In the nuptial blessing of a wedding Mass, the following words are found, “May your abundant blessing, Lord, come down upon this bride and upon her husband, her companion for life, and may the power of your Holy Spirit set their hearts aflame from on high, so that, living out together the gift of Matrimony, they may adorn their family with children and enrich the Church… let them pray to you in the holy assembly and bear witness to you in the world.” Notice how the nuptial blessing points towards the mission of the newly married couple, a mission designed by God and a key part of the New Evangelization.
In the previous parts of this series (1, 2), we considered how the identity of each spouse, as a man or as a woman and also as a follower of Christ, is reinforced when the couple lives their sexual relationship in a manner always open to the possibility of motherhood and fatherhood. This openness to life produces a fourfold blessing for the couple: 1) growth in self-control, 2) growth in marital joy, 3) growth in the ability to love — i.e. the ability to make a gift of self, and 4) growth in awe at the great honor of being procreators with God of new human persons.
This growth in cooperating with God in giving love and life is designed to produce married saints. It is the way that husbands and wives fulfill a mission for Christ in the world.
In this third part of the series, I shall focus on the humble yet vital mission of fruitfulness to which Christian married couples are called by God.
Go (be married) and make disciples
In his apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, Blessed John Paul II pointed to the specific way that Christian spouses and their children (Cf. Mt 28:18) “go forth and make disciples,” i.e. how they fulfill their mission in the world (#50): namely by “participation in the prophetic, priestly and kingly mission of Jesus Christ and of His Church.”
The Christian family shares in Christ’s priestly mission by forming a believing community, where faith grows through the sacraments, prayer and sacrifice. As the late Holy Father wrote (Idem, #55), “…the Christian family is continuously vivified by the Lord Jesus and called and engaged by Him in a dialogue with God through the sacraments, through the offering of one’s life, and through prayer.”
They share also in the prophetic mission of the Lord Jesus by forming an evangelizing community, helping one another personally to encounter Christ and to deepen their knowledge of Him in the Church. As Blessed John Paul wrote, “…the sacrament of Marriage takes up and re-proposes the task of defending and spreading the faith, a task that has its roots in Baptism and Confirmation, and makes Christian married couples and parents witnesses of Christ ‘to the ends of the earth,’ missionaries… of love and life” (Idem, #54).
The kingly mission of the Christian family
The Christian family shares as well in the kingly mission of Christ, as it imitates Him “who came not to be served but to serve.” Kingly service of others begins with governance of oneself and of one’s passions and desires. Self-governance, aided by the Holy Spirit, brings true growth in the freedom to put the interests of others ahead of one’s own, beginning with one’s spouse, then one’s children.
It is instructive to remember that Jesus taught the Apostles to serve others by directing their attention to a little child (Mk 9: 35-36), “So He sat down and called the Twelve around Him and said, ‘If anyone wishes to rank first, he must remain the last one of all and the servant of all.’ Then He took a little child, stood him in their midst, and putting His arms around him, said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes a child such as this for my sake welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me welcomes, not me, but Him who sent me.”
In his encyclical “Charity in Truth” (#28), Pope Benedict reminded us of the vital need in society today for the witness of openness to life that Christian married couples offer to the world, “Openness to life is at the center of true development. When a society moves toward the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity toward the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.” A society that cherishes children has a future. One that adopts a contraceptive mentality leaves as its legacy a culture of death.
Dealing with infertility
God’s plan for a fruitful marriage presents a painful challenge to couples struggling with infertility. They may, for many years, have longed to conceive a child but been unable. They may be tempted even to despair or to take desperate measures to become pregnant or to sustain a pregnancy, which contradict the moral law. Couples in these difficult circumstances may wonder if their marriage, without children, still has meaning.
The Church strongly affirms that they can indeed have a meaningful marriage, even if God has not blessed them with children. She encourages such couples to maintain their trust in the Lord and His loving Providence, and to recall that all God asks of a married couple is that they be open to accepting children, that they place no barriers to this gift and take no measures to prevent it. If they cooperate with God in this way, they can with good conscience know that they are sincerely doing His will. God, however, does not promise that He will grant the blessing of children to every marriage. Should it not be His will to do so, He will provide other ways for them to be fruitful.
In this regard, the words of Blessed John Paul, spoken to families in Nigeria (Feb. 13, 1982) offer sound advice: “To couples who cannot have children of their own I say: you are no less loved by God; your love for each other is complete and fruitful when it is open to others, to the needs of the apostolate, to the needs of the poor, to the needs of orphans, to the needs of the world.” (See the beautiful witness of Charles and Vicki Ruiz for one such example). Infertility in a marriage is indeed a share in the suffering of Christ; but it can be, and is intended to be, one that bears fruit in the Kingdom of God. As Jesus tell us all (Mk 8:34), “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
What a great opportunity the Year of Faith will be for couples who prayerfully embrace their mission as priests, prophets and kings of love and life! May all of us give praise to God for our own faith, and ask Him to increase our fruitfulness for His Kingdom. The sacrifices taken to “bear much fruit” are nothing compared to the blessing of a fruitful life.
In the fourth and final part of this series, I shall take a look at some of the complex moral issues faced when dealing with infertility.