What’s in a vow?
A few years ago we had a ‘date night’ at West Side Story. We thoroughly enjoyed the evening even though we had seen it before in a youth group version.
This time, all the performers completed the show intact, unlike the youth group which had to transport one of its members to the hospital with a broken leg!
During the proposal/wedding scene of this classic New York tale, the two protagonists pledge their love in the song One Hand, One Heart: “Make of our hands one hand, make of our hearts one heart, make of our vows one last vow: only death will part us now” croons Tony to Maria.
Little does he know that in the next act, death will in fact, part them. (Oops! Spoiler alert!)
In the middle of the song, Francine glanced sideways to see Byron rubbing his eyes. That was enough to set her tear ducts going, and once they start there’s no stopping them.
She’s enjoying the moment of shared emotionality, only to discover at intermission that it was not in the least part reciprocated. In a bemused admission, Byron confessed he was simply tired and rubbed his eyes to keep himself awake!
Thinking about…our wedding vows
The incident got us thinking about our wedding vows. Obviously, the lyrics draw inspiration from traditional Christian vows and poetically reinterprets them. But are vows just nice poetry?
Vows are not just words. Unlike a promise, which is typically made between people and may be private to them, a sacred vow is made to God, or before God as a witness. It is never totally private and carries accountability to the person (or people) to whom we made the vow and to God. A broken promise is never a good thing but is not nearly as grave as breaking a vow.
Our vows therefore carry within them a gravity that sets them apart as a special category with an efficacious impact; something important is changed by the sacred vows we make.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says of the married couple: “they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mat 19:6, NRSV). It is through the power of God, and not just the will of the couple, that makes the marriage union.
When we, as Catholics, take vows before God on our wedding day, our words change something very important: we are no longer two, but one flesh. And, when validly made, our vows cannot be broken by a human decision.
Making Vows Validly
For our wedding vows to be valid, they must be made freely and deliberately. Any sense of coercion or reservation can negate them. Any sense of confusion or misunderstanding of what is entailed can invalidate them.
That’s why the celebrant asks the couple:
- Have you come here to enter into Marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly?
- Are you prepared, as you follow the path of Marriage, to love and honour each other for as long as you both shall live?
- Are you prepared to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?
All the Sacraments of the Church have this element of efficacy. For example, when the priest says, “I absolve you of your sins” during confession the sins are absolved. His words make it happen because Christ shares his power and authority with the priest in the Sacraments.
This is explicit in the words of Jesus: twice in the Gospel of Matthew we hear Jesus say to Peter and the apostles “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mat 16:19, 18:18, NRSV)
Marriage is a big deal
In all the Sacraments, the priest administers them. Except one. In the Sacrament of Matrimony, the spouses administer the Sacrament. The celebrant and the witnesses are necessary representatives of the Church, but it is the couple themselves who administer the Sacrament. And it’s kind of a big deal.
Some years ago, we added a topic to our course for engaged couples called ‘The Fine Print’. It outlined the characteristics of Catholic marriage – something that was conspicuously apparent to previous generations where the definition of marriage in law largely coincided with the understanding of marriage in the Church.
This is no longer the case and so we cannot assume that couples preparing to marry in the Church today know what Catholic marriage entails.
The unit identifies seven important features of Catholic marriage: the freedom to marry, permanency, sexual intimacy, sexual fidelity, unconditional sharing, openness to children, raising children Catholic. The material takes each item and explains it clearly so that there is no confusion about what Catholic marriage involves (Read it here).
At the recent Renaissance of Marriage conference, there was a lunch time discussion with members of the Marriage Tribunal. This is the part of the Church responsible for reviewing cases of civil divorce to determine whether a sacramental marriage was validly covenanted.
One Tribunal member made a very useful comment of how the Church navigates the reality of human frailty and the vision of Matrimony; civil divorce focuses on what happened at the end of the marriage whereas the Catholic annulment process focuses on what happened at the beginning.
That’s because, many Catholic couples whose marriages break down, were, in some way, unable to make a free and full commitment. A surprising number of couples did have reservations at the time of the wedding or had significant misunderstanding of what they were committing to.
Occasionally, an engaged couple finds this information in the course unwelcome. They have preconceived ideas of what constitutes Catholic marriage, so they are often unsettled when they discover their idea is not aligned with what the vows actually mean. None-the-less, we believe it is important information and not to provide it would be negligent.
A Covenant, not a contract
Catholic marriage is not just a civil commitment, it is a covenant – a sacred bond that transcends mere legal contracts. It should be approached with the same reverence and conscientiousness that priests and religious bring to their ordination or profession of vows.
Each of these vocations – priesthood, religious life and marriage – are established by a deliberate and free vow made for the sake of a greater good; to give glory to the God who loves us until death on the cross. That is the fruit of all these vocations – to make visible the invisible reality of God’s freely given, total, faithful, life-giving love.
Catholic marriage makes it visible through the devotion of the husband and wife to each other. Priesthood makes it visible through the self-gift of the priest to his people. Religious life makes it visible through the spiritual union of the religious sister or brother with Christ.
In her wisdom, the Church rightly warns against making a poorly considered or hasty vow but does not prevent us from doing so when we insist. And equally, in her mercy, the Church is ready to walk with us through the annulment process to explore the possibility that what we thought was there at the time of our vows, in retrospect, may not have been the case.
For a vow, made without proper discernment, cannot be entered into truly and freely and is thus unlikely to bear the fruit for which it is intended: to make God’s love visible. Indeed, a broken vow not only fails to witness fully to the nature of God’s permanent, faithful love, it creates doubt in the very reality of that love.
But perhaps there is some insight in the next line of the song from West Side Story: “Make of our lives one life, day after day, one life.” For a marriage, like any vocation, is not made simply by making the vows. The wedding is only the beginning of the marriage, not its completeness.
Rather, a marriage is made day by day in the myriad gestures of self-giving sacrifice that gradually make our separate lives into one life. In the words of Tony & Maria: “Now it begins, now we start: One hand, one heart. Even death won’t part us now.”
Listen to the track performed by the Original Broadway Cast