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Christian Marriage and Family Life

Christian Marriage and Family Life

Pastoral letter issued by the Catholic Bishops of Zimbabwe



As we celebrate the Jubilee Year of our Redemption, we the Catholic Bishops of this young country, wish to address the parents and future parents of this land. Happy nations can only be built on happy families, and we wish to share with you our hopes, desires and counsel that will help you to build the Church of tomorrow through your faith, love and sacrifice today.

No one can deny that the strength and vitality of the Church of tomorrow rests on the foundation that we lay for it today.

We write to you, our Christian people, but our message is for all people of good will, for as we build up the faith of Christians and renew their ideal, we seek to be of service to our country and to all its people, and to the family of mankind. We thank God for the gift of faith that he has sown through the seed of the word, and that has taken root in Christian families and communities throughout our land.

This is the treasure that must not be lost. "Your first duty and your greatest privilege as parents is to hand on to your children the faith you received from your parents"[1]

Our whole life must indeed be a response in faith to the love of God who has bestowed life. God is our Father, his Son is our Redeemer and Saviour, and the Spirit binds us in living love to the One true God. This is the foundation of meaningful life and love, this is the faith that calls forth from each one of us the gratitude and thanks for the gifts we have received. Parents, you are a gift, one to another in love, and your joy must call you to worship in prayer and gratitude to the One who has bound you in love.

1. The Domestic Church - A House of Prayer

From your faith and your worship in faith will flow the hope of Christian fulfilment in the face of weakness and sinfulness. From your prayer and the sacramental graces of your marriage you will draw courage and joy, perseverance and fruitfulness, the courage to sacrifice and share with one another and with your family the joy of Christian living and bring about in your lives the abiding witness of Christ in the domestic church - your home. For the family is the Church in miniature. In God's providence the domestic church has the same functions, as both Teacher and Mother as the world-wide Church. There are many profound bonds linking the family as a Church in miniature, so that, in its own way, the family is a living image and historical representation of the mystery of the Church.[2]

Fathers, don't leave all this to your wives. Praying to God is not a charge given to Christian mothers alone. The father's part in forming the children in faith, and in being a leader in prayer in the home, is vital and irreplaceable. Fathers must not opt out.

There must be a place for prayer in the domestic Church. It is unthinkable that a family of believers should not assemble in common from time to time, to raise their hearts and minds to God in prayer. Communion in prayer is both a consequence of and a requirement for the communion bestowed by the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony.[3] Parents are the ministers in the domestic Church, and nowhere are men and women more authentically humans than when on their knees in submission and worship before God. As Pope John Paul said: "Prayer constitutes an essential part of Christian life."[4]

In every family there should be some moments of the day given to prayer. Christian family life provides many opportunities for communicating with God, be it at table before and after meals, in the morning and evening, in joys and sorrows. Everything can and should be referred to God, either in prayer of thanksgiving or in prayer of petition. Don't forget to count the blessings! Thus the family itself becomes an object of prayer.[5] Parents will teach the children more about God by their own lives and practices at home than by words. Actions speak louder than words.

The attitude of filial reverence before God, the spirit of faith and trust in God, the habit of family prayer, the love for Holy Mass, devotion to the Mother of God, and other Christian devotions, are all marks of the spirituality of marriage. Family events like Baptism, Holy Communion for the first time. Confirmation and anniversaries are occasions when the whole family should celebrate, and this social involvement has a lasting effect on the children.

Young children should develop an awareness and relationship with God at their mother's knee! The power of example is always more expressive than words. The father should find the time to join family prayer! A child's earliest prayers should be taught at home - and what better way than to gather as a family for daily prayers at bedtime? As the children grow up, bedtime will be progressively later but prayer together will always have its necessary place. Thanking our heavenly Father for the joys and happiness of the day, being sorry, after a brief examination of conscience, for sinful behaviour and bad attitudes, and a resolution to improve in the day to follow, are always needed in family life.

