"Before, priests used to marry people because it was the most normal thing in the world. In less than two generations we have realized that it is not normal at all. Now the one who marries is a champion who swims against the current".. This phrase of a veteran parish priest in our country is a generalized perception.
Recently the press has published statistics showing that the drop in the number of weddings is abysmal. It is true that often cooked figures have been disseminated that falsify reality, mixing weddings with remarriages and other circumstances. But despite the bias with which some try to illustrate the loss of influence of the Church in society, the statistics confirm a reality that we all - in particular parish priests - perceive: many people have abandoned the dream of forming a Christian home and giving children to the Church, as the old catechisms used to say.
The prevailing disorientation and the trends imposed by relativism have pushed many people to alternative ways of life outside the family. To get a general idea, of all the couples who live together in the family "more uxorio" -that is, as spouses without being spouses- only one-third enter marriage, and of these, less than one-third do so in the Church. It has gone from 75 % of canonical weddings in the early 2000s to just over 22 % in 2016. These are figures that do not paint an enthusiastic picture.
Living together without getting married
St. John Paul II warned in Novo Millenio Ineunte (n. 47) "that there is a widespread and radical crisis of this fundamental institution. In the Christian vision of marriage, the relationship between a man and a woman - a reciprocal and total relationship, unique and indissoluble - responds to God's primitive plan, obfuscated in history by 'hardness of heart', but which Christ has come to restore to its original splendor, revealing what God has willed 'from the beginning'".
Now it has become fashionable to talk about post-truthThe cultural battle that has provoked the emergence of the new media, that is, the perception affected by the subjective emotions and feelings of a phenomenon of any kind. And the cultural battle that has brought about the emergence of the post-truth aims to replace all anthropology based on natural law with another based on the social consensus of facts not infrequently contrary to right reason. It is, they say, the victory of freedom.
In his book How the Western world really lost God (Rialp, 2014), Mary Eberstadt points out that. "From the beginning, Christianity regulated through doctrine and liturgy the fundamental issues of birth, death and procreation. Moreover, some would say that Christianity (like Judaism from which it drew) focuses its attention on these matters even more than other religions, which brings us to the important question of obedience. How often it is said that the Church is nothing but a flock of sinners. But are they sinners who do not comply with the norms in which they believe or people who do not feel bound by those norms?
There seems to be no doubt that public opinion has come to believe that there is no moral rule that prevents more or less free cohabitation before or instead of marriage. The civil laws of many countries with a Christian tradition have ended up equating any type of cohabitation based on a sexual or affective bond.
Marriage is no longer considered an institution of priority social interest and, as a result, parliaments have repealed the provisions that gave it legal protection. It is hardly legally relevant anymore whether or not one is married or not. Moreover, being married can often be unfavorable. Many people, young or old, who are facing a second marriage, are perceived to be disinterested in the marriage formula.
In particular, many young Catholics indulge in some kind of free union that is so often camouflaged by the euphemism "free union".living together". And families have ended up accepting that their children are emancipated in this way, most of them thinking that it will be a preliminary step to marriage and family stability. But this is not always the case.
The first characteristic of this type of life as a couple is the absence of commitment. There is no ground underfoot. In the internal engine of the relationship, everything is prepared for the breakup, which may or may not come, but is intended to be as atraumatic as possible. Moreover, as the only sustenance of the relationship is the affective bond, both are exposed to a fragile cohabitation that will depend in so many cases on factors external to the couple, which makes them very vulnerable to falling in love with third parties or to emotional ups and downs related to professional projection or business success. Secondly, there is usually no common project, no personal life plan involving the couple. Children are therefore frequently excluded (21 % of cases).
Pastoral care of marriage and family
The Church has always, but with a greater urgency in recent decades, sought ways to overcome this harmful desertification.
Paul VI, with the encyclical Humanae Vita,e and John Paul II with the Familiaris consortio, gave life to a network of institutions that have proliferated in the service of all the countries of the world, from Institutes for the Family to Pastoral Councils for the Family and Catholic Centers for Family Orientation in universities, dioceses and parishes.
In many places, the bishops have implemented itineraries and catechesis for young people to enter marriage and for married couples to strengthen their bond and heal their family life. The pastoral councils established in Italy, for example, have certainly contributed to making Italy one of the countries in the European Union with the lowest divorce rate. Many dioceses and parishes have worked seriously and with great care to prepare engaged couples to take the step towards marriage or have invited them to delay it when there was a lack of a real commitment that would make it viable.
