Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Marriage: a school of sanctity

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Marriage is in the news for many reasons, in part because the nature of marriage as a natural institution is contested, even in law, and also because the contemporary breakdown of marriage is having enormous personal and social consequences.

The glossary of The Catechism of the Catholic Church says succinctly: “Marriage is a covenant or partnership of life between a man and woman, which is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children. When validly contracted between two baptized people, marriage is a sacrament.”

Because the original goodness of creation is marred by sin, marriage also suffers the consequences of human sinfulness. The contemporary statistics on marriage bear witness to its weakness as an institution in society. In 1970, 85.2 percent of children under 18 lived in a two-parent family. In 2005, only 68.3 percent of children under 18 lived in a two-parent family, and the percentage continued to drop. Today, 40 percent of births in the United States are to unwed parents. Single mothers (or fathers) have a much harder time raising their children and face the possibility of increasing personal isolation as they themselves grow older. Inequality in income and living conditions is directly proportional to family breakdown. The weakening of marriage and family life leads to grave social disorder.

Families are basic to human life because they are schools of human love. The love between husband and wife is sanctifying. Occasionally one hears that married couples are not well represented in the calendar of saints. This is true when one looks only at the list of feasts in the Roman Missal; but the complete official list of saints is to be found in the Roman Martyrology, which is still available, unfortunately, only in Latin. Recently, the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome published a short study that fills out the history of married saints in ways that can lead us to appreciate how spouses grow together in love of God and support one another in the quest for holiness.

The Martyrology makes mention of three couples from the New Testament. The feast of Sts. Joachim and Ann, parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is celebrated on July 26. The feast of Sts. Zachary and Elizabeth, parents of St. John the Baptist, is on Sept. 23. On July 8, the Martyrology lists Sts. Aquila and Priscilla, a married couple who gave hospitality to St. Paul in Corinth and then traveled with him to Syria. These couples were all involved in the history of the salvation of the human race at the time when God was revealing himself definitively in Jesus.

In the first Christian centuries, the Martyrology lists eight couples who suffered martyrdom together. Particularly touching is the commemoration on Sept. 25 of Sts. Paul and Tatta, who were martyred with their four sons, Sabinianus, Maximus, Rufus and Eugene, after they were accused of being Christians and subjected to torture in Damascus in Syria in the fourth century. What kind of home must theirs have been to prepare them to go to their death together for Christ?

The list of saints includes seven married couples in Europe during the Middle Ages. Probably the best known among them are Sts. Henry and Cunegunda. They were rulers in the Holy Roman Empire in the 11th century and are buried together in Bamberg, Germany. St. Henry died in 1024, and his feast is July 13. St. Cunegunda died at least a decade after her husband, and her entry into eternal life is celebrated on March 3. Other rulers who grew holy as husband and wife are King Stephen of Hungary, after whom a parish church is named in the archdiocese, and Blessed Gisella. Their feasts are Aug. 16 and May 7. Another parish church here is named after St. Isidore the Farmer (May 15). He and his wife, St. Maria de la Cabeza (Sept. 9), lived in 12th century Spain.

In Japan, between 1619 and 1627, 16 married couples were martyred. In Korea, in 1839, five couples suffered martyrdom together. The days of their deaths are their feast days in the liturgical calendar.

More recently, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux have been considered as candidates for official recognition as saints; and a Roman couple of the mid- 20th century, Luigi and Maria Quattrocchi, have been beatified. I believe that the lay movements that have graced the church’s life in recent decades will give us married couples whose sanctity will be officially recognized.

All the baptized are called to holiness. Marriage, with its special graces and challenges, is a way of learning how to love, how to sacrifice oneself for spouse and children. When marriage is a sacrament, Christ himself unites for life in one flesh a man and a woman for the sake of family. The couples in the Roman Martyrology are both models and intercessors for those who desire to become saints as husband and wife.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago