Annual Marriage Mass with Renewal of Vows

12 Jul 2015

Introduction to the Annual Marriage Mass with Renewal of Vows
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, 12 July 2015

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for the celebration of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Annual Marriage Mass and Renewal of Vows. I am pleased to acknowledge Mr Chris Meney, Chancellor of the Archdiocese and Director of the Life, Marriage and Family Centre for the Archdiocese of Sydney with his staff. The real VIPs, of course, are the couples participating in today’s Mass, particularly those newlyweds married for a mere 50, 55, 60 or 65 years to whom I will be presenting certificates: a very warm welcome to them with their families and friends!  

Homily for the Annual Marriage Mass with Renewal of Vows
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, 12 July 2015

Two weeks ago, this year (29 June) I was privileged to concelebrate with Pope Francis and 45 other new archbishops from around the world on the Patronal Feast of Rome. We made a public promise of communion as Metropolitan Archbishops and witnessed the blessing of the pallium we would each wear as a sign of this. After Mass the Holy Father presented it to each of us with a charge to the Apostolic Nuncio to impose it on us in the near future in the presence of the bishops of our home province and the priests and people of our archdiocese – in my case on 25 July. This very happy occasion for me, my family, friends and colleagues marked the particular communion between the Pope and Metropolitans, between the Church of Rome and the major archdioceses, and between those sees and the surrounding ones. It reminded me to be a pontiff or bridge-builder in our region and from our region to the Holy See so that ours will be a Church of churches, truly united in Christ. But before anyone can be a metropolitan he must first be bishop of a particular flock; and the sign of this is not a ring of wool around his shoulders but a ring of gold around his finger, the ring that signifies a bishop’s almost marital relationship to his flock…

On the same day that of that pallium Mass in Rome a Californian couple, Alexander and Jeanette Toczko were to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary. Of Polish descent, these childhood sweethearts married in 1940 and had five children. So far they have ten grandchildren and six great grandchildren. Alex carried a photo of Jeanette taken on her First Communion Day in his wallet. So close were they their children say “their hearts beat as one”. A few months ago Alex aged 95 became bedbound after breaking his hip, but remained at home as his health declined. Shortly after celebrating their ‘anniversary’ – a few days early – Alex died. Jeanette hugged him and said: “See, this is what you wanted: you died in my arms and I love you. Wait for me, I’ll be there soon.” Within 24 hours Jeanette died too. Their wish to die in each other’s arms became a reality.

In our first reading today, the Prophet Amos is warned to get out of Bethel because the locals would tolerate his prophesying no longer (Am 7:12-15). So too the stories of the couples celebrating significant anniversaries at this time are “signs of contradiction” for our prevailing culture. Marriage, as traditionally understood, as universally understood when Jeanette, Alexander and our jubilarians entered into it, meant a comprehensive bodily, psychological and spiritual union between a man and a woman whereby they become “one flesh” and so found a family. That’s why these couples did not promise to become ‘spouses’ or ‘partners’ but to become ‘husband’ and a ‘wife’. That’s why they promised to be faithful (‘for better, for worse’, ‘to the exclusion of all others’) and fruitful (open to new life) and final (indissoluble, ’till death do us part’). These dimensions of real marriage make it a prophetic sign today, a sign of contradiction, because some want to reduce marriage to no more than a public statement of a physical-emotional bond between any two people. On that view the only thing that is really special about Alex and Jeanette or our jubilarians is that they persevered for so long. On the Christian view, on the other hand, what is so special about these relationships, is that they bring together for life people of opposite sex, of complementary sexuality, as ‘man and wife’, hopefully to found a family, the fundamental cell of Church and society, and to give their all to that end, exclusively and for life. Marriage brings together and attempts to hold together things that otherwise tend to fall apart: man and woman, sex and love, love and babies, parents and children…

To say this is not to criticize anyone. We all know and love people who have genuinely given marriage their all and yet it has fallen apart. We know and love others who have tried and failed to have children. We know and love others with same-sex attraction, who understandably want their friendships to last and be honoured. We know and love others whose vocation has been to remain single and find other ways to serve life and love. To say marriage is special is not to demean these other realities; rather it respects the diverse ways of being human and loving, not pretending away the differences.

But there are voices in our culture that no longer think marriage need be for life, or be open to children, or be exclusive, or be between man and wife. They write off as benighted and bigoted those who stand by marriage as traditionally understood. As a result Christian couples today can find themselves in a position like Amos; so too can faithful pastors and single people who stand by them and the institution of marriage. This can be an uncomfortable position, for some politically, culturally and commercially powerful forces are determined to silence any alternative to the politically correct position in this matter; to bully us all into accepting the deconstruction and redefinition of a fundamental institution; and to relegate questions of what marriage is and is for as secondary to an homogenizing ‘equality’.

In today’s Gospel Christ sends out the Twelve Apostles in pairs to proclaim the Gospel (Mk 6:7-13). Those apostles were, of course, same sex pairs, though no one then imagined they could be married! The bishops are, of course, the immediate successors of those apostles; but so, in an important sense, is every Christian. In many ways it is married couples who today must go out in pairs, preaching the Gospel, contending with the unclean spirits, entering homes and bringing healing to our society. True marriage is a form of preaching and therapy. It wordlessly bears witness to the Christian understanding of the human person and society, of our God-given mission to love not just with a self-serving, romantic, heart-shaped Valentine’s Day sort of love, but with a self-giving, redemptive, cross-shaped Easter Day sort of love.

Towards the end of his Letter to the Ephesians St Paul proposes marriage as an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph ch 5). There is a radical otherness about the two – like the otherness in opposite-sex marriages – yet they serve each other like spouses. Our second reading today comes from the beginning of that same epistle and calls Christ’s bride the Church to be “holy and spotless, and to live through love in his presence” so that He might shower the Church with gifts and seal her as his own (Eph 1:3-14). Without the experience of genuine opposite-sex marriage, however imperfect it always is, the analogy would make no sense; if both Christ and the Church aspired to be the bridegroom, or if both were brides, the theology would be unintelligible. So real marriage illuminates our understanding of the Christ-to-Church relationship. In turn, it strengthens our resolve to support marriages, so they really can be faithful, fruitful, final unions of people of opposite sex, while also supporting and loving people in other situations too. Thank-you dear married couples for your prophetic role in teaching us all how to love and to bear witness to Christ. May God bless you abundantly! May you all reach 75 years of marriage and die in each others arms!