Last week, I met a young mother who’d spent a year studying Catholic teaching on the family. I asked her what the one most important message was that Catholic preachers should share. Her answer? “The best way to love your children is to love your spouse.”
Today’s Bible readings lead us into the fraught area of family relationships. Martha is at odds with her sister, Mary, and tries to draw Jesus Himself into the conflict. They also remind us that God loves families. God’s unexpected promise to Abraham resulted in the birth of a son, Isaac, grandfather of the 12 children who would be the ancestors of the Israelites. Jesus was born to the family of Mary and Joseph, and befriended the household of another Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
In families, we can find amazing love. And in families, we will experience annoying strife. Martha falls into the trap of putting her own goals first – getting the housework done. Jesus points out that Mary has chosen what is truly valuable. In our own age, Pope Francis has written about family tensions and suggests how we can find joy. What he has written is especially important for relationships between husbands and wives, but much applies also to every group of family members who live under one roof.
Within families, we must use the words “please”, “thanks”, and “sorry” every day. There are no perfect families; but as we address together our limits, defects and imperfections, we grow in our ability to love and can hope that “the best is yet to come”.
One big question young people ask is why two people should bother to get married rather than just living together. Marriage is a declaration that two people wish to start a new social unit: independent of their parents but taking responsibility for each other. Marriage allows each spouse to declare in a public ceremony that they have found their partner to be worthy of unconditional love! More than that, there’s strong evidence that a couple is much more likely to stay together if the partners have made public promises to each other.
Pope Francis notes that lovers are looking for something permanent. Children and friends of married couples long for their love to endure. All humans have an instinct for sealing a permanent bond; for us as Christian believers, we see that such a vow is an image of God’s faithfulness to us. Even so, the Pope reminds us to be realistic: no human marriage can perfectly reflect the love of the Blessed Trinity.
It’s a good thing to grow old together, to care for one another’s needs. This needs a commitment to unselfishness. For many young people, this is a scary thought – if I make a lifelong promise, am I closing off my other options? Yes – but consider the alternative! If I’m not willing to make a lifelong promise, can I reasonably expect another person to always be there for me? No. Marriage isn’t always pleasurable, but there can be joy experienced even amid sorrow as couples deal with ups and downs, growing ever closer in friendship.
Pope Francis knows that the way we do family is changing. In past ages, it would have been normal for a husband to go out to work and make the big decisions, and for a wife to do all the housework. Now, the Pope notes, there’s a more equal sharing of responsibility, and better communication between husband and wife. And communication is key! Mary knew that the most important thing on that day was to sit and listen to Jesus. We too must make time to listen to God – but we must also take time to listen to the important people in our lives.
One great sadness for me as a priest comes when women speak with me about the ups and down of their married life. I often ask whether their husband would be willing to go on a marriage enrichment weekend – or if they are facing serious relationship problems, whether they have considered marriage counselling. The most common reply is “Oh no, my husband would never be willing to go to anything like that.” So just for a moment, I want to speak to the husbands present at this Mass:
As husbands, you have made a promise to love your wife. You cannot love your wife properly unless you take time to understand her needs. It’s natural for us as men to resist the idea that we need help with relationships. That little proud voice in our heads says: “Just give me time, I can figure it out!” But remember that Jesus, the perfect man, sacrificed his life for the Church. You, Christian husbands are called to put aside your pride whenever it gets in the way of making your marriage a great marriage. Men of God, I place before you a challenge: Before this day has ended, ask your wife whether she would like to go with you on a retreat for married couples. Or if you know there is some big unresolved issue between the two of you, ask her whether she would find it helpful to try marriage counselling. Husbands, the question you put to your wife today might just be the best one since you asked: “Will you marry me?”
In any important relationship, we must take time to deeply listen to one another. No matter how much you think you’re in the right, affirm the other person’s right to have their own perspective – indeed, welcome the fact that they see things differently. Don’t raise awkward ideas needlessly, or speak in a tone of voice which could cause offence – and deal with the most painful issues sensitively.
How did Jesus resolve this family dispute? He asked Martha: “What’s really important?” The young mother I met wanted husbands and wives to know “The best way to love your children is to love your spouse.” All of us are called to “love our neighbour”. So whatever is causing stress in your family right now, reflect on the Lord’s question: “What’s really important?” Choose your answer carefully, because you will be living with it for the rest of your life!
Further thoughts for this Blog and the Parish Bulletin:
Pope Francis reminds us that we should show affection and concern and concern for those we love – don’t regard the other person as a threat, or someone who needs to be proved wrong. Even something as simple as a glance can signal our care and concern; when this is not offered, when a person becomes “invisible”, they will act up, with a desire to be noticed! (On that note, I will make a pre-emptive apology. One of my personal weaknesses is tunnel vision – if I have ever walked past you in the supermarket without saying hello, please assume it’s because I was scanning the shelves for the next purchase, not because I noticed you and chose to blank you!)
We are called to be witnesses to the love of God and the goodness of marriage. Christians must be seen to be willing to lay down their lives for others, and forgive without condemning; parents do this instinctively.
Violence begets violence within families; each family should foster open and supportive relationships, good communication and shared activities. Broken families lose their ability to shield members from addictive temptations. We recognise the very difficult choices faced by single mothers in situations of poverty; we must not rush to criticise their life-choices but find ways to offer the healing message of the Gospel.
Migration disrupts or destroys families, especially when enforced by violence. The Church has a special call to work with migrants, and is especially concerned about Christians persecuted in the Middle East.
The Catholic Church offers useful resources to support marriage and family life in England and Wales: www.catholicfamily.org.uk – the American Bishops have some very useful resources too at www.foryourmarriage.org. If you are married to a person active in another Christian denomination, you will find support from other people who understand the joys and tensions of this situation at www.interchurchfamilies.org.uk.
If you are ready to go on a weekend which will enrich your marriage, WorldWide Marriage Encounter wwme.org.uk offers residential weekends and SmartLoving smartloving.org offers non-residential weekends or days. If you are feeling more ambitious and can devote six days, the Chemin Neuf community www.chemin-neuf.org.uk runs a “Cana Week” in South-West England each summer. Or if it’s simply not possible for you to go away at the moment, you can work through the REFOCCUS Marriage Enrichment programme from www.foccusinc.com at home.
If you are aware that there are more serious issues in your marriage which you need to address, Marriage Care can help: phone 0800 389 3801 for an appointment or visit www.marriagecare.org.uk. Retrouvaille www.retrouvaille.org is a mainly Catholic group offering retreats and day workshops for married couples in difficulty, and will be running a day in Hertfordshire on 16 September 2016. Finally, if you are not comfortable with the way your partner is treating you, but don’t know where else to turn, be aware that there is a 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline which you can access on 0808 2000 247.
Reading Amoris Laetitia: all references are to paragraph numbers.
- Marriages in difficulty: 38, 62, 231-252
- Love in relationships: 89-119
- Love in marriage: 27-29, 120-141
- Passion, sexual violence, celibacy: 142-162
- Violence, refugees, poverty 46, 49, 51