National Marriage Day is supported by a number of like-minded community groups that have joined together to support and promote the uniqueness of marriage and its benefits for husband and wife, for the children of the marriage and for society itself.
They seek to reinforce the firmly held belief that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman, exclusive of all others and open to children.
Only a few years ago one could safely assume that this understanding of marriage was commonly 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 with these so-called partnerships 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 the so-called "idols" of screen and television only contribute to the trivialisation of marriage while the availability of easy divorce undermines the strength of commitment that true marriage requires.
Our own Federal laws, which allow a marriage to be dissolved after a short period of separation, have re-educated Australians to believe that marriage is no longer a permanent contract. At the same time it is comforting to know that not only committed Christians but Sikhs, Muslims and Jews support traditional marriage.
Plight of children
One must be concerned about the increasing number of children in Australia who are born out of marriage and those who grow up in single parent families, now over a million, 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.
Given the stresses on modern marriage many children are sadly caught in the crossfire of hostility between their parents. This often does not cease if the marriage or relationship breaks down.
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.
Studies have shown that cohabitation before marriage contributes to the early breakdown of marriage.
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. The philosopher Santayana said, "The family is one of nature's masterpieces". It should be supported by society and governments.
It is not enough to provide assistance to those who suffer from family dysfunction, important as that assistance is. We must also, as a nation, 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 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 a source of strength and affirmation.
Let us reflect at this time on the vision of marriage that comes to us from Jesus Christ, upheld over the centuries by the Catholic Church.
Marriage is part of God's plan for the happiness and future of the human race. It is a natural institution raised to the dignity of a Sacrament. As a Sacrament the union of man and woman signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It is based on a faithful and mutual love, an image of the everlasting love of God for humanity. Marriage, therefore, is for life.
Marital love is fruitful. Couples who marry are to be open to new life. Children are the fruit of their love for one another. Even if the parents do not have children their very openness is a desire to share their love.
Although marriage was from the very beginning part of the order of creation, it has become, under Jesus Christ, a vocation and a source of personal salvation. With the assurance of grace both husband and wife are given the strength to renounce their own personal goals for the unity of the marriage. They go forward in joyful hope and trust to fulfil their vocation as married people in the world, to be a sign of the power of self-sacrificing love.
Marriages are often under stress through circumstances beyond control, like unemployment, poverty and accidents.
Nevertheless, wrong behaviour or sinfulness can threaten marriage far worse than unforeseen disasters. Adultery, selfishness, neglect, violence and the withdrawal of love can fatally damage marriage and family life. Hence couples are urged to turn to prayer and call on the grace promised to them in the Sacrament. They should seek help from wise people who respect their beliefs. They also have a right to support from their local Christian community. Most important of all, they themselves should renew their commitment to each other, "for better or for worse".
Christian couples need to resist the world's way of divorce and re-marriage. However, should the marriage completely collapse, they may turn to the legal processes of the Church where a declaration of invalidity may be given if a serious defect in the marriage is found to have existed from the very beginning.
Sign of contradiction
As a Catholic community we will often be called on to be a sign of contradiction.
The ways of the world are not the ways of God. We must hold firm to our beliefs and the high standards that Christ calls us to live by. We must be faithful to the truth.
Compromise with the ways of the world will weaken our faith and our witness and draw us into ways of thinking and living that make us indistinguishable from the rest of society.
We have a distinctive vision of the dignity of every human being and of the sanctity of human life from the womb to the grave, and we have a Christian understanding of human sexuality and marriage that is a unique gift not to be watered down.
In every age the Church has had to confront error and remain faithful to the truth, even to the point of martyrdom. This age is no different. We can only face the errors of secularism by living what we believe, courageously and joyfully.
The gift we give to a world of broken relationships and unloved children is the beauty of Christian marriage and the desire to reach out to the victims of broken marriages. Jesus has entrusted to us this pearl of great price. Care for it as it is a rare treasure.
This is the edited test of Archbishop Barry Hickey's Pastoral Letter on Christian Marriage released to coincide with National Marriage Day, 13 August 2010.