The “Challenge” of a Marital Spirituality
When I was in my early 20s and had begun to attend daily Mass, I recall the excitement that the presence of a young person caused the other parishioners. I would often have elderly ladies approach me and say, “You are so holy! You are going to be a priest.” They were well-intentioned and very supportive of me; however, underlying these sentiments was a notion that holy people become priests and religious whereas the “not-holy” get married. This idea is similarly expressed in the statements such as so-and-so has a “vocation” or when we pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life and omit the mention of marriage as vocation.
Yet, the Second Vatican Council had reaffirmed the universal vocation to holiness.[i] All Christians, regardless of their state of life, are called to a life of sanctity. If we are honest, I think it would be fair to say that few married Christians know this. Moreover, how many married Christians know how to live holiness as married persons? It is this problem that repeatedly presented itself when I was involved in the pastoral care of marriage. Many couples desired to grow in holiness as married persons but were unsure as to the means of doing this.
In the first place, many people understood baptism as the primary source of holiness whereas marriage was merely the environment in which this holiness is lived. From this perspective marriage does not contribute anything specifically to sanctity. However, the Church has clearly articulated in the last hundred years that the Sacrament of Marriage itself is a source of holiness.[ii]
Related to this was another issue: for a considerable number of Christians, celibacy constitutes the “form” (the shape or figure) of holiness. As such, for many people the more the married person lives a spirituality that approximates the celibate life the holier he or she is. When I was discerning the priesthood a married male friend of mine said that he envied my life because of its simplicity as I could devote myself unhindered to daily prayer. If we ignore the fact that this is a highly idealistic view of celibacy and one therefore quite removed from reality, there is another issue. Prayer and holiness are not an escape from the craziness of married life; they are supposed to help us enter more deeply into this intimate communion of life and love. Furthermore, the problem with the view that celibacy is the normative structure of holiness is that while celibacy is a complementary vocation to marriage there will also be significant differences in how married persons pursue holiness.
Thus the question, how do married persons grow in sanctity as married persons, is significant in light of the Council’s call to holiness. St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body provides an answer to this problem. John Paul referred to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist as the “means – infallible and indispensable – for forming the Christian spirituality of married life and family life.”[iii] In this article I would like to discuss the Sacrament of Penance as a source of holiness for married Christians. First, I will look at Penance as a personal encounter with the Father of mercies. Second, I will then outline the basic form of a marital spirituality. Finally, I will consider the effect of the sacrament of Penance on marriage in light of the reality of marriage as a communion of persons called to give a prophetic witness to the Cross.
The Revision of the Sacrament of Penance
In the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council, tremendous advances were made in liturgical scholarship, including insights into the history and theology of the Sacrament of Penance. In light of this, the Council document on the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) decreed that the Rite of Penance was to be revised so that it more clearly expressed both the nature and effect of the sacrament.[iv] There was a particular concern here for an understanding of the Church as communion and consequently a notion of sin as affecting the Christian’s relationship, not only with God, but with the Church.[v]
Thus the rite was revised to express more clearly the grounding of the person’s relationship with the Blessed Trinity through his or her communion with Christ and the Church. We see the Trinitarian, personal, and ecclesial language expressed in the revised formula for absolution: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.”[vi]
These words reveal that in the sacrament, the penitent really and personally encounters the “Father of mercies.” Mercy is a complex word and it can be abused in the same way that we can also misuse the word “love.” John Paul II’s entire pontificate and especially his encyclical on God the Father, Rich in Mercy (Dives in misericordia), provides us with a deep meditation on the nature of mercy.
First, the mercy of God is faithful. God is faithful to his covenant and ultimately to himself. Because of God’s fidelity, that is, his mercy, God is quick to forgive and we can always rely on his forgiveness.[vii] Second, the word mercy expresses God’s free and gratuitous tenderness that flows from the depths of his heart.[viii] Third, the Latin word for mercy (misericordia) means to have a miserable or a suffering heart. While God does not “suffer” as he is perfect, nevertheless, Scripture speaks of the sorrow, grief, and even anger that God expresses on account of our sins. God in his infinite goodness, and in his unchanging and steadfast love, abhors evil and due to his mercy draws near to the one who is suffering.[ix] The “suffering” of the Father’s merciful heart is most deeply revealed in Christ’s pierced heart on the Cross. Finally, mercy is a love that focuses on the dignity of the one who is suffering in order to lift him up.[x]
This description of mercy as fidelity, tenderness, God’s drawing near to us, and raising us up is definitively revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As such, mercy is not just one of God’s attributes like omnipotence or omniscience, rather, mercy is the way that love reveals itself when it encounters sin.[xi] In fact, John Paul wrote that mercy is love’s “second name”[xii] and then later in another document he stated: “God is mercy.”[xiii]
What becomes clear is that sacramental Penance cannot be reduced to a mere mechanical reading off of my sins nor is it something to run from out of fear. Rather, in the sacrament we personally encounter the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the gift of mercy. This mercy restores us to communion with God and the Church.
What is marriage? Marriage between Christians is a sacrament of Christ’s self-gift on the Cross for his Bride the Church. The vow made by each spouse is assumed into Christ’s “yes” to his Father and the Church. It is, therefore, Christ himself who is the principal agent of the sacrament; he acts through the mediation of the couple, he receives the spouses and gives them to each other.[xiv]
In giving Christian spouses to one another Christ also bestows upon them the gift of the Holy Spirit, as the seal and source of their love. The Spirit, who is the Communion of the Father and the Son, dwells within marital communion, drawing the spouses closer to one another and making them fruitful with grace, the very life and love of God.
