The importance of the work done in ACCORD came home to me powerfully in recent days.  I met a friend and asked her how she was!  “Actually, not very well”, she said.  “My son-in-law has just left his wife.  My daughter is now looking after their six month old baby.  Things don’t always work out in life the way you thought they would…But then perhaps it is better that this should happen now than later – when the child would have bonded much more and so would have felt the loss so much more severely”.  I am sure you have heard many similar stories.  It does give us a flavour of the trauma that separation involved.

My parents never separated – thank God – but they did have an occasional row.  They might not have been speaking too much to each other as a result.  I remember that we children suffered and worried a lot during those times.  I remember one time my father went to a Horse Fair in Cavan.  He was late home and I felt his absence.  I was agonising and imagining what could have happened – had he been knocked by a horse and carried off to hospital.  Incidents like that can only just help me to begin to imagine what the trauma and the agony is for children when the night comes when father does not come home and never again comes.

All of this underlines for me the importance of your work of preparing couples for marriage.  I thank you for all the patient, painstaking work of education – whether it is in the school or in the Marriage Preparation Courses.

I don’t have a huge experience either of celebrating marriages over all the 45 that I am a priest.  I have the experience of seeing my parents’ marriage.  While they were not very effusive or demonstrative in the expression of their love of each other, the essence and substance of that love was never in doubt.  They were willing, at all times, to promote the genuine well-being of each other, and of their children.  That came first – no matter what the cost and no matter what the sacrifices involved.

However, there were 13 years of my life, while I was on the staff of the Irish College in Rome when I celebrated lots of marriage.  During those years I celebrated the weddings of hundreds – maybe thousands of people from all over Ireland. One of the great joys of my life now is to meet some of those people in various places. 

Two weeks ago I celebrated Mass in Ennistymor, Co Clare, Gort, Co Galway and Galway Cathedral – one of the highlights was meeting husbands and wives after all these years later and meeting their children.  I was in Knock for the launch of the Association of Catholic Grandparents.  Afterwards, a lady came up with tears in her eyes and gave me a great hug before introducing me to her two children and bringing greetings from her husband.  The experience of seeing me again reminded her of the happiness of their wedding day and of the joys and, I suppose, sorrows – of all these years and the help which their marriage had provided in enriching those years. 

The drill at the Irish College was that we always met the couples on the eve of their wedding.  All the paperwork would have been done at this stage.  We would have a session lasting a couple of hours – ice-breaking sessions – making the acquaintance of the other couples involved.  Then we would go through the ceremony – line by line – renewing the catechesis of what marriage was all about.  Some would be shy; others might be giddy and nervous; others lonely and pensive; and so there would be a wide spectrum of emotions floating around. 

I think you spot fairly easily those who were serious and those less serious.  I think you could spot those who had done a proper Marriage Preparation Course and those who went through some sort of cobbled up job.  You could see those who were in earnest and those who were merely going through the motions.

One thing I would say – I do not recall ever meeting even one couple who did not have high hopes for their wedding and for their married life.  Now they may have been unrealistic hopes in the circumstances – given the level of maturity or amount of preparation, but those hopes were always there.  That is why I always regarded this marriage work as a very privileged moment in my work as a priest – a moment in which I was allowed to see the deepest desires of the human heart.  They were turning to me to serve God on their behalf; to bring to God their hopes and prayers for happiness and permanence and fulfilment in this most profound area of their lives.  I felt that I was exercising my sharing in the priesthood of Jesus Christ in a very special way – by instructing them on the true nature of marriage; receiving their marriage vows on behalf of God and the People of God and offering their guidance and advice and wisdom for those same couples.

One of the saddest days of my life was the day I heard of the break-up of a wedding I had attended, not as a Celebrant but as a guest.  At the first whisper of an infidelity or of a jealousy – one of the parties went straight to the Solicitor to initiate divorce proceedings.  Any thought of forgiveness or patience or understanding of weakness seemed t have gone completely out the window.

Of course the Readings we read at the Nuptial Mass are the same Readings.  I never cease to get something new out of them at each marriage.  For instance, today I noticed the phrase in the Gospel – And after the guests had drunk a lot he serves the ordinary wine, or as another translation has it, people generally set out the good wine first, and (then) when people are drunk, the inferior!