It is in the home that either saint or sinner is made. The famous saying has been proved true in thousands of families: "The family that-prays together stays together."

2. The Bible in the Home

The Word of God is proclaimed in the Church, and it must have its place in the domestic Church too. The Bible must have an honoured place, and be the centre of the prayer life of the family. Shared Bible-prayer will awaken in all that religious atmosphere that will lead to the full sacramental life, and to the liturgical prayer of the whole Church being meaningful even to the children.

More and more Christian parents are facing their responsibility of preparing their children for the Sacraments, but many do not fulfil their duty. The Church of tomorrow will be the poorer for this omission, just as it will be the stronger when the duty is faithfully observed.

The Bible, the Crucifix, the Statue of the Blessed Virgin, or the picture of the Sacred Heart - have they a place in your home? Family spirituality can be nourished when such aids to devotion are the focal point of our prayer life in the home. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. Ignorance of the Church and its doctrine is also ignorance of Christ. The Lord Jesus is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and of civilisation, the centre of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings[6]

God calls the family through the words of – Sacred Scripture. In the domestic Church God calls the family to listen to the word of God and pray together. Listening is not enough; all must respond in prayer; "prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture."[7] When it is possible shared reflection, like a Gospel enquiry, does much to stimulate thought, discussion and Christian attitudes of mind. Thus children learn the truths of their faith; they grow in a personal relationship with Christ.

On his visit to Africa in 1980 Pope John Paul II said in Accra: "Let every family truly be a domestic Church, a community where the Lord Jesus has a central place, where children learn to know and love God, where prayer is the binding force. In this community of love and life, the future of society is decided and the peace of the world is built."

3. Chaste Union for the Married

The chaste union to which couples are called in Christian Marriage is indeed an image of the union between Christ and His Church. It calls for total fidelity where the partners are true to one another in a life-long married partnership of pure conjugal love and undivided affection. They share their lives completely and all their worldly goods. The intimate partnership of married life is designed by God for the procreation and education of children, for the love and prosperity of the family and of human society as a whole. The Christian family will reveal to all men the Saviour's living presence in the world and the genuine nature of the Church.

4. Sharing and Communication

Sharing deeply with the intimate love of human friendship sustains marriage. Loving friendship needs to be sustained by signs; without signs it is empty and devoid of meaning. Spouses today, because of the wide availability of education, have many valuable gifts and expertise to bring to their marriage. Through communication and dialogue these gifts will be shared with sensitivity and fruitfulness, unfolding an ever deeper and enduring trust and generosity - an ever deepening and more meaningful love.

While not wishing to challenge the leadership role of the husband, we would do well to recognise that the wife often has marked ability in her own right and he should be open to her ideas, her good sense and suggestions, because leadership qualities can be found in both husband and wife. Neither spouse possesses a monopoly of intelligence, truth or wisdom.

5. Promoting Life

Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained towards the begetting and education of Children. God bestows on the partners a share in his own creative work in his general mandate to mankind to increase and multiply. [8] Responsible parenthood will make it necessary from time to time to regulate the number of children born into the family, and this regulation of births must be brought about by means that are morally correct and free from blame; such regulation must be a responsible decision of the couple themselves.

Morally blameless methods of birth regulation do not interfere with the function of reproduction, and do not bring about abortion. The fertilised ovum must be treated with the dignity and respect of human life, and any measure by man to frustrate the development of human life is unmoral.

The Ovulation Method of birth regulation, developed by Doctors John and Evelyn Billings, is a method of birth regulation made possible through the precise determination of the time of ovulation in the female cycle of fertility, and can be used to promote fertility as well as to avoid pregnancy. It has the full approval of the Catholic Church as a morally acceptable means of natural family planning.

We, your Bishops, would also like to add our own approval to the method and support those who strive to make it better known.

6. Childless Couples

Without children married life suffers strain, but marriage is a life-long, generous undertaking that can and will survive even for those who have been denied, in God's providence, the blessing of children. Some spouses can be helped by modern medicine to correct sterility, but where correction fails, such couples must reconcile themselves to the inscrutable providence of God.

