Synod Reflection by Archbishop : Virginity, Marriage and the Nature of Life with God in Heaven

Conference on the Family—Dominican University College
Memorial of Saint Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr– November 22, 2014
[Texts: Revelation 11.4-12; Psalm 143 (144); Luke 20.27-38]\
 Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: From time to time, studies are published which prove what we, as Catholics, already know to be true. For example, it has been demonstrated that religious practice has a positive impact on marriage fidelity. I recall one Globe and Mail article reporting data from Statistics Canada. It read: “for newly-weds worried about making their marriage vows stick, regular church-going could be just the glue they need” (September 16, 1998). That study was done more that fifteen years ago in our country, but there have been recent, similar conclusions in the United States. I might add that these studies are showing that people who take their faith seriously are also found to be happier and healthier. So, believe it or not, the science is supporting what we’re doing here! Today’s gospel contains aspects of Jesus’ teaching on marriage. But more than a mere catechesis on matrimony, it’s really all about the resurrection. Just to be clear, Jesus is not “down” on marriage. What is being said is that life here below—including marriage—is a preparation for the world to come. Christopher West (who was just visiting Ottawa in September) has been teaching the “Theology of the Body” recently in terms of our human desires. We-always- want-more! For example, within marriage, sex is such a wonderful gift, it’s truly sacred, and yet even he admits, it’s never enough. This desire for more is an innate yearning for something that nothing in this world can satisfy. Whether we realize it or not, we are all hungering for heaven! If you want to read more on that topic, a few priests in Ottawa have been strongly recommending Christopher West’s most recent book: Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing.

In the Gospel Jesus is connecting marriage with eternal life.  First of all, it’s important to understand the Sadducees.  The Sadducees were so “sad” (one could argue) because they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, the immortality of the human soul, or in angels. 

Rather than belief in the afterlife, they held to a less developed notion that the Israelite people essentially lived on in their descendants.  So, if a man died without children, his brother was obliged to take his wife and have children by her; this also ensured the handing on of property within the immediate family.  Levir, the Latin word for brother-in-law, led to this practice being designated as levirate marriage (spelled out in Deuteronomy 25.5).

The Sadducees imagined relationships in heaven would continue as they had on earth.  Jesus quoted the Pentateuch to show that in heaven relationships change.  Biological families are no longer necessary in the family of God.  For the “children of the resurrection” no longer need to worry about continuing the family tree. 

Jesus' teaching about there being no marriage in heaven might seem liberating to those whose earthly marriages failed, were abusive, or simply unhappy.  But many might feel disappointed by this teaching if they have been blessed to experience lifelong marital intimacy and companionship.

One conclusion, then, is that Heaven—the world to come—will surprise all of us, even believers.  Regardless of the relationships we’ve experienced on earth, we know that in heaven our capacity to love and be loved will only increase!

 I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about the Synod on the Family which began this past October and will continue until October 2015. Thank you for participating in this Conference on the Family. Your presence here and your prayers are a response to the call of the Universal Church to make the family
 The full title of the Synod was: “Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” As a side note, we hear very few people making any reference to evangelization in and through the family. Most of the hype thus far has been on all of the challenges. 
Fr. Raymond de Souza, in an article made an astute observation saying that there have been two competing synods: the “synod of the media” and the actual “synod of bishops”. We are all certainly grateful for the gift of the media, but should not be too na├»ve and too quick to jump to conclusions based on third-part reports. We need to wait to read the official and final Church Archbishop Kurtz, president of the United States Bishops Conference argues that the Synod on the Family was never about changing the teaching of the Church on marriage, family life or sexual morality. Rather, Pope Francis gathered bishops from around the world to hear about the various challenges facing families, and to come up with a merciful and loving way of encouraging Catholic families to be faithful and fruitful. Pope Francis has told us that as Church we need “to receive the needy, the penitent and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect!” He has even gone further to state that we must not only welcome the lost, but go out and find them! This Synod was called in response to a crisis in our time: the crisis of the family. In Canada and in the West our crisis is caused by ideologies which oppose the sanctity of human life and the institution of marriage and the family. At the root of it is, as Pope Benedict called it, the Dictatorship of Relativism. We don’t get to make the rules. God makes the rules. Or rather, God has designed us beautifully, and written his plan for our happiness in our hearts and on our bodies.

 Another common error today is a false sensitivity or tolerance which suggests it’s good to allow people to continue down a dangerous path.  As if misleading people is somehow more loving. Pope Francis describes such an approach as “deceptive mercy,” a false mercy which bandages wounds but fails to heal them. 

The Holy Father ended this first portion of the Synod by beatifying Pope Paul VI – a heroic witness who wrote the brief but prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae.  He was encouraging Catholics to continue in the 2000 year history of celebrating the gift of sexual fruitfulness.  Rather than resorting to contraception, Blessed Paul VI challenged us to find natural means for couples to be generous and responsible parents.

Please understand that I’m not here to condemn anyone.  Together we make up a Church of humble sinners who must constantly strive towards sainthood, even if we stumble along the way.  For all of us, God offers the gift of mercy, particularly through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which we will have an opportunity to participate in later today.

***The first Christians required great courage to overcome and transform a vast, pagan world whose ideas about marriage and sexual morality were not unlike those which prevail in our own culture. We can look to great examples like Cecelia, our Saint of the Day for inspiration. She had made a vow to lifelong virginity, but was promised by her parents to Valerian in marriage. On their wedding night she confided, "There is a secret, Valerian, I wish to tell you. I have as a lover an angel of God who jealously guards my body." Valerian was moved to conversion and he, along with his brother, was baptized. When the pagan authorities heard of this they ordered their martyrdom. The men were killed first. When it was Cecilia’s turn they first tried to suffocate her in the baths, but she remained unharmed. Then they attempted to behead her. Even after 3 strikes, she was not killed, but lay their 3 days longer. Though she died in the third century, in 1599 her grave was opened and her body was found lying in the same position – incorrupt – as if she has just breathed forth her soul. Her example of purity and chastity was so powerful that her name is mentioned every time we use the first Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. I would like to leave you with one final thought for families.

I would like to leave you with one final thought for families.  Perhaps some of you have seen the popular TV show “Blue Bloods” starring Tom Selleck and Donnie Walhberg.  It’s a police drama set in New York City.  The show centres on an Irish Catholic family.  Tom Selleck is the police commissioner.  His father the retired commissioner.  His children all work in law enforcement as an assistant district attorney, a detective, and a beat cop.  It’s refreshing to hear of a show that actually depicts the Catholic Church in a positive light.  

One thing especially worthy of note is that in practically every episode, on Sunday evening, the four generations of this Catholic family gather around the dinner table without the distractions of TV, smartphones etc.  They pray grace, share a meal, and spend quality time together. 

There have been recent research studies showing that children who grow up in homes where the family sits around a table and shares a meal at least five times a week are significantly less likely to end up with chemical addictions and involved in crime.  In general, they end up being more successful and live happier lives. 

The experts call it “table fellowship”. And isn’t table-fellowship what Jesus practiced with his disciples, at times with his opponents, with sinners whom he was calling to conversion?  It’s so simple, yet there are so many pressures (busyness, activities) pulling us away from doing what we as Catholics have always known to be good…long before the research was published.

That is why during this conference, we take the time as family to gather around the table of the Lord.  Most certainly we come with reverence before the altar of sacrifice.  But this is also the family dinner table where Jesus Himself nourishes us.  We bring our joys, our sufferings, and our intentions.  We come to pray together intimately for our own families and for our Catholic family worldwide. 

One day may God invite us to join him around his heavenly banquet table.
by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast