Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 16, 2001
Reflections on ecumenical marriages
By ARCHBISHOP THOMAS COLLINS
Archbishop of Edmonton
It is a great blessing when spouses share the same faith. When both husband and wife are Catholic Christians, they both participate in the sacraments, and share with one another and with their children the common faith of the Church, and the guidance for the journey of life that comes from that. This is most precious. The common faith can be a unifying aspect of their marriage.
But quite often a Catholic marries a person of a different faith tradition. This can pose real challenges, but it can also be an occasion for lived ecumenism. The experience of respectful and loving ecumenical dialogue within the family can help foster similar dialogue on a wider scale.
As is the case in every marriage, the spiritual life of each spouse can enrich that of the other and of the children. The whole family will have a special motivation to become involved in the work of ecumenism, and all can join together in joint ecumenical actions in the service of those in need.
Prayer for the unity of Christians will have a particular meaning, and each member of the family will be aware of a strong need to know his or her faith well, and to be likewise familiar with the beliefs and practices of a family member of another faith.
Each faith community has its own expectations of members who marry a person of another faith; as for the Catholic Church, it expects that the Catholic spouse will do all that is possible to assure that the children share in the fullness of Catholic faith, and are raised in that faith.
This is a very important consideration for engaged couples who are planning an ecumenical marriage. It should be discussed and agreed upon prior to the marriage, so that the children's faith may be a unitive rather than a divisive aspect of their marriage.
Within the context of an ecumenical marriage there are many valuable opportunities for a sharing of faith. Sometimes, however, as spouses earnestly seek to strengthen their family, and overcome the challenges inherent in their situation, they may with the best of intentions develop apparent solutions that in fact, unknown to them, are mistaken.
One example of such an approach would be that of seeking to have a kind of joint Baptism of the children into two churches, so that they would simultaneously be members of two different faith communities. That is not really possible.
Why not? By Baptism a person is baptized into Christ, but also in a profound manner enters into the faith community in which he or she is baptized. For example, when one is baptized in the Catholic Church, one begins a life of faith that will be marked by participation in the sacraments of the Church, and by acceptance of the whole faith of the Church.
One cannot simultaneously be a member of two Christian faith communities that disagree on significant matters of faith. Sometimes it is felt that actually all Christians already agree on the issues that matter, and share a kind of generic Christianity, while perhaps preferring to express their faith through this or that denomination, somewhat in the way that people may have different tastes about matters of style.
That is not an accurate way of looking at the differences among Christians. While there are many fundamental matters in which all Christians agree, and while all are joined through the sacrament of Baptism, there are also basic matters in which different Christian faith communities do not agree.
A few examples of these differences of faith might include: the identity of Jesus as God and man; the will of Jesus concerning the sacraments (and, in particular, concerning the meaning of the Eucharist); the will of Jesus concerning the structure of his Church (for example, the role of the pope and the other bishops as authoritative teachers and spiritual shepherds of the community, in apostolic succession); the relationship between Scripture and the living faith of the Church; the nature of marriage as a permanent covenant between a man and a woman, faithful in love and open to life; the moral significance of abortion; and so on. These are not secondary matters.
The Catholic Church recognizes the celebration of Baptism by other Christian faith communities, and a member of one of those communities who becomes a Catholic Christian is not baptized again.
But he or she needs to enter into the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, and learn about Catholic faith, and then make a profession of faith before being confirmed and receiving Holy Communion, and so becoming a Catholic Christian.
For the same reason that one cannot be baptized into two different religions, and be a member of both, it does not make sense to be receiving Holy Communion some days in the Catholic Church, while other days in another.
Why not? When one says "Amen" at the moment of receiving Communion in the Catholic Church, one says: 1) I am personally ready to receive Communion at this time; 2) I acknowledge the real presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist according to the faith of the Catholic Church; and 3) I accept the whole faith of the Catholic Church, and am in communion not only personally with Jesus, but also with the Church through which he comes to me.
For a fuller discussion of this, I would refer you to my pastoral letter on the Eucharist: It is the Lord!
Because of the meaning of the Holy Eucharist, it is not a true solution to the challenges of an ecumenical marriage when spouses seek to blend the religion of the husband and the religion of the wife by, for example, participating at Mass at a Catholic parish on the first and third Sunday of the month, while on the second and fourth Sundays not participating at Mass, but instead participating in the Sunday service of another religion.
Such a practice would mean: 1) that the Catholic family member misses Mass on Sunday half the time; and, 2) (if receiving Communion in the other church) that every second Sunday he or she makes a life commitment to beliefs which are contradictory to the beliefs to which a life commitment is made on the alternate Sundays.
Ecumenism is vital. The Lord wills that all his disciples be one. Already, there are many ways in which Christians of different faiths can pray together, and work together in the service of Our Lord.
But much prayer, work and dialogue lie ahead before real and full unity is attained, by God's grace. If our ecumenical endeavours are to be fruitful we need to recognize that the day of full unity has not yet arrived.
The path to Christian unity goes by way of prayer, discipleship and dialogue. We must pray, individually and together, for ecumenism is fundamentally a work of God. We need to grow in holiness, as disciples, through personal witness and through common service of others in the name of Christ.
And we need to discuss those many matters of faith which unite us, as well as those that still divide us. The encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint of Pope John Paul, on commitment to ecumenism, contains wonderful insights to help us. I encourage ecumenical families, who so personally experience the pain of division, to lead the way in the work of ecumenism.
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