Archbishop Hickey: the Eucharist and the Christian family

Archbishop Hickey: the Eucharist and the Christian family

Archbishop Barry Hickey

Christian marriage is now under fierce and hostile attack and we cannot let that deter us from affirming the great vision of Jesus and St Paul to a world desperately in need of it. The gift we give to a world of broken relationships and unloved children is the beauty of Christian marriage and our desire to reach out to the victims of broken marriages. Jesus has entrusted to us this pearl of great price. We must care for it as it is a rare treasure.

In Ephesians, Chapter 5, St Paul speaks of a "deep secret" now revealed that the loving union of husband and wife is so unique that it is to be an image of the union between Christ and His Church, based on love.

This was and is a very disturbing statement. Marriage in St Paul's time was not always based on love. In both Jewish practice and the ways of the Roman Empire, marriage was based more on perpetuating family ties, or inheritance or property or status, rather than on love.

St Paul had absorbed Jesus' own teaching on the permanence of marriage as the original intention of the Creator, by reflecting theologically on the importance of love and self-giving in Christian Marriage.

Communion of love

What is this "Communion of Love"? Basically it says that the love of God is such that God draws us, through our Baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit, into a deep communion with himself.

It is saying that the very essence of God is to be a communion of love with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that this love reaches out to us because Jesus has rescued us from the power of evil and death and has brought us back to the Father.

St Paul helps us here. St Paul, who spoke Greek very well, having been raised in the Greek city of Tarsus - which is not in Greece of course, but in what we now know as Turkey - used the word koinonia frequently. It means "communion". He uses it to describe the "horizontal" union among the believing and baptised people, that is, the Church, and our "vertical" union with the Trinity.

Science sometimes purports to have all the answers, but it can't get very far with the mystical. We know we are more than flesh and blood. We know there is a part of us that reaches out beyond ourselves. It is the world of love, of faith, of being part of something greater than ourselves. It is an echo of the divine within us. It needs to be expressed in some way.

We are ready to accept as valid the mystical experiences we have that science cannot put under a microscope. Our union, or better, our communion with God is such an experience. We discover it in moments of silence, in contemplation, and in a very real sense, in adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

We have often been reminded of the dangers of the New Age, and rightly so. New Age practices give rituals, gemstones, crystals and the rest, powers that properly belong to God. However let us not reject the mystical search that lies behind the New Age. We too are drawn by the power of the mystical path to plumb the depths of God's love of us. Perhaps our own embrace of our mystical selves can be a tool of evangelising those whose mystical search stops short of God.

Pope John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio in 1981 "that God in himself lives a mystery of personal loving communion". He goes on to say that if we are created in the image of God, we also have the capacity and the obligation of love and communion. To love, therefore, becomes the vocation of every human person, and in marriage especially, involving as it does, the human body as well as the human spirit.

Thus he sanctifies the intimate love and embrace of husband and wife in marriage as they give themselves totally to each other. This is the image of God's love for us, as St Paul taught.

The Holy Father points to the role of the Eucharist in the life of the family. Not only does the Eucharist nourish marriage and family life and deepen its union with Christ, it also includes the aspect of sacrifice, which is central to our understanding of the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is a representation of Christ's sacrifice of love for the Church, and was sealed with his blood on the cross. The Eucharist is the source of strength for couples who know without exception that committed love requires a spirit of self-sacrifice, freely and joyfully given.

The knowledge that Jesus' love for us involved the ultimate price empowers and motivates couples to fully commit themselves to their vocation as spouses and parents, no matter what the cost.

Indissoluble

Pope Benedict XVI in Sacramentum Caritatis (or the Sacrament of Love) argues that if the Eucharist is the abiding sign of the covenantal love between God and the Church, that love is indissoluble - it will never be broken. It cannot be broken because God is always faithful to his promises.

Christian marriage must therefore be indissoluble if the love of God for his Church is to be compared to it. "What God has joined together let no one put asunder" (Mk 10:9).

The Holy Father goes on to say that the force of this teaching reveals its "radical newness". It reveals how different Christian marriage really is compared to the diversity of human relationships we see around us. It is new in its permanence and in the quality of the union between husband and wife. We are speaking of God's original plan which was modified by Moses, as Jesus said, because of their hardness of heart. Jesus restored the marriage bond as it was meant to be.

The hardness of the human heart has not changed much. Marriage continues to fail because of it. Sin enters and causes huge damage.

Nevertheless we must call people to a higher vision despite human weakness, and point to the Blessed Eucharist as the source of strength and grace, and the very presence of the healing Lord within the life of the family.

The pastoral problems facing the Church and its pastors when marriages break up are very real, says the Holy Father. At the same time the pastors must offer guidance that respects the truth, and urge people in painful situations to continue to attend Mass and to pray for an answer that respects the truth, knowing that they have in our Eucharistic Lord a compassionate Saviour.

The respect of truth must extend also to the matter of children. Truth is not respected when couples defy Church teaching on contraception. It sets up an inner conflict which undermines faith, and causes mistrust of Christ's mandate to teach on matters of human sexuality. It undermines one's own prayer-life and eventually our trust in God.

Christ's truth

The wisdom of the world has chosen to ignore, even ridicule Catholic teaching on the matter of openness to children, and has taken a different and tragic path. Artificially separating sex from its possible consequences has led to the separation of sex from marriage itself and has led to the proliferation of casual unions, to the exploitation of young women, to false hopes that sexual activity will lead to love, and to the abandonment of marriage by millions of people around the world.

Faced with this, the Church can either compromise and face irrelevance, or continue to teach Christ's truth about marriage, life and love, and pray that the world will listen.

Let me tell you some of the things I have heard lately that have shaken me.

Around the Western world today there are educators pushing for an entirely new education program for children. They are looking for support from education departments around the world and from the United Nations. In some countries it is already being trialled.

These teachers want to take over sex education from the parents because they want a complete break from the past. Teachers in one country I know are now telling young people before puberty to become sexually aware and to experiment.

At puberty they are urged to become sexually active as soon as possible or they will grow up with inhibitions, fears of sex and will have psychological problems. They are to be fully instructed in contraception and abortion as ways of continuing to enjoy a full sexual life. They are told to prefer serial unions of choice rather than marriage, and to severely limit the numbers of children, as the world is overpopulated.

They are to be trained to deny gender differences of male and female as these are only social constructs. They are told that homosexuality is a legitimate sexual outlet, and often preferable because children do not come from their sexual activities.

This new paganism has arrived and without proper vigilance will spread throughout the world. Church leaders will no doubt protest when this new program is out in the open. They will need to be very courageous because the work of Satan is so pernicious that they may well face laws, already enacted in some countries, where it is illegal to propagate our own Catholic moral teachings.

Only a few years ago one could safely assume that our understanding of marriage was generally accepted.

Not so today. Things have changed radically. Increasingly marriage is being promoted as only one of the many options in human sexual relationships. Recent years have witnessed a sharp rise in cohabitation before marriage. These so-called partnerships are even taking the place of marriage.

Adding to this is the pressure to change the very definition of marriage from a union of a man and a woman to a union of two persons of the same sex. The ideal of Christian marriage is under great threat.

The much publicised romances and brief marital unions of so-called "idols" of screen and television only contribute to the trivialisation of marriage. The availability of easy divorce undermines the strength of commitment that true marriage requires and encourages the view that marriage is no longer a permanent contract.

One must be concerned about the increasing number of children who are born out of marriage and those who grow up in single parent families, often without a father. When the relationship breaks down the father is generally the one who has to live away from the children. While such a situation calls for compassion and understanding, it is not ideal.

In the search for happiness in a second marriage or in a "partnership", success is not guaranteed either for the spouses or for the children. The breakdown rate of second and subsequent marriages is higher than for first marriages. Children are the victims of adult behaviour.

Large numbers of children are taken into care by the State today because the family unit can no longer cope. The tragic damage to children who grow up in dysfunctional families affected by violence or drugs has been catalogued many times. Sadly, too, fostering does not always succeed.

Children manifest their distress in forms of mental illness, anti-social behaviour, and too often, tragically, in suicide.

Urgent action

This worsening situation is all around us, yet it is rarely the subject of political debate. It calls for urgent action at all levels of society. The family is under threat because the institution of marriage is being undermined. It is not enough to provide assistance to those who suffer from family dysfunction, important as that assistance is. We must also seek to stabilise family life and strengthen marriage itself. This is a responsibility shared by government, the churches and the community. All have a distinct contribution to make.

Unfortunately some people are so ideologically blinded as to applaud this appalling state of affairs as a victory of choice and individual freedom. This is grossly misguided thinking. Marriage has no satisfactory alternatives. History alone clearly shows that.

Research continually finds that happily married people are more contented and healthy, and that children from stable families do better in all indices of education, psychological health and self-image.

The Church must continue to lead and assert the importance of marriage for society and for the spouses and their children. The Church will provide for them nurturing parish communities as sources of strength and affirmation.

This is a shortened version of Archbishop Barry Hickey's address on 12 June 2012 at the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, Dublin. Dr Hickey is the Emeritus Archbishop of Perth, WA.

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