Today, February 14th, is Valentine’s Day, no longer celebrated as a feast of the Universal Church, but it still remains a day known as the patronal feast for lovers, even if the secular world doesn’t usually understand that what they are celebrating is really an old Catholic feast day. Today should be a reminder, however, of the Lord’s blessing on the sacrament of Matrimony, which might explain why Pope Francis elected to hold a special event in St. Peter’s Square today with 20,000 engaged couples in which the Holy Father told them that “we build a house together, not alone,” and that “you would not wish to build it on the shifting sands of emotions, but on the rock of true love, the love that comes from God.”
Within Catholic spiritual life, when we speak of vocations, fellow Catholics often presume we are talking about vocations to the priesthood, the diaconate, and to the religious life, and in context most of the time that is precisely what we mean. However, it may be that we are doing at least a minor disservice to the appropriate spiritual use of the term “vocation” when we unintentionally use it in a kind of semi-exclusive way to refer only to those who are ordained to the presbyterate, the diaconate, or who prayerfully accept consecrated religious life. The reason why we might reconsider how we use the term “vocation” is because our faith clearly teaches that marriage is a vocation as well, and it is a sacramental vocation, just as the priesthood or the diaconate are sacramental. Men who enter the diaconate or the priesthood receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, and men and women who feel called to Holy Matrimony receive the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
Those who receive Holy Orders have to be formed for the reception of that sacrament, a spiritual and intellectual formation that can take several years. After this formal process is complete, priests and deacons are usually expected to have some kind of periodic continuing education so that they can be spiritually and emotionally prepared for the duties and responsibilities of their sacramental service over many years of life. Most of all, priests and deacons need the fellowship and prayers of their brother deacons and priests, whose advice, counsel, and friendship often prove to be invaluable (I’ve especially learned this to be true on a very personal level with my confreres in diaconate formation for our diocese).
Matrimony requires spiritual, emotional, and intellectual formation as well, just as Holy Orders do. The Church requires at least six months of pre-marital preparation, and most couples will usually attend an Engaged Encounter weekend or other retreat during that time. For it’s collective part, the Church tries to do everything that it can to prepare couples for married life, but just as with the other vocations of the Church, those preparations do not mean that every day will be perfect and that life will always be, in the words of the song, “a bowl of cherries.” We won’t always be ready for every pitfall that might come our way, but we need not only the prayers and the support of our spouse, but the prayerful friendship and witness of other Christian married people who share in and understand the complexities of married life. Just as deacons and priests need continuing formation and the friendship of other people who have also received the sacrament of Holy Orders, married people also need continuing faith formation and marriage enrichment, along with the fraternity of other married people who are striving to live out sacramental marriage in daily life. In the Diocese of Knoxville, our Office of Marriage Preparation and Enrichment can help engaged couples prepare more fully for their new life of Christian marriage, as well as help those who have been living that life realize more of what God can do for them in their life.
In the words of St. Paul, “this is a great sacrament” (cf. Eph. 5:32). Living the sacramental life isn’t always easy, but the rewards are eternal. Just as Christ warned his disciples not to build their house on sinking sand, our marriages should be built on the solid rock that is Jesus Christ and his Body, the Church. Sappy romanticism is good sometimes, especially on Valentine’s Day-but the love that lasts will have Christ as its very foundation.
This post is the first in a series on vocations in the Church