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This article was published in the January 2001 issue of The Journal.

Guidelines for Interchurch Marriages in India

The Commission for Ecumenism and Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India has published for the Catholic Community of India its Guidelines for Ecumenism: Towards an Ecumenical Life-Style (CBCI New Delhi, 130 pp., Jubilee Year 2000). The document has four parts: (1) the doctrinal and theological foundations of ecumenism, (2) the history of the division of the Church in India and of its ecumenical efforts, (3) a general exposition of what we have in common and what separates us, and (4) pastoral suggestions for fostering the ecumenical spirit and action. In the fourth part (over half the book) an 8-page section is devoted to mixed marriages. We give extracts from it below.

A call to marry across church divisions

56. Many circumstances of life, and undoubtedly divine Providence itself, arrange that at times compatible members of different Churches develop a desire to be united in a permanent bond of marriage and ask their respective Churches for permission to do so.

Unity in love requires mutual respect

58. Since by marriage both partners are united in love, each of them will respect the faith of the other and his or her belonging to a specific Christian community different from one’s own. … It is important that the in-laws too share in that sense of respect for the faith of the partner of another Church, specially if she or he lives with them.

Family stability a primary obligation

60. In case of conflict of faith perceptions the matter should be discussed even before marriage so as to arrive at a vision which is acceptable to the conscience of both partners. At any rate, once married the partners must remember that the stability of the family is a primary obligation of both of them, and the fulfilment of other obligations should not threaten it. Hence in some cases they may want to delay the baptism of their children if no other viable solution has been found acceptable to both. But long delay is not the solution, which should be based on the shared belief of all Churches that there is only one baptism. The Catholic partner will also remember that there are many ways, besides baptism, of sharing his or her Catholic faith, like enhancing the Christian atmosphere in the home, and showing by word and example the values of the Catholic tradition.

The wedding: participation of both ministers

62. When necessary for maintaining family harmony, obtaining the parental consent, or other such grave reasons, the Bishop of the Catholic party may give a dispensation from the Catholic canonical form.

63. At the invitation of the family, a Catholic priest or deacon, with the permission of the local bishop, may attend such a celebration in another Church and take some part in it, e.g., read from the Bible, give a homily, offer appropriate prayers, bless the couple.

64. When a mixed marriage is celebrated in the Catholic Church it is equally appropriate and advisable that, with the permission of the Bishop, a minister of the other Church be invited to participate in some way in the celebration, like reading from the Scriptures, giving the sermon and/or blessing the couple.

Admission to communion for spouse, family and friends: spiritual strength and joy

65. It may not be advisable in cases of a mixed marriage to add to the marriage rite a Catholic Eucharist which may not be familiar to the other party and in some cases creates conflict. The Catholic liturgy for weddings offers possibilities of a complete liturgical celebration based on the Word of God and the riches of the sacrament of marriage itself. Such possibilities should be exploited to the full in such situations.

66. The couple may however request for their own spiritual strength and joy that the celebration of the sacrament of marriage be integrated within a Catholic Eucharistic celebration. When the other party is a member of an Oriental Church, the celebration and sharing of the Eucharist could be encouraged, as the marriage itself is a very good reason to share in the Eucharist. Where the other partner belongs to one of the Churches derived from the Reformation, if she or he manifests a real faith in the eucharist and in the presence of the Lord in it, and is properly disposed, the momentous importance of the wedding day for the parties concerned is a sufficient reason to grant by way of exception the sharing of communion with the believing Christian who asks for it. When there is a reasonable assurance that other members of the family and close friends who attend the wedding ceremonies also have a similar faith in the Eucharist, the eucharistic hospitality could also be extended to them, for their greater spiritual joy in such an auspicious occasion. To deny it would indeed cause surprise and even be a scandal.

67. If communion is offered in such cases, the solemnity of the wedding day and the tradition in most Churches would recommend that communion be offered with both species even if it is not the customary practice in the parish.

