Life 'consecrated' to God, parallels marriage in church
October 12, 2006
My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
On behalf of my nephew and his wife, thank you all for your prayers and good wishes. Many of you knew that I was in Pennsylvania last weekend, to celebrate their marriage and to be with my family. The Nuptial Mass was celebrated in St. Thomas the Apostle Chapel in Glen Mills. The parish was established in 1729. The church was built in 1852. As every priest knows, it is sometimes difficult to celebrate a Wedding Ceremony for a family member. Even now that I am a bishop, they did not listen very well at the rehearsal! We did make it work however and a good time was had by all.
Since October is "Respect Life Month," I was pondering how the sacrament of marriage can reflect what the Church teaches and has always taught about the sanctity of each human life. All the sacraments enhance and emphasize that dignity and sanctity, because in every sacrament, Jesus Christ Himself touches our lives in real ways. The great sacrifice of God's own life for ours, the exchange on the Cross of Christ's sinlessness for our sinfulness, transforms every soul in each sacrament.
In the sacrament of marriage, we have a wonderful image of Christ's love for the Church, as St. Paul describes in Ephesians 5. The love between a husband and a wife is a privileged love, where each spouse can learn to love another person completely, just as Christ loves the Church so completely that He gave His life for her.
Our Pope Benedict XVI, when he issued his first encyclical last year, "Deus Caritas Est (God is Love)," talked about the two kinds of love called eros and agape. Eros is the love from desire; it is the attraction within our hearts to the goodness of some good thing. At its most powerful, it is physical attraction, erotic in the common meaning of that term. When eros is reciprocated, it satisfies our desire and makes us happy in some way. Agape is love from sacrifice; it is the choice to prefer the good of someone else to our own good. Agapic love is Christ-like love. Christ's love for the Church, especially His love for her from the Cross, is the best example and spur to agapic love that we know.
In marriage, both eros and agape can be combined and therefore purified. Eros puts a particular person's face on the sometimes abstract agapic love. Agape adds a spiritual dimension to our physical and emotional desire for our spouse's love. In marriage, we learn to love another person in both senses; and therefore we learn to love Christ more than we love ourselves. By loving Christ more than ourselves (that is, agapic love), we can also learn to love other people besides our spouse with agape, just as Christ does.
This starts within the family itself, with the Church's teaching on chastity, contraception and abortion. Physical love can only be Christ-like by being open to new life, the gift from God that completes the physical joining of husband of wife. Agape in marriage makes eros whole by teaching us the value of life at its origin.
In the Church ,we remember many great saints who were married and gave solid examples of how to love as Christ does. St. Joseph and St. Mary, of course, are not called the "Holy Family" for nothing! St. Peter was married, and was still able to follow Christ totally. St. Isidore the Farmer was a perfectly ordinary ninth-century Spanish peasant renowned for his holiness pious and devotion to his family especially his wife Monica. And there are many others, as well.
Parallel to marriage in the Church, we have the tradition of the life "consecrated" to God. Priests, monks and nuns, and consecrated lay people, all forego the good of the sacrament of marriage. In place of marriage, these men and women seek a different combination of eros and agape. By giving themselves totally to Christ, they try to love all others in a sacrificial way. Instead of desiring a physical and emotional union with another particular person, they desire that their union with every person be spiritual, in Christ, and of benefit for that other. Agape in consecrated life makes eros whole by teaching us the value of life in its spiritual end.
One of the great saints who demonstrates this path to Christ-like love is St. Teresa of Avila. She lived in Spain in the sixteenth century, and spent twenty years as a Carmelite nun before realizing that her spiritual life wasn't teaching her to love like Christ loves. She began a reform of her monastery that many did not understand or agree with, but eventually she was successful, and other monasteries copied her reforms. Today she is remembered as a saint and a Doctor of the Church, and her feast day is this Sunday, October 15.
In the wisdom of our Catholic tradition, we have these two parallel paths to learn how to love like Christ loves. Marriage and the consecrated life both perfect our desires for good things with an imitation of Christ's sacrificial love on the Cross. Both teach us the infinite value God sees in every human being, formed in His "image and likeness," and cherished from the moment of conception until natural death as a unique creation, worthy of love and respect.
I ask you to pray with me, especially throughout this month, that God will strengthen the marriages and families of all the faithful, the bedrock of our Church; and increase vocations to the consecrated life in our midst.
May God bless you with every spiritual and material blessing, most abundantly!
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless