The celebration of the dutiful wife from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs is the first reading at Mass this coming Sunday. The much appreciated woman is hailed both for her spousal support as well as her practical shrewdness: “Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.
She brings him good, and not evil, all the days of her life. She obtains wool and flax and works with loving hands. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle. She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.” Most of the time, Catholics hear these verses at funerals as a tribute to a loving mother and loyal spouse. Perhaps these kind words should be read more suitably at wedding ceremonies or even at Confirmation or graduation rites as sage advice for the future, rather than as a sad reflection on the past.
The opening words heard from Catholic pulpits this Sunday — “When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls,” – are not especially provocative. But the newer translation found in the more recently published New American Bible begins the passage with a much more perplexed tone: “Who can find a woman of worth?” These words seem to imply that finding such a woman is rare. In the patriarchal societies of the ancient world – both Hebrew and pagan — perhaps not much was expected from women. One reason the female martyrs of the early Church were so celebrated and acknowledged was that their valor contrasted so greatly with the world’s low expectations regarding women. Nonetheless, the enthusiastic praise of womanhood is certainly not lacking throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. In spite of the hapless Eve’s false start, Sarah, Rachael and Rebecca are remembered as resourceful women along with the heroics of their husbands Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The daring exploits of Deborah, Esther and Judith who literally saved the Jewish people from extinction also come to mind as well as the quiet fidelity of Ruth and the risky devotion of Rahab. And who could be more courageous than the mother of the Maccabees who urged her sons on to martyrdom and shared their tragic fate herself?
The importance of women of faith has never been more vital than in today’s fractured society. While much attention was devoted to divorced and re-married spouses during the recent Roman synod, Catholics should not overlook those women and men of Catholic background who never marry at all. Those choosing single parenthood and cohabitating couples threaten authentic marriage and family life just as re-marriage after divorce does. Recent statistics from Europe certainly find an echo in the United States. According to statistics from the European Union, 48 percent of British children are born out of wedlock and 24 percent of British children go on to live in lone parent households. Belgium, Denmark, France and Ireland have 20 percent of children living in single parent households. One director for a European marriage foundation observed that in Western Europe the rising levels of lone parenthood is not the result of divorce, but the result of a dramatic decrease in young people choosing to marry. The divorce rate has actually fallen, but the number of single parents continues to rise. In the United States today, 20 percent of adults have never married. In 1960, only 9 percent of adults never married.
Jesus Christ took the natural institution of marriage — the indissoluble union of one man and one woman open to new life — and raised it to the level of a sacrament which would reveal the height and depth of Christ’s own love for his One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Christ would never lessen his ardor for his beloved community born of water and his blood. Accordingly, Catholics must recapture this notion of marriage being a vocation, a summons from God, to live out in daily life the undying love of Christ for his Church. Catholics lament the decrease in priestly and religious vocations within Western society. Catholics should also grieve over the loss of marriage as a vocation. The sacramental relationship of husband and wife is a summons from God to live out through earthly commitment and spousal fidelity the heavenly commitment and spousal fidelity of Jesus for his Church. Modern marriage behavior — or the lack thereof — is a vocation crisis of vital importance.