This is the direction indicated once again by Pope Francis in the Amoris laetitia (2016): "Both the upcoming preparation and the more prolonged accompaniment should ensure that the bride and groom do not see marriage as the end of the road, but rather that they assume marriage as a vocation that launches them forward, with the firm and realistic decision to go through all the trials and difficult moments together.
Pre-marital pastoral care and pastoral care of marriage should be above all a pastoral care of the bond, where elements are contributed that help both to mature love and to overcome difficult moments. These contributions are not only doctrinal convictions, nor can they be reduced to the precious spiritual resources that the Church always offers, but must also be practical ways, well-incarnated advice, tactics taken from experience, psychological orientations".
"All of this" -adds the Pope-The pedagogy of love cannot ignore the current sensitivity of young people, in order to mobilize them interiorly. In turn, in the preparation of the engaged couple, it should be possible to indicate to them places and persons, consultancies or available families, where they can go for help when difficulties arise. But we must never forget the proposal of sacramental Reconciliation, which allows us to place the sins and errors of the past life, and of the relationship itself, under the influence of God's merciful forgiveness and his healing power". (AL, 211).
New ways of thinking and living
Amoris laetitia contains precious keys that many parish priests are also describing as prophetic. It has given so much light to so many souls and has broken the prejudices of those who look at the Church with suspicion. Pope Francis proposes a challenge of unprecedented dimensions: to understand this new mentality and to strive to evangelize it. It is well known that it is no longer easy to argue with reason, and that neither the exposition of the harmony of the natural law nor the argument of the authority of the Popes or of the Magisterium helps today to lead the bride and groom to the altar.
The Holy Father suggests a path that has proven to have a singular rate of success: "De are aware of the weight of extenuating circumstances - psychological, historical and even biological - and it follows that, 'without diminishing the value of the Gospel ideal, we must accompany with mercy and patience the possible stages of growth of persons who are being built up day by day', making room for 'the mercy of the Lord who stimulates us to do the possible good'. I understand those who prefer a more rigid pastoral care that does not give rise to any confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus Christ wants a Church attentive to the good that the Spirit pours out in the midst of fragility: a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, 'does not renounce the possible good, even at the risk of being stained by the mud of the road' (cf. Mt. 5:15). (AL, 308).
In churches where many weddings are celebrated or where many pre-marriage courses are held - as in my case - it has been proven that the itinerary indicated by the Pope is the correct one. It is necessary to help young people to go into the depths of their conscience and ask themselves transcendental questions that will help them to take the right steps towards the desired goal of reaching a valid, firm and lasting marriage.
The task of the good shepherd
Getting married, as those who do it in the Church confess, is an impulse that comes from the heart. It is not a simple tradition, nor the result of overcoming the fear of commitment. It is something that "your body is asking for it", they say, "because you need stability". For those who have a little faith (often only one of the two), this interior demand brings them back to the Church, which in many cases they abandoned in adolescence. Here is where the role of the one who helps the shipwrecked who return home comes to the fore: how to welcome so many who aspire to marriage, but are disoriented, trapped by a frenetic life with wrong moral choices and ill-prepared to receive the sacraments?
The task of the shepherd who goes out to look not for one lost sheep but for ninety-nine and a half that have been scattered, requires today the creativity and enthusiasm of an artist. One must enter into their world - into their wandering - and evangelize from there.
Many young people are very shy of being judged for the way they live. Accepting no other norms than those imposed by the social environment, they often consider the Church as a kind of super-mother-in-law who sullenly reproaches them for their behavior.
How many engaged couples have breathed a sigh of relief when they realize that the priest not only does not frown when it is discovered that they have been living together for years, but also that the priest does not frown when it is discovered that the couple has been "amancebamiento"The Church encourages them to look forward to the step that will fill their lives with fullness through the sacrament of marriage.
How then to face the conversion prior to the sacrament? A good percentage are ready to go to confession and rebuild their lives. But the passage from a life far from moral norms to a Christian way of life is thorny. It is such a radical change that it is frightening or even lazy. Many will long for the "pots of meat". of sexual liberality, just as the Israelites missed the quiet comfort of slavery.
It is true that, from a technical point of view, the mission of the parish priest is to ensure the validity of the marriage to be contracted. As soon as the psychological maturity, sincerity and correctness of intentThe absence of malice or impediments, and the absence of fraud or impediments, we have the wickerwork to weave the basket of a conjugal covenant based on fidelity for life and openness to the children that God may send.
The experience of the last decades confirms that a lot of time must be devoted to stimulating the firmness of the "return to faith"or the awakening of a Christian life that has remained hibernating.