If sterile marriage is your lot, there always remains an option to adopt. We would like to encourage more and more couples to accept adoption because it seems God's way of giving them fulfilment in married life and because there are so many children hungry for domestic care and family love. Maybe this is God's way of giving love and affection to those deprived through the harsh and unfortunate circumstances of their lives.

7. Social Dimensionof the Family

Go out, said Christ Our Lord, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples. [9]This is a mandate to families too.

Out of gratitude for the many blessings a good Christian family 'is constantly receiving, the family must not remain closed-in on itself, but must reach out to other families. The family with a missionary spirit has a central role in evangelising other families in the parish. It should become a "saving community" in a like-to-like ministry. They must see all as brother or sister and discover a fellow human being to be loved and served, especially in the poor, the weak and those who suffer or are unjustly treated. Love knows how to discover the face of Christ.[10]The Christian family is moved by a sense of justice and concern for others as well as by a consciousness of its responsibility towards the whole of society, [11]and is set upon promoting the Christian transformation of the world.

8. Post-Marriage Renewal

The sharing of life and love in the Christian marriage today faces many pressures from Society and from the materialist philosophies on which many modern ideologies are based. It is necessary, in order to maintain the stability of the family and to emphasise the importance of family values, that the spouses are helped to maturity through a sharing and caring Christian education, deepening their awareness of vocation and spirituality, and helping them to meet this challenge.

Modem movements like Marriage Encounter work in a marvellous way to underscore the vocation of the laity, and the importance of the family in the life of the Church and the nation. Through deeper communication and appreciation a new awareness and renewal not, only brings greater stability to marriage but helps the parents to share more deeply in the preparation of their own children for future marriage.

We, your Bishops, would like to endorse these movements and their work of renewing the life of the Church within the family. We would like to encourage our married people  to deepen their awareness through these movements, and to renew annually their vows of commitment to one another. The Feast of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph would seem a very opportune time to have a parish renewal of marriage commitment.

9. Concern for Unmarried Mothers

It saddens us, brothers and sisters in Christ, and it must sadden you too who are committed to life and love, to witness the destruction of life and human dignity that is brought about through selfishness and materialism. The tragedy that faces us of children being abandoned after birth and the many school-girl pregnancies in our land, are signs of the times; and we must read those signs in the light of Christ who came to bring life and bring it more abundantly. The appalling crime of abortion and infanticide-it is the murder of the innocent - is legalised in some countries, and international funds are made available for the destruction of life in the womb or its prevention. Is this not the fruit of man's blind pursuit of pleasure and gain through sinfulness, through greed and selfishness?

We are witnesses to Christ and to his compassion. Let us reach out with compassion and with the healing of Christ in love to those who have gone astray. But let us witness to life, and oppose those forces of evil who for gain or suppression of others seek to destroy life and the dignity of man, made in the image and the likeness of our Creator - God. Let our love be life-giving and life-sustaining.

10. A Word of Encouragement to Divorces Persons

The increased number of divorces, with its terrible effects on the lives of the children is of great concern, but unless the seeds of faith and love are nurtured in the Christian atmosphere of the home, and dignity of marriage, as it portrays the union between Christ and his Church, becomes part of our life and witness, there will be no change. You must reflect in your own lives the faith you have received and share that living faith through prayer and example, through worship and love and nurture the life of a living faith in your children that they may cherish the Christian values and in turn light a new flame of faith in the families they will later establish.

We are sure that there are some of you who have been hurt and have not always been able to see the Church as a loving mother. Perhaps you have found in some priests a lack of pastoral concern and understanding.

