A notice in July 2018 of the death of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle in the US at age 96 brought to mind a document I have cherished. His 1982 Pastoral Letter on the Sacrament of Matrimony is summarised below by T Rowland.
LIVING IN LOVE, GROWING IN INTIMACY AND BELONGING IS THE CALLING OF MARRIED COUPLES IN THE CHURCH AND FOR THE CHURCH.
In brief the Pastoral Letter outlines the role of the Sacrament of Matrimony and its relationship to the church. Marriage is a commission from Christ to enrich the church in a singularly important way. He writes, “Matrimony is not so much something that a couple receives as something that a couple becomes.” It exists not in the abstract but in the concrete relationships of baptised married couples. By undertaking to be sacrament husband and wife assume the responsibility to be a sign for the ongoing presence of Jesus in the midst of the church in a unique way, in their marred life. The church not only declares “you need the church to live your sacrament” it also declares, “the church needs you to be its sacrament.” (8) Their fundamental witness has to do with what is fundamental to marriage; intimacy and belonging. These qualities are integral to the life of the church and this witness speaks to the calling from the Lord, “ by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 24:35) With these qualities the good we accomplish testifies that the Spirit of God is among us, makes credible the Good News which we proclaim and works powerfully to transform the world.
Identified models are often used to describe the church, as institution, communion of persons, sacrament or sign of God’s saving work, herald of God’s word and servant of the human race on behalf of God. Each and collectively they are enriched by matrimony which provides a unifying context. The witness of sacramental marriage calls the church to a love of communion not just cooperation, and oneness of life not just of shared endeavour. Their example should challenge us as people of faith to reach beyond the issues which divide us, to seek communion with one another and to open our relationships to intimacy and belonging. Scripture uses marriage as an allegory to reveal how God envisions his relationship to his people.
· No other facet of human experience as aptly describes the passionate and unreserved quality of God’s love for us.
· Nothing better mirrors God’s commitment to us than the relationship of husband and wife.
· Nothing better images his understanding, compassion and readiness to forgive.
· No other comparison serves as well to communicate the creative and hope-filled aspects of God’s love for the church, or the inexhaustible power of His love to heal the pains of our isolation, loneliness or estrangement.
In addition sexuality, integral to the spirituality of marriage, expresses a unique kind of holiness, of oneness in life, experienced in sexual intimacy, as a calling to complete each other’s personhood. This is by acting as a channel of Christ’s redeeming love to each other and then, as one, to show forth that same love to the community of God’s people. Through his living sacramental couples Jesus touches and forms his church in sanctifying love as leaven permeates and transforms dough.
The commitment of a couple transcends the limits of time and extends into eternity . Even when a spouse dies their communion continues. So it is in the church with the communion of saints.
Couples then have a crucial role in the church’s heralding of the Gospel. As laity in the midst of the world they are brothers and sisters in the fullest sense. What married people are, speaks more profoundly to the world than what they say, even more profoundly than the words of the teaching office of the church.
Married couples are servant to the world through the church in life-giving and life-promoting in particular in married life and parenthood. Forming children until they mature is an outpouring of the love of spouses, not each parent separately or independently but a united love for the child as the fruit of the parent’s oneness. Home liturgy and family meals form a daily experience of bodily and spiritual nourishment.
Empowered by the Spirit of Jesus the church has a mission to heal the brokenness of the world. Its success depends on the inner strength of the church. Brokenness prevents the realisation of the bond of unity called by baptism. From their experience of hurt in a love relationship married people can understand and lead the way to a healing process. They know the temptation to retaliate, the loss of trust, bitterness and loneliness. “As long as people hug their hurts they cannot hug one another. Forgiveness is the taproot of reconciliation.”
Married couples are a reservoir of healing power for us all. More than show how to bind up our wounds, they can put their sacramental charism to work and be a channel of God’s healing.. Let our married people rise above the divisions which rend the church and reach out in genuine love and the people of God will be renewed.
Only recently we have recognised how vital is the potential of married couples, as married couples. They can no longer be overlooked. We can no longer afford to ignore the singular value of sacramental couples for the church’s life and mission. Ignoring and exclusion shows irreverence towards the “other Body of Christ.” Couples can best make us aware that addressing people’s needs is not the same as loving them. Even those in the single state are called to intimacy and belonging. Our ways of doing things, systems of decision-making, and structures of leadership must change to include married couples for the couple perspective to be clearly spoken.
This Pastoral Letter was presented in 1982 through a movement such as Marriage Encounter which had as its stated aim, “The renewal of the church through the renewal of the Sacraments of Matrimony and Holy Orders.” This has not been widely adopted by leadership or couples. Initial passion has largely dissipated and other renewal initiatives with a much more individualistic approach have been adopted. There are fewer marriages today, family life is in crisis. The more widely accepted marriage resource is Retrouvaille, a powerful programme but aimed at troubled marriages hoping for rediscovery and rebuilding dreams. What has become of the vision of the church vibrant and alive with the passionate and tender love of Jesus experienced in loving marriages and families?
Does this 1982 letter not find an echo in the writing of Pope Francis, in particular AMORIS LAETITIA? Toni Rowland From FAMILY MATTERS magazine No 3 2018.