Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Crypt Church, Washington, D.C.
Most Reverend Donald W. Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington
It is a privilege and pleasure for me to join all of you in this celebration on the occasion of our move to the campus of The Catholic University of America, the dedication of the new Father Michael J. McGivney Hall and the opening of the academic year on this twentieth anniversary of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America.
Before I begin these reflections, I want to recognize His Eminence Cardinal William Baum, former Archbishop of Washington, former Chancellor of The Catholic University of America and former Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education. It is a joy to have you with us. I also want to recognize Father David O’Connell, President of The Catholic University of America, Monsignor Walter Rossi, Rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, my brother priests, deacons, and women and men in consecrated life.
This is a time to rejoice at the accomplishments of the Institute and to recognize Dr. David Schindler, Provost of the Institute, as well as the faculty, staff and students of the Institute.
It is also a time to express our gratitude to the Knights of Columbus for their fidelity and generosity and, in a most particular way, to salute our Supreme Knight, Carl Anderson, who is also the Vice President and first Dean of the Institute.
We come together in thanksgiving for the Institute and, at the same time, to recommit ourselves to the future challenges as we face the task of proclaiming to our day and culture the Church’s understanding of human love, marriage and the family.
I will always remember the excitement in her voice as the young mother at whose wedding I officiated a number of years ago called me to say that “we are going to have our baby.” Her husband was on the speaker phone with her. I will also remember his remark. “Now we are three.”
The joy of this couple – now three – reflects the beautiful understanding of who they are and how God is at work with them and through them. This ancient and received teaching of the Church is found repeated today at the level of academic refinement and theological depth expected at an institution of higher learning such as this Pontifical Institute.
But the teaching is also made abundantly clear for all of the faithful in sources such as the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults where we read: “by their marriage, the couple witnesses Christ’s spousal love for the Church. One of the Nuptial Blessings in the liturgical celebration of marriage refers to this in saying, ‘Father you have made the union of man and wife so holy a mystery that it symbolizes the marriage of Christ and his Church.’ Through the liturgical celebration of marriage, husband and wife enter into a covenant which is also a Sacrament.”
The Catechism for Adults continues that among the purposes of the covenant is “the generation and education of children” (cf. Ch. 21). Immediately following that statement of the long-standing faith of the Church is the recognition that married love is intended to endure. “‘What God has joined together no human being must separate’ (Mt 10:9)…for marriage involves a permanent covenant embraced by the couple” (Ch. 21).
This teaching was confirmed explicitly by Jesus himself. When some, in order to test him, asked whether it was lawful for “a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” (Mt 19:3), Jesus replied, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19:3-6).
Among the “hard” sayings of Jesus, this has become a particularly challenging one for many people today. Statistics show that one of every two marriages in this country ends in divorce and the rate continues to climb. Perhaps what Jesus was recognizing for all of us was that it is impossible to sustain a loving, permanent relationship through all of the difficulties of life without the firm commitment that, in spite of all of the trials and tribulations, the partnership will endure. In a society that so lightly sets aside personal commitment, we should not be surprised that marriage is in a state of decline.
It would not be far off the mark to say that our secular society’s denial of the intimate connection between sexual activity and the marriage bond is responsible for most of the unraveling of family and, therefore, community life in our time. Once the principle is established that sexual activity is for personal satisfaction alone and carries with it no particular relationship either to a committed bond of partnership or to the education and raising of children, you have what we face today – an ever growing number of children who cannot identify in any meaningful sense with their parents, and parents who are not in any realistic sense participants in sustaining, educating and developing their offspring.
Such a vision brings with it consequences. Not too long ago, I attended a meeting to address prison chaplaincy ministry. One of the participants pointed out: “They have no experience of family and therefore nothing to hold on to.” This was the description of the increasingly large number of young people, usually minority and disadvantaged, who populate our nation’s prison system. The person describing the consequences of the collapse of family life in our country heads an extensive prison ministry program and speaks from vast experience. With the collapse of the family, we are witnessing the unraveling of the fabric of society on the local, regional and national levels.
The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family came into existence twenty years ago in part to help our society answer so very important, not to say crucial, questions. Why is the family so essential? Why does the Church devote so much effort in defending family life? Why is it that one of the major priorities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is its pastoral initiative in support of the family? The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers these questions when it reminds us that “the family is the original cell of social life” (2207). It is the natural society in which a husband and wife come together in love and give themselves to each other in love and in the gift of life.
