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Abridged version of the address by 

Professore Daniele Garrone to the


Second World Gathering of Interchurch Families, 


Rocca de Papa, 25 July 2003


I would like to start the commentary I have been asked to make on your ‘Preparatory Paper’ with a reference to the Italian situation. With the ‘Joint text concerning the pastoral care of marriages between Catholics and Waldensians or Methodists in Italy’ and the ‘Directives Text’, we have reached in Italy in some ways the best situation we can from an ecumenical point of view: that is, a theoretical consensus has been developed – which will at the same time be able to take account of lasting diversity and problems – and common practical lines have been pinpointed, starting from the reception of these texts by the different confessions. There are no other subjects in Italy where a similar level of close study and consensus between Catholics and Protestants has been reached.

However, as always when faced with ever more numerous ecumenical, bi- or multi-lateral discussions, the concrete significance of these discussions depends in the first place on their reception. So it seems very appropriate to me that this aspect has also been taken up in the Preparatory Paper (p5, para C2). It is important to have the same aims at the official level, so that what is agreed becomes normative. The official agreement may be developed, ignored, downplayed or gone into more deeply. It may be taken as a departure point, or it may not. In Italy the application of ecumenical issues of this sort is affected by the fact that the Protestant groups concerned are numerically insignificant. (Most marriages of Waldensians and Methodists are ‘mixed’ but this is an exception for those with the prevailing background of Catholicism, and not a very visible situation because of the sociological insignificance of the Protestants.) For many parish priests a mixed marriage at which they are asked to officiate is often the first opportunity they may have to meet Protestants and come into contact with Protestantism. In all cases, everything turns on the quality of reception, and on the spreading and gradual rooting of this reception and on the spirit behind this: that is, new ideas may be received in a number of different ways. They may be greeted without any enthusiasm or fairly stiffly (this has to be done so we do it!) or with gratitude, treated as beautiful opportunities full of new hope, taking firm steps forward … People may limit themselves to treating the situation like a thorny problem or seeing it opening up new routes, to go beyond.

However this may be, it is essential that all interested parties are thoroughly familiar with the agreements to avoid starting to face the issues from a point far short of the level of agreement that has already been reached in the official agreements on mixed marriages!

Your Preparatory Paper is an excellent contribution to a reception which is positive, open, spiritually rich, concrete, because it is based on the everyday lived experience of couples who not only take on their interchurch reality, not only live it as a challenge, but recognise it as a promise and know it is supported by a gift from God. I find the spirit at the heart of the Paper a very precious one, both in the current socio-cultural context and in an ecumenical environment.

In such a close interpersonal relationship as that of marriage, elements come into play which affect us deeply, such as identity, roots, sense of belonging, faith, and a spirit of dialogue and personal development which manifests itself moreover in this context as being precious in itself. Exactly because of all this, I feel that marriage has a positive ‘offbeat’ function with regard to two currents of our time, the so-called polemic and aggressive reinforcement of identity, on the one hand, and relativism and an absence of real passions and ideals on the other. We can sum up these two tendencies in a few words. The first is that of fundamentalisms, nationalisms, etc. Not only is ‘the other’ seen as a threat, but difference is even caricatured as far as reinforcement of identity is concerned. We are subjected to a demand for simplification, a reduction to sharp contrasts (black or white) because of a feeling of insecurity when confronted by the complexity of the real world and at a disadvantage before the questions that this poses. The second tendency is that of ignoring differences simply because all positions are seen as equal, and there is no idea or conviction which it is worth becoming passionate about. In the first case it is impossible to enter into dialogue, the second there is nothing of significance at all. A pair of believers from different traditions offers a different situation: there are convictions and strong passions, some of which concern beliefs which are completely at variance with each other, but this is not seen as a reason for breakdown, nor suffered in silence, but is taken on in a search of a unity which neither destroys nor ignores the identity of the other partner, but enhances it. This is possible with the foundation of the Christian faith, held in common though lived in different ways, but I believe it also implies a human culture of dialogue and openness which may also be lived outside marriages between believers, for example in interfaith dialogue and in the multicultural society.