At two Synods of Bishops, in 1980 and 1983, the Church has shown genuine concern about divorced Catholics. Our Holy Father is reminding you that a real spiritual life is available for separated and divorced Catholics, even those who, because they are living in a second marriage, cannot receive Holy Communion. Pope John Paul II says: "They (divorced persons) should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favour of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore day by day God's grace. Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother and thus sustain them in faith and hope"[12]

11. Preparation for Christian Marriage

To young people, even those in their teens, we wish to say that it is on you now and on your adult life that the future hope of your country, and the future strength of the Church depends. Your future happiness and fidelity in your commitment in life depends on your self-discipline. Chastity measures today your mature moral growth, and your openness to give generously in marriage, since it is in loving and giving that life is worth living. Without chastity the way is open to vice, self-destruction and unhappiness. With chastity, the pure of heart have a sharpened vision and awareness to see God[13]; and a deeper awareness of social responsibility.

In the heart of their own families young people should be aptly and reasonably instructed about the dignity, duties and expression of married love. Trained thus in the cultivation of chastity, they will be able, at a suitable age, to enter a marriage of their own after an honourable courtship.[14]

We wish to encourage all our young unmarried adults to give themselves to regular prayer not only for the right partner who is a committed Christian, but for a firm desire to seek the will of God for them and to embark upon their adult life as obedient sons and daughters of the Church.

Christian parents, to whom it applies, should have compassion on the engaged couples to avoid imposing a burden on them too crippling to bear. As a testimony of their Christianity, parents should stand out against the high-price lobola that is so common. A young couple just married needs help to pay its way and meet its many expenses of rising costs and living standards. If the young couple is not yet married in Church with Christian rites, it needs additional compassion to enable it to do so. Otherwise, non- solemnisation becomes an adverse criticism of the parents or the extended family.

"More than ever necessary in our times is the preparation of young people for marriage and family life".[15]The Church must promote better and more intensive programmes of marriage preparation, in order to eliminate as far as possible the difficulties that many married couples find themselves in, and to further the establishing and maturing of successful marriages."

We would like to see more and more lay people with gifts and expertise involved in the preparation of young people for Christian marriage: lawyers, doctors of medicine, marriage counsellors, accountants, social workers, etc. The Marriage Encounter movement runs a programme for engaged couples to attend these Evenings for the Engaged and so prepare with responsibility and reflection for their future vocation as leaders of the domestic Church.

12. Conclusion

Dear parents, believe in your vocation, that beautiful vocation of marriage and parenthood to which God has called you. Believe that God is with you, for all parenthood in heaven and on earth takes its name from him. Do not think that anything you do in life is more important, than to be a good, Christian father or mother.

The future of the Church, the future of humanity, depends in great part on parents and on the family life they build in their homes. The Christian family, says Pope John Paul II, is "the primary and most excellent seedbed of vocations to a life of consecration to the Kingdom of God."[16]Vocations to the priesthood and to the religious life must be regarded as the test of our national spirituality and the spiritual vitality of our families.  With vocations from outside the country being so short, Zimbabwe must aim to be self-sufficient in vocations and resolutely self-propagating. We all need to question ourselves, our parishes and our communities as to how the faith was planted and how the faith will survive, as a matter of family and social concern. Do we pray for priests, brothers and nuns? Do we  ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into his harvest?[17]

Again, "Christian families offer a special contribution to the missionary cause of the Church by fostering missionary vocations among their sons and daughters and more generally, by training their children from childhood to recognise God's love for all people."[18]

We, your Bishops, depend upon you parents. We compliment and thank you for all you are doing, and the sacrifices you make to keep your homes and families places of faith and prayer and virtue to withstand the onslaught of materialism and sin.

We want to help you, we want to serve you. We want to work with you in that great task, to ensure that no fault or omission of ours, may endanger or weaken the tradition of faith taking root in the people of Zimbabwe. Together we can do this. Together we shall not fail Christ in our time, because Christ will not fail us: Christ is with us always; yes, to the end of time.[19]

Together, we entrust you, good Christians of our land, to the care and protection of Mary, Our Mother, who pondered the truths of faith so deeply in her heart that she was to become after Christ, the greatest instrument of our redemption. May she, by her prayers and intercession before the Blessed Trinity, obtain for us fidelity in our vocations, and the courage to be always true to the values she lived for.