We know that Jesus was described by some – comparing him to John the Baptist – as a glutton and a drunkard.  It is worth noting that Jesus, Mary his mother, and the disciples were all present at the wedding in Cana.  When you remember that wedding celebrations often lasted for days at a time, the presence of Jesus, Mary and the disciples is making a big statement about the importance of marriage.  The majority of people were poor.  Weddings and religious festivals were their only break from a life of hard labour and struggle for survival.  Their presence says a lot about marriage and its important place.  It almost reminds me that just as I share in the work of shepherd and guidance offered by the Good Shepherd, so you share in the priesthood of Christ – acquired by Baptism.  Specifically you play your part in that work of guidance and counselling – which is an essential part of shepherding when you act as a Marriage Counsellor.

The First Reading reminds us clearly of the true meaning of marriage as a union of love and life between a man and a woman from which life is naturally conceived.  Let us never forget that this comes from the Old Testament.  It is something we share with the Jewish people and, of course, with all the Christians of the world for the sake of the common good of society and for the sake of the right of the family and of marriage and of children.  We are all morally bound to do our best to support marriage and to protect it.  Marriage is where the vast majority are to find fulfilment and happiness.  The breakdown of many marriages is neither an argument for abandoning marriage or for undermining it.  Rather it should provide the spur for us all to work harder at creating the conditions where the love of husband and wife can grow strong and enduring. 

The Second Reading is from the Letter to the Colossians and it is one of my favourite.  The Missionary of the Sacred Heart in Cork published a little prayer called Heart to Heart.  The word ACCORD comes from the Latin word for the Heart.  That prayer says that in addition to praying to the Sacred Heart, we need to have the attitudes of the Sacred Heart.

The Second Reading also lists those attitudes, compassion (a big word meaning the ability to suffer with someone in their pain), kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.   A big shopping list which does not necessarily come as part of the furnishings of the new house – with the carpets and the curtains – but they are more essential and can be acquired only by practice and prayer.

Bear with one another – forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins.

Shortly after the Belfast Agreement, its architect, Senator George Mitchell gave a talk on Making Peace.  “There is no magic formula” he says which when discovered can be applied to conflicts and quarrels.  There are certain principles which can help.

Firstly, there is no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended.  Conflicts are created and sustained by human beings; they can be ended by human beings.  But people must be prepared to hope and wish for solutions. It is important to create the belief that problems can be solved, that things can be better.

A second need is for a clear and determined policy not to yield to violence. There is no place for bullying or emotional blackmail.  “Backing peace” he says “requires an endless supply of perseverance and patience and understanding”.  This is what counts in politics and maybe it counts in domestic quarrel also. 

Another important element is willingness to compromise.  There has to be a genuine willingness to understand the other’s point of view and to enter into principle compromised.

Like Mary at Cana, you are the people who often first spot the problem that is looming on the horizon.  Mary did not duck it – or pretend it did not exist – or try to sweep it under the carpet.  There was a crisis.  To run out of wine in the middle of a wedding day would be a disaster.  It would not only cast a damper on the ceremony, it would deeply shame and embarrass the newly-weds and their families for life.  You can imagine the blame game that would follow!

Mary saw the crisis coming. Even though the words of the answer given by Jesus, seemed like a rebuff, she was confident that her son would come through.  Jesus will never reject the humble prayer of faithful people.

I sued to say to couples in Rome – it may not be the wine that will run short – that was in pre-recession days – but I would ask – what if some other essential commodity were to run out – mutual trust.

How do you get all of this across to starry-eyed engaged couples?

I think the Chaplains have an important role here.  The Word of God is alive and active.  It cuts more powerfully than a two-edged sword.  If we could get people to really listen to that Gospel – to listen with the heart as well as the head and to ask and answer these questions:

•    What is it saying?
•    What is it saying to me here and now?
•    What do I want to say to the Lord when I heart that Gospel?
•    What do I really want to say from the depth of my heart?

It could do a lot

The work of ACCORD is vital, especially at a time when marriage is under attack from so many sides.  But we must be hopeful.  When George Mitchell came many said:  ‘You are wasting your time’.  We are not wasting our time working for good, loving marriages.


I welcome all of you here to St. Malachy’s Church, Armagh this afternoon.

We come to give thanks – to give thanks to God for Christian marriage.  We give thanks to God and to the members of ACCORD for the presence of the Catholic Marriage Care Service in Armagh over the last 40 years.

We are grateful for the work of preparation of couples before marriage

•    The work of enriching the marriage relationship and
•    For the counselling of couples whose marriage are running into difficulties.

We pray for all married couples.  We pray that there will be others willing to share the burden of caring for Catholic marriages and since we ourselves all weak in many ways, we pray that we may be always patient and gentle with those who are ignorant and make mistakes because we ourselves are weak and must offer sacrifices not only for the sins of others but for our own………….