What the Preparatory Paper affirms about interchurch families is also relevant to the way of Christian ecumenism. Interchurch families can really ‘make a significant contribution to the search for a visible Christian unity’. They are ‘open workshops’ in which building goes on for the whole Church, laboratories where experiments are carried out on behalf of others, who may be more timid because they are protected from the challenges which are lived through by a couple. We could use another Biblical metaphor, and say that the Church should see these families as ‘scouts’ on behalf of the whole Church of Christ. Their life together brings them to ask courageous questions, to measure their leaps against dense and complex reality, to live at the heart of the ‘already and not yet’ (B5, p4). Their talent may be that of valuing the ‘already’, what is granted to us already, (which the churches often play down), and aspiring to the ‘not yet’ with the strength of those who know this dynamic as a building block in a loving relationship. Interchurch marriage is one of the places where can be seen most acutely the tension between the Christians which we are not yet and the Church which we do not yet live (but which we have in Christ!) As we know from the story of Israel in the desert, the return of scouts can be very controversial: they have seen new lands, but others become depressed!

Open Questions

I would now like to raise a few questions which struck me when reading the Preparatory Paper, in the hope that they will interest you too and perhaps introduce a bit of ‘pep’ into your/our discussion.

Let us be careful not to develop an ethic of the strong or of saints or of militants, or an idealisation of marriage. Isn’t there a risk of this issue only being meaningful for a small minority of practising Christians, every one aware and fully committed, that is, rooted in his or her tradition, ecumenically open people who have ‘a higher motivation’. (P6), both strong enough to stand up to the lack of understanding and hesitations of their pastors, both passionate about the Bible and theology, up to date with all the developments in the pastoral care of interchurch marriage and with all the documents on ecumenism, and who live a happy and successful matrimonial experience? It is certainly right to consider every mixed marriage, even those which are not particularly aware or active, as a ‘potential interchurch family’ but we should in my opinion establish a level in our discussion which is within the reach of ‘any Christian’. And also, in all our talk about interchurch marriages, don’t we risk ‘idealising’ that sort of marriage, giving the impression that we are only talking about people who are not only ‘super-ecumenical’ but also participants in a matrimonial and family event which is particularly rosy? Isn’t there a risk of the people addressed being, explicitly or implicitly, highly spiritual couples, deeply committed, with strong Christian motivation, and extreme openness, who have gone a long way ahead on the road of marriage?

I think the problem of the children has been posed quite accurately and clearly. But there is another problem, not only that of which church they belong to, and that is how they are to arrive at a faith at all! Isn’t the reality of the ‘domestic church’ a long way off for most Christian marriages, even ones which are not interchurch? What can be seen of our link with Christ himself in our family life? So I feel that the most common problem is not that of the choice of a tradition or of making a Christian choice which quite rightly rebels against divisions which are a heavy heritage, but that of indifference to the Christian message. So we might discuss more deeply the 'Presentation’ of the child which the Paper says ‘should be not only allowed, but also encouraged’ (p10.) Quite right in itself, but ... isn't it a little-known fact that Baptism is the most ecumenical practice we can have? Shouldn't the first rule be to ‘de-confessionalise’ Baptism? We are not baptised Waldensian or Roman Catholic, but Christian! We are not baptised with a view to becoming members of a particular church, but in order to belong to the body of Christ and to profess our faith.

Double belonging, double reference, double solidarity? Couldn’t there be (I’m thinking of what I’ve seen in the USA) the integration of both parties into one of the relevant church communities without this implying full membership or rejection of his or her own confession, simply taking root in that environment because there is sound preaching, a lively community, effective youth work, etc. That is, shouldn’t we recognise the value of contingency? I don’t want to make it into a model, but it can happen (and not through inertia, but as a discovery, most often in an ecumenically open community.) If it happens how do we value it, how do we walk alongside it? Doesn’t double belonging risk being too elevated an ideal and as such not very practicable? Won’t we go in fact more along the road of simply respecting the loyalties of the other person and thus his or her independence, limiting ourselves to occasional ecumenical moments in two substantially parallel Christian lives, lived nevertheless in solidarity? While saying this, I have in mind the situation which we see in the USA between the Protestant churches. ‘Pragmatism’ which we are fundamentally seeking to respond to, collides with the hitherto impossible problem of eucharistic communion.

In fact this question of the eucharist is one of the most thorny problems, with the subjectively different significance given to it, as measured by canon law or the Protestant conception of the Church. It is a problem which must be considered. And here I wonder, finally, whether interchurch families don’t have a calling and a particular talent, not in the sense of ‘breaking the rules’, but to hold open with the churches a paradox, strengthening this through a human activity typical of the home and family, that is, hospitality. The family lives through hospitality, it invites, it opens its table to others. The interchurch family has the painful experience of being excluded from sharing together at the table of the Lord. But it may, because of this, address an authoritative warning to the churches faced with a text such as Luke 14: 15 – 24. God is like a generous host who also invites the poor, the blind, the crippled and the lame, and then even more people, because in His house there is still room, and his feast must be a big one.

Professore Daniele Garrone