The Heart of John Paul II-On Family

"A witness to spousal love for the church"
Pope John Paul II
General Audience
November 23, 1994


According to Perfectae Caritatis, religious "recall to the minds of all the faithful that wondrous marriage decreed by God and which is to be fully revealed in the future age in which the Church takes Christ as its only spouse" (PC 12). In this marriage the basic value of virginity or celibacy in relation to God is discovered. It is for this reason that one speaks of "consecrated chastity."

The truth of this marriage is revealed by many statements in the New Testament. We remember that the Baptist called Jesus the bridegroom who has the bride, that is, the people who rushed to his baptism. John saw himself as the "groom's best man who waits there listening for him and is overjoyed to hear his voice" (Jn 3:29). This marriage imagery was already used in the Old Testament to indicate the close relationship between God and Israel. Especially after Hosea (cf. 1:2ff.), the prophets used it to exalt that relationship and to call the people back to it if they had betrayed it (cf. Is 1:21; Jer 2:2; 3:1; 3:6-12; Ez 16, 23). In the second part of the Book of Isaiah, the restoration of Israel is described as the reconciliation of an unfaithful wife with her husband (cf. Is 50:1; 54:5-8; 62:4-5). The presence of this imagery in the religious faith of Israel also appears in the Song of Songs and in Psalm 45, wedding songs prefiguring the marriage with the Messiah King, as they were interpreted by Jewish and Christian tradition.

Within the context of his people's tradition, Jesus used the imagery to say that he himself is the bridegroom foretold and awaited--the Messiah bridegroom (cf. Mt 9:15; 25:1). He also insisted on this analogy and terminology to explain what the "kingdom" is that he had come to bring. "The reign of God may be likened to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son" (Mt 22:2). He compared his disciples to the bridegroom's friends, who rejoice at his presence and will fast when the bridegroom is taken away from them (cf. Mk 2:19-20). There is also the well-known parable of the ten virgins waiting for the bridegroom to arrive for the wedding feast (cf. Mt 25:1-3), as well as that of the servants who must be watching to welcome their master when he returns from a wedding (cf. Lk 12:35-38). In this regard it could be said that the first miracle Jesus performed at Cana, precisely at a wedding banquet, is significant (cf. Jn 2:1-11).

By calling himself the bridegroom, Jesus expressed the meaning of his entrance into history. He came to bring about God's marriage with humanity, in accordance with what the prophets foretold, in order to establish Yahweh's new covenant with his people, and to fill human hearts with the new gift of divine love, enabling them to taste its joy. As the bridegroom, he invites everyone to respond to this gift of love. All are called to answer love with love. He asks some to give a fuller, stronger and more radical response: that of virginity or celibacy "for the kingdom of heaven."

We also know that St. Paul accepted and developed the imagery of Christ the bridegroom suggested by the Old Testament and taken up by Jesus in his preaching and in teaching the disciples whom he would establish as the first community. The apostle urges those who are married to consider the example of the messianic marriage: "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church" (Eph 5:25). In addition to this special application, he looks on the Christian life in the perspective of a spousal union with Christ: "I have given you in marriage to one husband, presenting you as a chaste virgin to Christ" (2 Cor 11:2).

Paul wishes to make this presentation to Christ the bridegroom for all Christians. However, there is no doubt that the Pauline imagery of the chaste virgin finds its full realization and its greatest meaning in consecrated chastity. The most splendid model of this fulfillment is the Virgin Mary, who accepted in her being the best of her people's marital tradition. She did not limit herself to the awareness of her special belonging to God on the socio-religious level, but applied the idea of Israel as a bride to the complete giving of her soul and body "for the kingdom of heaven," in her sublime form of consciously chosen chastity. Hence the Council could state that in the Church the consecrated life is lived in deep harmony with the Blessed Virgin Mary (cf. LG 41), who is presented by the Church as "the one most fully consecrated" (cf. RD 17).

In the Christian world a new light was shed by Christ's word and Mary's example of oblation, a light soon to be known by the first communities. The reference to the nuptial union of Christ and the Church gives marriage itself its highest dignity. In particular, the sacrament of Matrimony introduces the spouses into the mystery of Christ's union with the Church. However, the profession of virginity or celibacy enables consecrated persons to share more directly in the mystery of this marriage. While conjugal love goes to Christ the bridegroom through a human union, virginal love goes directly to the person of Christ through an immediate union with him, without intermediaries--a truly complete and decisive spiritual espousal. Thus in the person of those who profess and live consecrated chastity, the Church expresses her union as bride with Christ the bridegroom to the greatest extent. For this reason it must be said that the virginal life is found at the heart of the Church.

In line with the evangelical and Christian concept, it must also be said that this immediate union with the bridegroom is an anticipation of the life of heaven, which will be characterized by a vision or possession of God without intermediaries. As the Second Vatican Council said, consecrated chastity will "recall to the minds of all the faithful that wondrous marriage decreed by God and which is to be fully revealed in the future age" (PC 12). In the Church the state of virginity or celibacy thus has an eschatological meaning. It is an especially expressive foretaste of the possession of Christ as the one bridegroom, as will occur in the fullness of the life to come. This is the meaning of what Jesus said about the state of life which will belong to the elect after the resurrection of the body. They "neither marry nor are given in marriage. They become like angels and are no longer liable to death. Sons of the resurrection [= raised up], they are sons of God" (Lk 20:35-36). Despite the obscurities and difficulties of earthly life, the state of consecrated chastity foreshadows the union with God, in Christ, which the elect will have in heavenly happiness, when the spiritualization of the risen man will be complete.

The profound happiness of consecrated life is understood from a consideration of this goal of heavenly union with Christ the bridegroom. St. Paul refers to this happiness when he says that the unmarried man is busy with the Lord's affairs and is not divided between the world and the Lord (cf. 1 Cor 7:32-35). But this is a happiness from which sacrifice is neither excluded nor dispensed with, since consecrated celibacy involves renunciations by which one is called to be more closely conformed to Christ crucified. St. Paul expressly states that in his bridegroom's love, Jesus Christ offered his sacrifice for the holiness of the Church (cf. Eph 5:25). In the light of the cross, we understand that every union with Christ the bridegroom is a loving commitment to the One who was crucified. Those who profess consecrated chastity know they are destined to a deeper sharing in Christ's sacrifice for the redemption of the world (cf. RD 8, 11).

The permanent nature of the nuptial union of Christ and the Church is expressed in the definitive value of the profession of consecrated chastity in religious life. "This consecration will be the more perfect, inasmuch as the indissoluble bond of the union of Christ and his bride, the Church, is represented by firm and more stable bonds" (LG 44). The indissolubility of the Church's covenant with Christ the bridegroom, shared in the pledge of self-giving to Christ in the virginal life, is the basis for the permanent validity of perpetual profession. It could be said that it is an absolute gift to him who is the Absolute. Jesus himself made this clear when he said: "Whoever puts his hand to the plow but keeps looking back is unfit for the reign of God" (Lk 9:62). Permanence, fidelity in the commitment to religious life, is clarified in the light of this Gospel saying.

With their witness of fidelity to Christ, consecrated persons support the fidelity of couples themselves in their marriage. The task of giving this support underlies Jesus' statement about those who become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt 19:10-12). By this statement the Master wished to show that the indissolubility of marriage--which he had just enunciated--is not impossible to observe, as the disciples were implying, because there are people who, with the help of grace, live outside marriage in perfect continence.

Hence we see that, far from being opposed to one another, consecrated celibacy and marriage are joined in the divine plan. Together they are meant to make the union of Christ and the Church more visible.


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