What happens when two Catholics get married?
The Catechism tells us that something real and amazing happens on your wedding day—and the effects of that sacrament will echo in your marriage for the rest of your life. These are the two ways that a sacramental marriage is set apart as something extraordinary.
An unbreakable bond
A sacramental marriage is not merely a civil contract under human law; rather, it is a covenant under God that permanently unites two persons. As long as the marriage “results from the free human act of the spouses,” it becomes “a covenant guaranteed by God’s fidelity,” something that is “irrevocable” and “can never be dissolved” (CCC 1640). That is, the marriage covenant is for the whole of life, and nothing on earth can tear it apart.
A covenantal marriage is not only permanent, but is also a reflection of and participation in God’s covenant with the Church. A happy, holy marriage is a witness to God’s love: “Authentic married love is caught up into divine love” (1639). The Church goes so far as to say that marriage can be a prefigurement of Heaven, a “foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb” (1642), when couples embrace the joy of their love and family life.
Grace to strengthen and perfect your love
It’s all very well to talk about indissoluble bonds and marriage as a foretaste of Heaven, but of course the reality of marriage is often much more difficult. Marriage is hard work, and in some seasons, the weight of sustaining a happy, healthy marriage can feel like more than a human being can bear.
St. Francis de Sales once said, “In marriage, one takes a vow. But it is the only instance where a vow is taken without a novitiate. If it had a year of novitiate, how few would enter into it!”
The good news is that we never have to bear alone the weight of faithfulness to our vocations, whatever they may be, and marriage is no exception. God has provided all of the grace a couple needs to make their life together happy and holy; this grace came as part and parcel with the sacrament of matrimony.
The grace of this sacrament “is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity,” and this grace gives them whatever they need to help each other to holiness and to take on their responsibilities as parents (1641).
Sacramental marriage, then, is a place where spouses encounter Christ, the source of grace. “Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (1642).
All of this is a tall order, and perhaps more than seems possible for two flawed and fallible people, but God has promised us that His grace is abundant and will fill in where we lack. Or as Thomas Merton once wrote, “The strength will be given you, as much as you need, and as often as you ask, and as soon as you ask, and generally long before you ask for it, too.”
As a Catholic couple, the infinite graces of the sacrament of marriage are available to you—you have only to ask. When couples ask God for the grace to stick it out in tough times, they can make their home into a source of happiness, which is one of the deepest joys this side of Heaven.
Tertullian said it best when he described what Catholic couples can aspire to, as they seek God’s grace for their union. This learned theologian of the early Church was himself married, so he spoke from experience when he wrote these words “Ad uxorem,” that is, “To my wife”:
How can I ever express the happiness of a marriage joined by the Church, strengthened by an offering, sealed by a blessing, announced by angels, and ratified by the Father? … How wonderful the bond between two believers, now one in hope, one in desire, one in discipline, one in the same service! They are both children of one Father and servants of the same Master, undivided in spirit and flesh, truly two in one flesh. Where the flesh is one, one also is the spirit.
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