Support from the clergy and other pastoral ministers

68. For the couple who have decided to be united in holy matrimony and wants to preserve their Christian identity, the wedding ceremony is of great importance. The priests and other pastoral agents must therefore be sensitive and show great respect for the freedom of the couple and the decision they have taken. They should be supportive of the couple and their families at this important moment of their life. Specially at this stage they must avoid any impression of censoriousness for the decision taken, even if it was against their own advice. Nothing should give the impression of unwillingness to co-operate in all possible ways to make the wedding day an authentic spiritual and communitarian experience for the couple and their relatives and friends.

Bonds with both communities

71. It is recommended that the partners occasionally at least visit one another’s Churches and become friendly with the members of the local community of both Churches with a sense of joy at being able to present to the community an example of ecumenical life at its deepest form. They should also establish common bonds of friendship and trust with the spiritual leaders of the respective communities who could occasionally be invited to their homes. They should make constant efforts to learn more about the teachings and devotional practices of the partner’s tradition and thus enrich their own Christian lives.

Christian symbols in the home

72. In the decor of the home the Christian identity may be professed with some picture and/or inscriptions reflecting that the family belongs to God as He has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. The Bible will also be a much used treasure of the family and will be accessible to all the members of the family in their most familiar language. A picture of mother Mary may also be a source of inspiration and blessing for the family, provided the partner of the other Church feels sufficiently comfortable with it. The Indian tradition in some parts of the country of having a small family altar, for instance on a mantelpiece or a small table or a niche in the wall, with appropriate Christian symbols agreeable to members of both families, may be a help in fostering an authentic family prayer.

Families which share the Christian life of two communities

73 It is of great importance that Catholic priests in the parish and other pastoral agents will take special pastoral care of the mixed families, conscious that they often need the encouragement of their respective pastors and that they have a rare opportunity of sharing the Christian life of two communities. The pastoral agents must be respectful of the Christian tradition of the other community and value its own perceptions of the Christian faith.

Shared pastoral care for the couple, their children and relatives

74. It may be useful if the priest in charge of the Catholic community meets occasionally the pastor or priest in charge of the Church of the other partner to see if both can undertake an ecumenical pastoral care of the family concerned and avoid presenting conflicting messages that might confuse the partners or their children or relatives. An occasional joint visit to the family may prove useful, during which they may hold together a Bible prayer service and jointly bless the family.

An example of unity of mind and heart in Christian faith and love

75 In the context in which we live in India, families with mixed Christian traditions have a special responsibility to offer an example of unity of mind and heart in spite of ecclesial differences and the belonging to different communities. They can thus offer a shining example of the depth of Christian faith and love, and inspire the wider community to live in harmony and respect for the conscience of each person, in spite of religious differences.

Becoming a one-church family

76. If the other party of a mixed marriage requests to be admitted to the Catholic Church, the priest in charge must inquire carefully about the reasons that have led to the decision, whether the decision comes truly from the depths of freedom or has somehow been forced on him or her, and whether she or he is inspired by an authentic faith. Where possible the priest should contact the minister or pastor of the Church concerned and discuss the case. Only then, if the partner shows perseverance in his or her desire, should he proceed to instruct and admit him or her into the Catholic community.

77. The partner should gratefully remember the way she or he received the Christian faith and the values manifest in the way of life of the Church whose member he or she was earlier. As far as possible friendly contact with the members of his former community should be maintained.

78. If the Catholic partner of a marriage communicates a decision to pass over to the Church of the other partner, the priest in charge or other friendly persons may inquire about the reasons for the projected change, make clear its implications, and show that the person can live an authentic Christian life within the Catholic communion, in close contact with the other Church through his or her partner. He or she should be invited to develop within the Catholic Church the values that attract him or her to the other Church.

79. In no case should a priest call such persons apostates or renegades from the Christian faith.

Conscience

In a later section on Proclamation of Jesus Christ, the CBCI document returns to this theme:

We must show respect for the decision taken by any individual or family and should avoid attributing it to bad will or unworthy motives. ‘Do not judge and you will not be judged’ (Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37): each person is called to respond to the invitation of God in his or her own conscience. We may surely offer friendly help in forming the conscience, but the ultimate decision must belong to each individual. (115)