Bishop's Interview: Honoring, supporting sacramental marriage

Editor: There have been several reports lately about the dwindling marriage rates. Why do you think this is happening?
Bishop Vásquez:
Nationwide we have witnessed a decline in marriages, as the number of civil marriages as well as sacramental marriages have fallen. It seems that marriage is no longer considered a necessary element of commitment between two people, especially a man and a woman. Some couples consider marriage an unnecessary formality or legality, or vestige left over from the past. Therefore, they live together often with the thought that not being married will make it easier to end the relationship if problems arise. These thoughts are worrisome because they show a lack of understanding of the nature of marriage. And underlying this is a lack of understanding of commitment. 
Marriage is the commitment of love between a man and a woman. This is why the church values it so much. We believe that the sacrament of matrimony or vocation of marriage is one of the primary ways that we as individuals encounter Jesus Christ. Therefore, these declines in marriage can become alarming because these societal trends influence even the most faithful Christians. 
Pope Francis has noticed these trends as well and lately he has praised married couples at length. “Marriage is an act of faith in God’s plan for humanity and an act of selfless love … Therefore the life of the church is enriched through every marriage which shows forth this beauty, and is impoverished when marriage is disfigured in any way,” the pope said during his general audience on May 6.
Editor: What does the church teach about marriage?
Bishop Vásquez:
The Catholic church’s teaching on marriage is biblical. In Genesis, we read: “The Lord God then built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. When he brought her to the man, the man said: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man this one has been taken.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (Gen 2:22-24).
Just after creation, God forms man and then man naturally seeks a companion. Using half of the man’s own body, God creates woman and the two are complementary. They are attracted to one another and they see within each other beauty –– not just physical but also spiritual and moral. They are similar, yet different, and when man and woman come together in marriage, God unites them as one. In marriage, a couple, though still distinct individuals, realizes they are helping each other become who God wants them to be. 
We realize there are circumstances that lead to divorce, but God’s intent from the beginning was that man and woman form a permanent union. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “From a valid marriage arises a bond between the spouses which by its very nature is perpetual and exclusive.” We believe that marriage involves total self-gift so that the couple can grow in deep love for one another and grow together in love for God.
Marriage is a gift that God has given humanity. We did not invent marriage, and we have to understand that God gave us this wonderful gift. We believe that marriage is exclusive to a man and a woman and the church adamantly defends this belief. The unity of husband and wife is so intimate and so unique that from it can come children –– new life to be welcomed and raised in love. No other relationship, no matter how loving or committed, can naturally produce offspring. Therefore, the unique form of commitment that exists in marriage must be between a man and a woman.
There are certain components in any sacramental marriage that must be maintained. One is the unity between a husband and wife and the complementarity that brings the man and woman together. The other is permanence. During the sacrament of matrimony, a man and a woman commit themselves formally and profess their intent to love one another. They are married in the eyes of God and nothing should threaten that –– what God has joined man should not separate. The last component of marriage is it must always be opened to life. This doesn’t mean that every couple who marries is able to have children; however, every couple should be open to the gift of new life. 
Editor: As marriage numbers fall, what does this mean for families?
Bishop Vásquez:
This creates many issues for the family, which the church often refers to as the “domestic church.” In the past, marriage was valued, cherished and promoted because society understood that when a man and a woman come together, marry and establish a family, that family becomes the bedrock for the society. When we have strong families, we have a strong society. When our families are undermined or weakened, then society suffers as well. Therefore we have to be careful that what society might consider acceptable, such as same-sex marriage or easy access to divorce, can ultimately jeopardize our society. 
Editor: Obviously marriage can be difficult. What are some of the ministries that we have as a church that can help married couples?
Bishop Vásquez:
Marriage can be challenging, but the same can be said of any vocation. There are priests, deacons and religious brothers and sisters who face challenges in their vocation as well. Because marriage is a holy and sacred vocation, the church must protect it and uplift it as much as possible. I have always believed if we have good strong promotion of marriage in the church and strong commitments to marriage then we will have solid vocations in the priesthood and religious life as well. Therefore, there are a couple of well-known ministries in our church that are designed to help married couples who encounter difficulties.
One way is Marriage Encounter, a retreat experience offered in our diocese for couples who have been married any length of time. Marriage Encounter gives married couples the opportunity to examine their lives together and to focus on communication with each other. I highly encourage couples to take advantage of this ministry. Priests and religious make an annual retreat that helps them renew their vocation and commitment to God and his church. I encourage married couples to go on retreat as well to renew their love for each other. When two people are working together, building a family and establishing careers, they need time for themselves and God. 
There is also a ministry called Retrouvaille, which is for those couples contemplating separation or divorce. Couples who are struggling to remain together are invited to this retreat to help them rebuild their relationship. At this retreat, there are married couples and at least one priest present to guide them in re-establishing good communication and renewing their love for one another. 
As Pope Francis has done time and again, we have to encourage married couples for their love and commitment, and we also need to honor them in special ways. As priests, we can publicly thank married couples for their witness to the vocation of marriage and we recognize couples who are celebrating significant milestones, such as 15, 25 or 50 years of marriage. It’s a great honor for me when I have the opportunity to stand before a couple who has been together so many years in holy marriage. I am amazed by the marvelous gift married couples are to the church. 
Editor: What about couples who would like to have their civil marriage recognized by the church or those who have been divorced? 
Bishop Vásquez:
Certainly, there are many couples who marry civilly and then ultimately would like to have their marriage blessed by the church. The doors of the church are open to everyone and the church should do everything possible to welcome these couples. Usually it’s a simple process that involves a pastoral assessment of the couple. With the help of a priest or a deacon, the couple can prepare for sacramental marriage. Through this convalidation process, we want to help couples experience the fullness of sacramental marriage. 
As for divorced Catholics, we must do all we can to help them feel welcomed and connected to the church. I want those who are divorced to know they are still allowed to receive Eucharist as long as they are not remarried. Many may be tempted to avoid the sacraments because of divorce; however, I recommend that someone who has been divorced go to confession and then not be afraid to attend Mass and celebrate the sacraments.  Also, Cedarbrake Catholic Retreat Center in Belton is offering a retreat this summer for those seeking healing after divorce. Visit www.austindiocese.org/cedarbrake for more information about that retreat.
The church offers compassion through the process of annulment for those who are divorced. Each diocese has a Tribunal, which reviews the petitions for annulment. An annulment formally recognizes there was an impediment or something lacking in the marriage from the beginning, according to the laws of the Catholic church. This is not placing blame on either party, nor does it affect the legitimacy of the children born in the marriage. The process of annulment takes time, and if an affirmative decision is reached and confirmed, then the individuals are free to marry in the church. I have found that the process of annulment can be a moment that leads to reconciliation and healing, which is truly what the church desires.
Editor: What is your prayer for married couples and families?
Bishop Vásquez:
My prayer is one of thanksgiving for couples in sacramental marriages. They are signs of the great love between Christ and the church, and they are signs of commitment to our society. For those who are beginning marriage, I pray they will have the wonderful gift of joy and experience the gift of discovering who they are as a couple and of growing more deeply in love with each year. I pray that even though they experience difficulties and pains, they will draw closer to Christ. May all married couples experience the gift of joy and love that God has put into our hearts.