The homily has become such an integral part of the liturgy that a Mass without a word or two offered by the celebrant would seem a cheat and a disappointment. But, until the Second Vatican Council, homilies were preached only at Sunday masses and never at Catholic funeral masses or at Catholic nuptial Masses. However, while the Catholic nuptial Mass formerly did not require any personal reflection on the part of the celebrant regarding marriage, there existed in the marriage ritual a time-honored homily that was dutifully read to all married couples just before they exchanged vows. A Catholic couple married before 1970 probably had this prepared homily read to them by their pastor. This homily does not have any personal allusions or folksy references or amusing anecdotes that have become part of the contemporary wedding homily. But its words are rich in common sense, in spiritual wisdom and in practical advice. Consider the sane, sage and possibly saving advice of yesteryear:
My dear friends: You are about to enter upon a union which is most sacred and most serious. It is most sacred, because it is established by God himself and most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate, that it will profoundly influence your whole future, that future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own. And so not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death. Truly, then, these words are most serious. It is a beautiful tribute to your undoubted faith in each other, that recognizing their full import, you are, nevertheless, so willing and ready to pronounce them. And because these words involve such solemn obligations, it is most fitting that you rest the security of your wedded life upon the great principle of self-sacrifice. And so you begin your married life by the voluntary and complete surrender of your individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wider life which you are to have in common. Henceforth you will belong entirely to each other; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affections. And whatever sacrifices you may hereafter be required to make to preserve this mutual life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete. God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, and the Son so loved us that he gave himself for our salvation. “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on. And if true love and the unselfish spirit of perfect sacrifice guide your every action, you can expect the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears. The rest is in the hands of God. Nor will God be wanting to your needs, he will pledge you the life-long support of his graces in the Holy Sacrament which you are now going to receive.
This homily boldly envisions marriage as providing “the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears.” This is quite a claim — especially in modern American society where over 40% of even Catholic marriages end in divorce and in which increasing numbers of young people choose not to marry at all. This “greatest measure of earthly happiness” proposed in this homily is stunningly foreshadowed by St. John’s Cana wedding account. The abundance of the wine (forty cases by modern standards) and the quality of the wine (“You saved the best wine until now.”) graphically inform the reader that marriage is indeed plentifully blessed by God. St. John’s festive and detailed account of the Cana nuptials contrasts reassuringly with the mockery and derision accorded marriage in modern life generally and especially in televised programming. Infidelity, promiscuity, odd-ball parenting, divorce, irregular unions and other social phenomena that belittle authentic marriage are the stuff of American entertainment and much advertising. The committed, enduring spousal relationship is rarely witnessed in the public media. Wisely does the Church begin the new calendar year with a celebratory reminder of the sanctity of marriage.