The task of sacramental marriage is for spouses to allow themselves to be taken up daily into this Divine Communion so that their love may be transformed by its encounter with the life-giving love of Communion within God and may truly share and radiate this love. Hence, by grace, marriage participates in God himself who is an eternal exchange of love (c.f. CCC, no. 221). Vatican II stated explicitly that married love is redemptive and a participation in Divine Love when it taught: “Authentic conjugal love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church.”[xv]
Therefore, not only is sacramental marriage a participation in Divine Love but it also communicates this Love. This is the reality of marriage; it is a communion of persons. Married persons are called to live their communion with great intensity. Such a call obviously takes place amidst the trials of sleepless nights with sick children, meddling in-laws, financial stresses, etc. There is the danger today more than ever of spouses living parallel lives, which is antithetical to communion, both on a practical level but even in their spiritual life. This does not mean that spouses should never engage in individual prayer but it does mean that they should pray together and that their individual prayer should lead them to a deeper unity. Thus, communion is given to married persons both as a gift and a responsibility to be nurtured each and every day.
This leads to the second aspect of a marital spirituality: the prophetic witness of marriage. Vatican II and subsequent papal teaching have taught that Christian marriage has the duty to bear witness to faithful and fruitful love.[xvi] In summary, these documents teach that in their faithful and life-giving love for one another Christian spouses give witness to fidelity, to the Paschal Mystery, to Christ before the world, and to the fidelity of God to his covenant. Such witness is expressed in a Collect of the second typical edition of the Rite of Marriage: “O God…so that, as you make their love fruitful…may [they] become, by your grace, witnesses to charity itself.”[xvii] Through their witness Christian spouses therefore become prophets of “charity itself,” that is, of the love within God himself. They are able to do this because of their sacramental participation in Christ’s love for the Church. This participation makes of them prophets of the Good News of the Gospel and of the love that flows from the merciful heart of the Father.
Marriage and the Encounter with the Father of Mercies
We now come to our conclusion in discussing the contribution of Penance to the holiness of married persons. I wish to make three points in summary. First, in the Sacrament of Penance, spouses encounter the love of God that “for our sake” takes the form of mercy. In Penance spouses personally encounter and receive mercy. Furthermore, insofar as marriage is a real participation in the love with which Christ loved the Church, the marital vows contain the inner logic of merciful love. The pledge to faithfully love and honor the other through all of the trials and joys of life is a concrete expression of and a profound participation in mercy. To paraphrase Christ himself, “Christian spouses, be merciful as your Father is merciful” (cf. Luke 6:36). Thus we see that spouses encounter and receive mercy in the sacrament and that they are called to mediate it to each other. This might seem humanly impossible at times, but we can have the firm hope that Christ will grant us the graces that we need.
This leads to my second point. This receiving of and participation in God’s mercy enables spouses to form their communion according to the very structure of mercy, both to each other and to their children. The love of husband and wife therefore becomes a love that is faithful, tender, suffering, and elevating. In this way, spouses reveal to the world what Christ’s love looks like: it is a love that is spousal and redemptive, merciful and forgiving.
Finally, we see the contribution of marriage to the new evangelization. John Paul II charged the Church with the task of proclaiming the Father’s merciful love.[xviii] As such, spouses participate in the evangelical mission of the Church when they receive mercy, allow it to become the source of their marital communion, and mediate it to each other, to their children, and to others. In this way the Sacrament of Penance becomes indispensable in empowering spouses to fulfill their prophetic role to witness to the Gospel and to live the holiness to which they are called.
[i] Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Chapter 5.
[ii] See Leo XIII, Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae (1880), no 8; Pius XI, Casti Connubii (1930), nos. 38 and 40; Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no. 11 and Gaudium et Spes, no. 48; John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (1982), no. 56.
[iii] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston MA: Pauline Books and Media, 2006), (TOB) 641.
[iv] Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 72.
[v] See Rite of Penance, no. 5. Also, Karl Rahner, “Forgotten Truths Concerning the Sacrament of Penance” in Theological Investigations Vol. II, trans. by Karl-H Kruger (London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1963), 137-8.
[vi] Rite of Penance, no. 46. Compare the language of the revised ritual with the more juridical formulation: “May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; and I by his authority absolve you from every bond of excommunication and interdict, insofar as I am able and you have need. Then, I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” [My translation] Rituale Romanum, Pauli V Pontificis Maximi jussu editum, et a Benedicto XIV (Romae: Typis S. Congregationis de Propaganda Fide, 1864).
[vii] John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia (1980) (DM), footnote, 52.
[ix] John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem (1986), no. 39: “[I]n the “depths of God” there is a Father’s love that, faced with man’s sin, in the language of the Bible reacts so deeply as to say: “I am sorry that I have made him.” …But more often the Sacred Book speaks to us of a Father who feels compassion for man, as though sharing his pain. In a word, this inscrutable and indescribable fatherly “pain” will bring about above all the wonderful economy of redemptive love in Jesus Christ…
[x] John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, no. 6.
[xi] Ibid, no. 13: “It is precisely because sin exists in the world, which ‘God so loved...that He gave his only Son,’ that God, who ‘is love,’ cannot reveal Himself otherwise than as mercy.”
[xii] Ibid, no. 7.
[xiii] John Paul II, Reconciliation and Penance (1984), no. 22.
[xiv] Marc Cardinal Ouellet, Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 90.
[xv] Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 48.
[xvi] Gaudium et Spes, no. 49 and 52; Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, no. 25; John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, no. 51, TOB 544; and Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1647.
[xvii] Translation is from The Roman Missal: English Translation According to the Third Typical Edition (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011).
[xviii] DM, no. 13.
This article is originally found on pages 9-12 of the printed edition.