Recently, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, asserted that priests have no credibility in preparing couples to receive the Sacrament of Marriage. His unfortunate remark reveals a fundamental error in the thinking of many today, including Church leaders, that would insist on an irreconcilable divide between the theology of the sacraments and the lived experience of believers. Many seem to be convinced by the erroneous claim that the Church’s sacramental theology is not fundamentally practical, that grace is more like a theory, quite different from the praxis of lived experience.
Christ’s gift of the seven sacraments, including marriage, embodies the opposite ideal. Supernatural grace is provided in order to make the seemingly impractical practically livable. Celibate love that is also fruitful. Spousal love that is exclusive and faithful to the end. Granted, it seems to defy worldly common sense that a vocation marked by celibacy could be of real, concrete service to a vocation defined by the conjugal union of spouses. However, in the order of grace, the two vocations are meant to support and inform each other.
The celibate priest helps a couple preparing for marriage to contextualize their gifts of selves within the mystery of Christ’s self-giving love on the cross, on which the celibate priest is called to model his own life. That kind of love has eminently practical implications. And spouses in their familial relations reflect for the priest the challenge to live and love generously, with a spousal commitment to his bride, the Church, and with paternal solicitude for his spiritual children. As a Church we need to rediscover the transformative power of God’s grace, and believe that what we deem impractical is merely the result of thinking as human beings do, and not as God does.