and inviting us to start again.

In the Psalm of our Mass today, we proclaimed God’s mercy with the words: “The Lord upholds my life.” Mercy appears all the more clearly when, recognising our own sinfulness, we rely totally and joyfully on the goodness of God. When Pope Francis was asked to describe himself he said, simply, “I am a sinner.” As we understand the depth of God’s never-failing mercy towards us, then we are freed to offer the same mercy to those around us. In doing so we show forth the best of our faith.

How can we proclaim God’s mercy to the people around us? We have a wonderful opportunity in the coming Jubilee Year of Mercy, established by Pope Francis, beginning this December. He asks us to “go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God!” Together let us Proclaim God’s Mercy. The readings we have heard today speak of the tests and trials of everyday life, the weariness we can feel, the conflicts we face, whether within our own hearts or from those around us. St James invites us to respond to every situation as peacemakers. That’s easier said than done! But then he tells us that our way forward is through prayer, asking the Lord for all that we need to get through the day, and to let his love be seen.

The Gospel Reading from St Mark puts it very simply. When we live our lives with trust in God as a child trusts his parents, then we will be free of so many burdens. And then our faith will be transparent, evident to others, and attractive. Then we will be proclaiming the Gospel for others to see and hear. The key, then, to showing our faith in the way we live, is to be ready to live constantly in the presence of God, knowing that God never takes his eyes off us. God gazes upon us not to catch us out, but because he loves us so much. Are we aware of that loving gaze which is upon us, and of the mercy and encouragement that flows our way? If so, we will be well able to look on others in the same way.

This trust in God and love for others is our starting point for evangelisation. From this beginning, there are many things we need to do. We must speak openly about our faith. We must show our love in concrete actions towards those most in need. We must have a loving care for those who have been hurt by life – and a special care for anyone who has been hurt within the Church, for these wounds make it particularly difficult for a person to return to the sacraments.

In many different ways – through friendship, through prayer, through conversation – we seek to reach other human beings, so that they sense in us God’s presence and loving invitation to them. Our efforts need not be complicated or heroic. As Our Blessed Lady reminds us, through our humble efforts the Lord can do great things!

Finally, our bishops want to thank each and every one of us for the witness that we already give. Our presence at Mass today is a good example. By coming to Mass we not only give due worship to God but also publicly proclaim our faith to everyone who knows of our commitment and routine. Our bishops thank us for our daily efforts in family living, the patterns of family life that we work hard to sustain. And family life is important, because for each child, the family is the first and best school of faith, of prayer and of virtuous living.

What does this mean for us here in St Philip Evans? This weekend we are asked to make a financial contribution to the Bishops’ Home Mission Fund, so there will be a retiring collection. But more practically, what can we do? It seems to me, as your parish priest, that not many of us feel confident enough to pass on the Good News of Jesus to other people. So our focus for the next three years in this parish will be on deepening and strengthening our own faith. This coming Monday, our monthly Call to Question group begins a new course, The Giftlooking at how the Holy Spirit helps us to do this. There are still places available at next month’s diocesan Proclaim’15 conference, and I will be happy to pay the costs for any parishioner who wishes to attend. In the coming months, we will begin to put in place other activities where adults and whole families can go to learn more about the message of Jesus received by our Church. This time next year we will have a Parish Mission. And most pressing at the moment, we have not yet got Children’s Liturgy up and running.

It’s vital that we provide the best possible experience of church for our children at every Sunday Mass. Our first group of volunteers are currently being DBS-checked, but nothing can be launched until they are fully checked and trained. Already, some volunteers have dropped out. We need some of you to replace them, so we can build up a healthy team where no one person is left having to share too much of the load. If we don’t pass on our faith to our children, our church will die. And only we who come to weekend Mass here are in a position to work with our children. So this responsibility is on us – and my share of the responsibility is making sure that the training we need is available. If you don’t feel ready, today, to share your faith with our children – what are you going to do about it?

Resources from the National Proclaim’15 Event in Birmingham are available online.