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The Celebration Of Marriage

January 6, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


In the salvific plan of God, the vast majority of people are called to the married state of life. At the same time, however, as we saw in last week’s column, “Matrimony is not an obligation for everyone, especially since God calls some men and women to follow the Lord Jesus in a life of virginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . They become a sign of the absolute supremacy of Christ’s love and of the ardent expectation of his glorious return” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 342).
By renouncing the great good of married life, generous men and women who answer that special call and receive the essential graces to live a celibate or virginal life are able to concentrate unreservedly on the things of the Lord.
As the Second Vatican Council fathers state: “The chastity ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 19:12) which religious profess . . . frees the heart of man in a unique fashion (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-35) so that it may be more inflamed with love for God and for all men” (Perfectae Caritatis, n. 12 § 1). The acceptance of celibacy or virginity to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev. 14:4) reminds us that even the mystery of marriage will one day pass away and the Bridegroom will return.
All vocations, to be sure, come from the Lord — those called to married life as well as those called to consecrated life reinforce and support one another. Early Church Father and Archbishop of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407), greatly renowned as a “golden-mouthed” orator, beautifully expressed this great truth when he proclaimed:
“Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be particularly good. It is something better than what is admitted to be good that is the most excellent good” (De virg. 10, 1; as cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1620).
The Catechism now considers the celebration of the Sacrament of Matrimony between two Catholics, an event which normally takes place during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In a supernatural and mysterious way, the joining of a Catholic man and woman in the indissoluble bond of marriage is bound up with the union of Christ and the Church, and “it is in the sacrifice of the Mass that Christ’s love for his Church is made manifest” (The Didache Series: The Sacraments [DS-S], p. 193).
For this reason, it is most fitting that “the spouses should seal their consent to give themselves to each other through the offering of their own lives by uniting it to the offering of Christ for his Church made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and by receiving the Eucharist so that, communicating in the same Body and the same Blood of Christ, they may form but ‘one body’ in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10:17)” (CCC, n. 1321).
The Catechism makes reference to Pope St. John Paul II’s monumental 1981 apostolic exhortation On the Role of the Catholic Family in the Modern World to recall the great dignity that should be afforded the celebration of the Sacrament of Matrimony.
“Inasmuch as it is a sacramental action of sanctification,” states the Holy Father, “the celebration of marriage — inserted into the liturgy, which is the summit of the Church’s action and the source of her sanctifying power (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10) — must be per se valid, worthy, and fruitful” (Familiaris Consortium, n. 67 § 2; as cited in CCC, n. 1622).
Significantly, the Catechism reminds “the bride and groom to prepare themselves for the celebration of their marriage by receiving the sacrament of penance” (ibid.). Why is this so important? Matrimony is a sacrament of the living, meaning that it is efficacious, or fruitful, only if one’s soul is in the state of grace.
“Anyone who receives a Sacrament of the Living in the state of mortal sin,” states Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, “commits a sacrilege and deprives himself of the special graces of the Sacrament received” (Basic Catholic Catechism Course [BCCC], p. 181).
Fr. Hardon continues by explaining that even though the marriage may still be valid, the sacramental graces proper to Matrimony are not conferred until the concerned persons are reconciled to God through valid reception of the Sacrament of Penance.
Until then, the special graces associated with the sacrament linger, in a manner of speaking, in a kind of dormant condition — in a state which hardly bodes well for the future marital bliss of the couple.
Who is the minister of Matrimony, and in what does the form and matter of the sacrament consist?
“According to the Latin tradition,” teaches the Catechism, “the spouses, as ministers of Christ’s grace, mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church” (CCC, n. 1623).
Although surprising to some, the bishop, priest, or deacon is not the minister of the sacrament. “Even though the priest presides at the wedding, celebrates Mass, initiates the vows, and offers a number of prayers for the couple, [he] does not ‘marry’ them” (DS-S, p. 192).
He simply witnesses the vows of the couple — it is the man and the woman who are the ministers, administering the Sacrament of Matrimony to one another.
In his substantial work entitled What God Has Joined . . . The Sacramentality of Marriage (SaM), Fr. Peter J. Elliott expertly summarizes the three elements of form, matter, and minister:
“In the silence of a parish church, in the presence of a priest, their families and friends, a baptized man and a baptized woman face each other and exchange the consent of Marriage. The simple words they address to one another are words of great power, words which change reality. Their consent is the form of the sacrament. Within that form is the mutual giving of oneself to the other, which is the matter of the sacrament. And they themselves are the ministers” (p. 119).
The 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) codifies the definition of and importance attached to matrimonial consent:
“The consent of the parties, legitimately manifested between persons qualified by law, makes marriage; no human power is able to supply this consent. Matrimonial consent is an act of the will by which a man and a woman mutually give and accept each other through an irrevocable covenant in order to establish marriage” (CIC, canon 1057 §§ 1-2).
Consent is “the most decisive element of the marriage covenant and the one that causes its efficacy” (Code of Canon Law Annotated, p. 807). Neither the parents of the persons entering into marriage, nor the juridical system, nor any other human power can supply this consent, which is the visible sacramentum tantum, or sign, of Matrimony.
Fr. Hardon elaborates further:
“The essence of marriage as a Sacrament of the New Law consists not in the priestly blessing given in the celebration of marriage, but in the very marriage contract itself. Hence, the matter and form of the Sacrament of Marriage are found in the mutual consent between two baptized persons contracting Marriage. The quasi-matter (because it is not, strictly speaking, a material object) and the quasi-form (because it is not, strictly speaking, a verbal formula) are respectively the mutual handing over and the mutual acceptance of rights and duties over each other’s bodies in view of the procreation and education of offspring and their mutual spousal love. Out of this contractual exchange arises what is called the permanent bond of marriage” (BCCC, pp. 177-178).
Thus, as expressed in The Didache Series, “it is the spouses themselves who form the matter or material symbol in the Sacrament of Matrimony. The Sacrament begins when the couple exchanges vows as an expression of their commitment to each other and is completed when it is consummated by the couple through the physical expression of their marital love. In light of this, the very bodies of the spouses, given to each other completely, become a powerful and efficacious means by which God’s grace is poured upon the new couple through the Sacrament” (DS-S, p. 191).
In other words, just as is true for each of the seven sacraments, Christian marriage is an efficacious sign which confers the grace it signifies: “Sacramental marriage is the means through which God provides for the spiritual and temporal well-being of a husband and wife and for their children” (BCCC, p. 177).

The Holy Spirit

The Catechism is diligent in pointing out, however, that a different rite and belief took hold in the Eastern Church (cf. CCC, n. 1623). As specified in the Corpus Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium (CCEO), priests are witnesses to the mutual consent given by the spouses (cf. CCEO, canon 817), but for the validity of the sacrament the blessing of the priest is also necessary (cf. CCEO, canon 828).
“Yet this is not to say that consent is lacking,” explains Fr. Elliott. “Even in a different mode of celebration in the East, we find the consent of spouses assumed and respected” (SaM, p. 121).
The Catechism closes its subsection on the celebration of marriage by reminding the faithful that “in the epiclesis of this sacrament the spouses receive the Holy Spirit as the communion of love of Christ and the Church. The Holy Spirit is the seal of their covenant, the ever-available source of their love and the strength to renew their fidelity” (CCC, n. 1624).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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