The family is the first building block of the human community or, as the Catechism states, it is the “original cell” of the whole human community that grows in an ever widening set of relationships beginning with a husband and wife, their children, the wider family and eventually all those other communities, educational, cultural, social, economic and, of course, political, of which they become a part.
If the original cell or the foundational building block is damaged in any way or even destroyed, neither the body of which it is a cell nor the edifice of which it is the foundation can long endure.
Some might ask why this condition has reached such a critical point today. There have always been failed marriages and irresponsible parents in the past.
The Gospel today reminds us that Jesus – born of Mary whose husband was Joseph – is fully immersed in the human race and therefore the human condition – save sin. There has always been failure mingled with greatness. One does not look to the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham, to find a litany of saints.
What we recognize is the struggle throughout salvation history to understand God’s will, God’s law and to live it – even in the face of challenge and personal failure.
To rise above the temptations of a fallen human nature, one has to hear the good news – must come to accept it as the gauge for a true and authentic life. During his visit to this campus just five months ago, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, began his address with the quotation from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, “How beautiful are the footsteps of those who bring good news” (Rom 10:15-17). Here he taught us that “education is integral to the mission of the church to proclaim the good news. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God, who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth (cf. Spe Salvi, 4).” He also went on to encourage us with the recognition that “the church never tires of upholding the essential moral categories of right and wrong, without which hope could only wither, giving way to cold pragmatic calculations of utility.”
Today, more than ever, is that message necessary because, I believe, we are recognizing an extensive and perhaps overwhelming collapse of individual families precisely because our society no longer supports the basic and essential values on which families rest and our community is built.
The picture of family life painted by the Church with broad strokes includes: the personal commitment of the partners in the marriage; openness to the generation of new life if it is God’s plan for their marriage; the joyful acceptance of the responsibility and privilege of raising children and helping them to grow in wisdom, age and grace; and finally, the recognition that this action is a graced response to the love of God that elevates married life to the level of sacramental participation in Christ’s own redeeming action, allowing parents to participate in the building up of the body of Christ by bringing new life into the world and into the Church.
This is summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church where we read: “The conjugal community is established upon the covenant and consent of the spouses. Marriage and family are ordered to the good of the spouses, to the procreation and the education of children” (2249).
In contrast, it is precisely the rejection of these principles that has resulted in a society where children no longer have a relationship with both of their parents, parents take no responsibility for the children they generate, and marriages are of such short duration that children experience a variety of adult figures in their lives without the necessary rapport with a caring and loving father or mother.
The Church proclaims another entirely different vision of the family. It is the “domestic Church.” A Christian family constitutes a specific manifestation and realization of ecclesial communion. It is a sign and an image of that communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit just as the Church itself and every believer is to be a realization of the love of God within us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We should neither be surprised nor dismayed if those who view life differently than we do and who hold another set of values continue to push contrary views. We hold a better vision for our country. We need also to be active and engaged in the struggle if we hope to preserve family life and its importance for our country, our community, our Church, ourselves and our children.
This is why we celebrate today. We rejoice in the active continuation of the effort – twenty years ago – of the Knights of Columbus to offer a clear, articulate voice faithful to the Church’s constant teaching in a way that it is heard in our day, our culture, our society.
Just as we read in the first reading from the prophet Micah, from small beginnings comes a voice and presence that can change the world.
The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family’s beginnings were modest – like Bethlehem-Ephrathah, “too small to be among the clans of Judah.” Yet in time – over two decades – with the nurture of the Knights of Columbus and the strength of its faculty – it has grown to be a nationally respected institute of higher learning, faithful to the Magisterium and reflective of the Church’s great tradition.
Shortly the new Father Michael J. McGivney Hall will be dedicated. This new seat for the Institute is a sign of the growth and permanence of the Institute.
This is a time of congratulations, encouragement and gratitude – congratulations to the Institute for its accomplishments, encouragement to all of us who look to this Institute as a font of Catholic renewal and gratitude to The Catholic University and the Knights of Columbus as the Institute opens a new chapter.
I would like to think that, years and years from now, there will be other excited young mothers and fathers calling friends and family with the joyous news, “we are going to have our baby.” Because of the Institute and all of you who support it, the mother and father will have a deep and enriching understanding of what human love, marriage and the family are all about, and the baby will have a home in a living faith tradition that goes all the way back to the very genealogy of Jesus – the Son of God, the son of Mary.