The ideal would be to begin catechization at an early age. But when one does not have so much time, it is necessary to consider a pastoral ministry of marriage in the medium term, in reality very short. The objective is that the project contemplates an inclined plane capable of situating them in the true dimension of the step they are going to take.
The proclamation of the Gospel to those about to be married is often a kerygmatic proclamation. Like the hearers of St. Peter at Pentecost, the bride and groom ask "what are we to do?" (Acts 2:37). And as "the decision to marry and to create a family must be the fruit of vocational discernment". (AL, 72), the revelation of God's plan for marriage takes hours. Many hours of dealing with each other. Not only with the priest, but above all with other families, spouses, engaged couples and engaged couples committed to the same ideal of life. To succeed in creating a Christian family, a true domestic church, in a world that has turned its back on what is sometimes disparagingly called "family".traditional"needs support.
In many dioceses of the world, groups of couples and young couples are working very well, dedicating time not only to catechesis or family orientation courses, but also to pray and share experiences together. There are very positive examples of this in Italy and the United States.
Chastity before marriage
In the case of cohabiting couples or those who have frequent sexual relations without being married, there are profound questions to be asked.
It is simply a fact that for many Catholics sex has gone from being a forbidden garden to a jungle with no laws other than those of personal whim. Many engaged couples who attend premarital courses are struck by the discovery that Christian doctrine does not consider licit the exercise of sexuality between singles.
The reflection here is to help the bride and groom understand that marriage is fundamentally about communication. The only rule by which communication is sustained, whatever the environment in which it takes place, is truthfulness. Well, what truthfulness is to communication is chastity to sex.
Chastity, far from being simple carnal abstinence, is the requisite for endowing the sexual relationship with the authenticity that makes it real and holy. It is not only serious attacks against chastity that show the malice of lust. In pathologies such as pornography or prostitution, the inauthenticity of the relationship is such that it brutally manifests its lie. Moreover, we confessors know that the sin that really damages families in a merciless way is adultery. It is the supreme lie of sexuality between spouses.
The truthfulness of the relationship, chastity in the case of sex, is a continuum. If one did not want to be chaste when one was young, it is likely that the trap will close again in maturity. Chastity, which, according to the Catechism, "tolerates neither double life nor double talk". (n. 2338) is a virtue that, like all virtues, presupposes a process of learning and assimilation, especially in the sincerity of the relationship and before one's own conscience.
Call to holiness
And what should we propose to engaged couples who are living together in the months before marriage: should they suspend their cohabitation so that the sacramental confession that will restore their peace with God and lead them to a holy married life may be totally sincere? Undoubtedly, it is necessary to arrive at this proposal.
The real art is to get the initiative from them. In addition to praying a lot - every journey of conversion demands it - it is necessary to understand the call to holiness that the marital vocation supposes. The carnal union of the spouses is an icon of God, as St. John Paul II explained in the Theology of the Body: "Sexual intercourse is the primary revelation in the created world of the eternal and invisible mystery of Christ." (hearing 29-IX-1982).
Among the hundreds of couples that I have accompanied in their process to marriage, there are a great number of cases. From resounding failures, to those who before the wedding return to their parents' house to, as they used to say in the old days, be led from there to the altar.
In unthinkable couples - he atheist, she poorly educated - I have witnessed the efforts of those who have been able to live "as brother and sister"The task of acting in God's face belongs to the conscience of the bride and groom, and the priest can help from the outside to form and enlighten them. The task of working towards God belongs to the conscience of the bride and groom, and the priest can help from the outside to form and enlighten them. This is certainly something to which pastors will have to devote energy and time in order to help Christian couples in the 21st century.
Openness to life
Those who decide to get married often look forward to becoming parents. But it is often difficult to help them understand that children are not a right of the couple, but a gift from God. The ideal is ambitious: "Large families are a joy for the Church. In them, love expresses its generous fruitfulness." (AL, 167).
If they are young, they sometimes consider spending a couple of years enjoying marriage without "load"What will they do during that time? For others, the responsibility of educating their offspring in Christianity is a world away if it goes beyond celebrations on the occasion of baptisms and first communions. They do not know what it means to educate in the faith.
If nature makes it difficult for them to conceive, not a few will resort without conscience to any fertility technique that will give them the desired child, whatever the distance between the end and the means.
Unfortunately, the anti-natalist mentality and the ease of contraceptive techniques have become so popular that dismantling prejudices and helping people to think in a Christian way is complicated. But there is no other way: "A serene look at the ultimate fulfillment of the human person will make parents even more aware of the precious gift that has been entrusted to them." (AL, 166).
For love and fertility, the challenge for spouses is holiness. That is nothing.