In this catechesis on the nature of marriage we have been considering what marriage is as revealed by God and as written in the very nature of the human person, created as male and female. Most recently we have seen that Jesus Christ has taken the natural institution of marriage and elevated it to the dignity of a sacrament between baptized spouses. We saw that this sacramental bond is a sign of Christ’s nuptial bond with his Bride, the Church.

Now we should explore what are the effects of this sacramental bond of marriage. What exactly results when a man and a woman give themselves to each other in a sacramental marriage? Returning to canon law, which exactly reflects the teaching of the Church as most recently reiterated at the Second Vatican Council, we read:

“From a valid marriage there arises between the spouses a bond which of its own nature is permanent and exclusive. Moreover, in Christian marriage the spouses are by a special sacrament strengthened and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and dignity of their state.” (c. 1134)

The first thing to note about this important teaching is that the matrimonial bond between any man and woman in a valid marriage is permanent and exclusive by its very nature. In other words, this is true for all marriages whether sacramental (between two baptized spouses) or natural (when at least one of the spouses is not baptized). This is true by the very nature of marriage itself. All valid marriages are permanent and exclusive (only one man and one woman). We will revisit this teaching in a future column.

The second thing to note is that there is something very different and special about a sacramental bond of marriage between the baptized. There is a strengthening of the spouses through the sacrament as they are “consecrated” for their state in life as married persons. This means that they are both dedicated to the service of God in marriage and at the same time they are made holy through the dignity of this state of life.

This is an extremely important point. One of the principal obligations of the married state is that each spouse is to help the other grow each day in holiness. They are to help each other becomes saints precisely as married persons. How many of us wake up each day thinking that I am to grow in holiness today, and that I am supposed to become a saint? Better yet, how many wake up each day thinking that one of my main duties this day is to help my spouse grow in holiness and become a saint, even as I strive for that myself?

As idealistic and theoretical as this may sound to many of you, and as far from reality as it may seem, this is precisely what Christian marriage is about. Perhaps part of the problem is that we have failed to see and reflect on this fundamental understanding of the Sacrament of Marriage.

This helping each other grow in holiness each day happens specifically in their shared life together and in the rearing and formation of their children. Listening to one another, helping each other carry burdens, washing dishes, changing diapers, helping children with homework, helping children through the rough moments, praying together — all of these are the ways in which married persons are called to become saints. Not in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary moments of a life lived in dedication and sacrifice to the other.

This is an awesome calling, and quite difficult. But married persons do not have to do this on their own. They have God there to help them every step of the way. What form does this help from God take? Through the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage!

Recall what we said earlier about all the sacraments. They are “outward signs, instituted by Christ to give grace.” There is a very special and powerful grace that God gives the couple through the bond of a sacramental marriage. This is the sacramental grace specifically given to them to live faithfully the duties and dignity of their marital state. It is a grace given to them to live a life of matrimonial love and faithfulness to family responsibilities in the likeness of how Christ loves and cares for the Church.
This sacramental grace in marriage is not given to the couple simply and only on the day of their wedding, when they celebrated the creation of the sacramental bond. No! It is available to them each and every day of their lives together. The outward sign of the Sacrament of Marriage is the covenant bond itself, and as long as the bond perdures, there is an infinite source of grace for the couple to draw upon each day of their married life. God gives the spouses this grace precisely through the sacramental bond they share.

How many couples, especially in times of difficulty and struggle, consciously call upon the grace of the sacrament to come to their aid? It is a grace that God freely gives, but we have to be disposed to receive it, especially by calling upon it. How are we best disposed to receive the grace of the sacrament? Through regular prayer, both individually and as a family, through a regular celebration of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (Confession), and through a worthy and faith-filled participation in the Holy Mass and reception of Holy Communion.

Next we will explore the essential elements and properties that make up a marriage. In the meantime, all married couples and those preparing for marriage are in my prayers.