Based on his pastoral experiences with young people and married couples, Fr Charbel takes a look at the truth of the Sacrament of marriage, what it is and more importantly, what it is not!

A cynical definition of marriage has been given as “to spend one’s lifetime trying to solve together the problems one would never have had, if one had remained single.” It sums up quite effectively the frustration of many married persons who have lost sight of their marriage as a path to happiness, let alone to holiness. It also expresses the fear of many youth, and their affected indifference towards a state of life they perceive as doubtfully conducive to happiness and surely conducive to many troubles.

Asking the wrong question will never get us the right answer.

Cultural and traditional milieu sometimes contributes to preventing the perception of the sacrament of marriage as a path of happiness and holiness. For example in cultures where arranged marriage is still prevalent, both love marriage and arranged marriage will have their partisans, as if it were a case of traditionalist vs modernist mindset debate. And few seem to notice that the real question is somewhere else. Arranged marriage can be a success or a failure, as much as love marriage can be a success or a failure. To be more accurate:

  • The proportion of arranged marriages failing today in South India are high compared to a generation or two back, especially when the people getting married are not given the opportunity to know each other, in order to give substance to their choice of each other, and/or when irrelevant or secondary criteria are imposed on them by social conventions or a consumerist mindset. Arranged marriage are usually a success when their freedom is respected by the respective families, and where means are given to develop a real respectful relationship before finally choosing each other, and when a genuine autonomy is allowed after marriage to the couple for mutual respect, choice, trust, knowledge and love, to grow and develop at their own pace.
  • Love marriage is often a failure when ‘love’ is understood only as a feeling, often immature and fleeting, even when strongly and mistakenly felt as overcoming every other consideration. Love marriage can be a success when love matures both before and after the definitive choice publicly expressed and made holy in the sacrament. Love before marriage does not mean that sex or even dating before marriage are a necessity in order to know each other. There are various ways to develop a deep relationship. Genuine and close friendship (which itself takes so many different shapes) is often the best way to know and love someone in depth.

The relevant question, then, is something like this: ‘How to choose each other in truth and how to grow together in that choice?’

Friendship and love as opposed?

We all know examples of young men and women who have a wealth of friends from both genders, some of them even close friends, but who finally blindly married people whom they barely knew. Is there not here something of a paradox? Who has said that a close friendship cannot blossom into a love relationship lived in marriage? There is a myth that friendship and conjugal love are two

incompatible realities. Against it is the way Pope Francis speaks about conjugal friendship and charity as friendship lived in the married life.  1Love and friendship are incompatible realities only if love is reduced to lust or if friendship is reduced to a flimsy feeling of sympathy. In fact, conjugal love is one of the shapes that can be taken by a genuine friendship between a man and a woman when they decide to choose each other in order to found a family together. The challenge is to have a proper and practical understanding of what love and friendship is.

Surely conjugal friendship is a very special kind of friendship, because it is not only about two people choosing each other, but also about the two choosing together to start a new family. The latter choice is unique in its demands to share more totally one’s life than in any other kind of friendship.

An alliance between two persons or between two families?

In the 16th century, at the Council of Trent, some French theologians advocated the fact that parental consent should be made a condition of validity for the sacrament of marriage. The decision reached by the Council Fathers was against their position, and it was since implemented in the Church that parental consent is not needed. A genuine choice on the part of both the bride and the bridegroom is needed; to the point that if it can be proven that the choice was not free or genuine on one side, the Church officially declares that the sacrament was not valid. The authority of parents is then limited to suggestion and advice in the decision of their child to get married to this or that person, even though this advice is precious and not to be lightly disregarded. The actual teaching of the Church reminds us of the two sides of the coin: “Honor your father and mother” in listening and respecting them, but they – father and mother – should remember that their children are not their property, and have a personal vocation to fulfill. Marriage is the beginning of a new story which has to be written by the two spouses. They are inscribed in the larger story of their ancestors and descendants, but they should not be swallowed up by this larger story. Without personal freedom and legitimate autonomy (which is something other than selfish individualism) there can be no genuine mutual choice, no growth in love and then no happy marriage.

 Marriage: a vocation?

Most of the people who get married have no clue of what the meaning of Christian marriage is; many think that it is mainly asking God to bless the human commitment they chose to take. But it is a Sacrament, which means a special gift of God which realizes what it signifies, not a simple blessing. It transforms peoples if they let themselves be transformed – the two spouses become for each other chosen instruments of God’s providence for their growth in holiness. Their growing love for each other becomes the very temple of their love for God. It is a tremendous grace which goes with a tremendous responsibility and challenging trials. It is awkward to speak of marriage in general as a vocation because a vocation is a path to holiness, and this path of holiness is to be married to this or that person. Holiness is always singular and personal. This is a vocation as far as it is a God-given way for married couples to support and help each other on their way toward Him and to bear fruit together in Charity.

All this being said, we should not fall into a kind of idealism, imagining the perfect couple, the perfect marriage, the perfect family (the perfect husband, the perfect wife and so on). This would be not only useless but dangerous. Marriage is founded on two real persons – with their limitations, defects,talents and virtues – choosing each other as they are. In many countries, youth are today at the cross roads. Their life is not as regulated by traditions and social conventions as forty years ago – for better or for worse; and the models of relationship between man and woman presented by the globalized ‘culture’ are not very convincing. An ideal will not help. But they can make the best of this challenging situation by finding out personally a meaningful path for their life. Neither traditions nor modern trends can be followed blindly or rejected without discrimination. There is need for wisdom and discernment; there is need for imagination and boldness also. The meaning of the sacrament of marriage has too often been obscured by human conventions, routine, relationships disrespectful of the other persons’ dignity, etc. Now is the time for them to understand in depth the meaning of this sacrament in order to find it practically as the path to true love and happiness. This is not an ideal; this is a gift of God; and as every gift of God’s mercy, to receive it is demanding.

[1] Interestingly Hollywood has also recently been attacking this myth repeatedly in popular movies. Superficial and apparently amoral romantic comedies like “friends with benefits” (2011), “Friends with kids” (2012), “No strings attached” (2013) are all about people who are disappointed by romantic relationship and find true love through friendship. It is as if the global culture of so called “sexual-liberation” would have found the way back to some common sense…


Fr Charbel, originally from France and from the community of St John, is currently living in Pondicherry, India. He goes around preaching retreats and actively supporting youth and young families, especially with marriage issues and discerning vocation. He is currently the Chaplain for JY Tamilnadu.