Valentine’s Day is around the corner and many people are thinking about how they can best show their love to someone. Although it is countercultural, the Church holds up faithful, Christ-centered marriage as the most satisfying and complete answer to this question.
This past week Pope Francis paid tribute to spouses who live out their marriage with unity and fidelity. They give the world what he called “an example of true love” that serves as “a silent sermon to all.” As the Church joins numerous other churches in celebrating National Marriage Week, Feb. 7-14, the gift of marriage lived well must be at the center of our witness.
For instance, Pope Francis once told the story of a couple that he met who were celebrating 60 years of marriage. He asked them if they were happy and they responded, “We are in love.” Their love enabled them to persevere through the difficulties of raising children and the inevitable sorrows and sufferings of life, such that they could tell the pope that after 60 years, they are still in love. Is this the hopeful, positive vision of marriage that we are promoting?
Their beautiful witness is a sign that real, lasting love is possible despite the significant drop in marriage rates, the rise in divorce and the increasingly short-lived nature of relationships we see today. Through the graces offered in marriage, holiness and genuine happiness can be found, a fact that is supported by many numerous sociological studies.
At the same time, there are many signs pointing to marriage declining in the U.S. The rate of married people has declined from a high of 72 percent in 1960 to around 50 percent in 2016. Another sign of the health of marriage from a Catholic perspective is how open people are to children. The Center for Disease Control’s recently released 2017 data shows that the country hit a 30-year low this past year with a birthrate of 1.76 births per woman — 2.1 children per woman is considered the replacement rate. Colorado came in even lower at 1.63 births per woman.
These results should prompt us to question how much we are doing to support and encourage marriage and to foster a culture of life within them. We must help Catholics understand the three goods of marriage: fidelity to one’s spouse, a lifelong commitment and the gift of children. In addition to promoting understanding, we should ask what we are doing to encourage openness to life and to support those who have children in our parishes, neighborhoods and world.
Some practical ideas that parishes can consider include: hosting events that model good dating practices, recruiting mentor couples for accompanying engaged couples preparing for marriage, and providing financial, emotional and spiritual support for struggling families. I am sure there are many other innovative ways that faithful people can create to respond to this reality, some of which already exist, such as the Building Family Culture retreats offered by Dr. Jared Staudt, the Marriage Missionaries apostolate, Marriage Encounter retreats and Families of Character.
As people of faith, we should above all take hope in the truth that holiness and happiness in marriage are possible with God’s help. St. Therese of Lisieux offers us the example of her parents, who were declared saints in 2015. She wrote of Louis and Zelie Martin: “God gave me a father and a mother who were more worthy of heaven than of earth.”
“Marriage,” as Pope Francis has stated, “is the most beautiful thing that God has created,” since it reflects the unity and love of God. May we as a Church work to support and strengthen marriage so that the silent, daily witness of married couples reflects God in our midst and builds up our society.