Jack and Elizabeth (names have been changed) were engaged and living together when they asked me to marry them. They were a very sincere young couple who wanted a better understanding of their Catholic faith and help for living it out. In fact, during Jack's first conversation with me, he expressed a desire to be confirmed before their wedding.
At the same time, both Jack and Elizabeth had had some negative experiences with priests and parish religious educators. Elizabeth summed up her disappointment by stating that, all too often, they had countered her questions and concerns with the routine response, "Do it because I tell you to do it."
A Better Way. "Because I tell you so" describes the way that many Catholics view the church's teachings on sexuality. This approach seems to focus on what is sinful with respect to premarital and extramarital sex. It presumes that the authority of the church is a sufficient explanation for why these behaviors are wrong.
Certainly, there are many "shall nots" in the church's teaching about human sexuality. And it is also true that, according to the way in which the church understands its mission, the pope and bishops should not have to convince us of every single teaching. Their God-given authority to teach should be enough for us. So then, why isn't this always the case?
Quite simply, my experience tells me that commands without explanations aren't working! If I want to convince young people to wait until marriage to experience sex, then I consider it my job to show them why this is the better way. Furthermore, I am convinced that the best way to do this is to explain why the church's view on marriage is the only true road to happiness.
The Meaning of Christian Marriage. I took this approach with Jack and Elizabeth. In our meetings, I began talking about the significance of Christian marriage. I suggested that the deepest meaning of this sacrament could be found in the love of Christ for the church, the love of the cross (Ephesians 5).
The love between a husband and wife is meant to represent Christ's love for the church. Consider these four characteristics of this love:
It is forever: The permanence of the couple's love for each other represents Christ's eternal commitment to us.
It is faithful: The couple's mutual faithfulness witnesses to the love of Christ, who will never abandon his people.
It is fruitful: This aspect of Christ's love is expressed by the couple's willingness to bring forth new life.
It is self-giving: Christ sacrificed himself totally for the church; similarly, husband and wife commit themselves to withhold no-thing from one another.
Sex at the Center. Jack and Elizabeth were really surprised when I told them that their sexual relationship plays a central role in the sacramental meaning of their marriage. They had never heard about what John Paul II called "the nuptial meaning of the body." They had not suspected that married sexual love is intended to represent so much—nothing less than the total self-giving love of God for his people and of Christ for the church.
As we talked, I could see that Elizabeth and Jack were inspired and challenged by this new vision. It was time to bring it home.
"When you're married," I asked them, "will you want your sexual relationship to express this total and absolute self-giving, the meaning that it is supposed to have in Christian marriage?"
They certainly did.
"If so," I continued, "then what are the implications for what should be happening now—before your marriage?"
It was wonderful to witness their reaction. Their eyes shone, as if the blinds had just been raised and they were glimpsing something new and exciting. Still, I didn't know what they would do next.
They Chose to Change. Several weeks later, Jack phoned me with some wonderful news: He and Elizabeth had committed themselves to living chastely until their marriage. For practical reasons, they remained together in the same apartment but were now sleeping in separate bedrooms.
I had lunch with them a short time after that and congratulated them on their decision. What had convinced them, I wanted to know. "It was hearing this positive approach toward marriage," Jack answered. People had warned them that "not waiting" was wrong; no one had ever explained why "waiting" was not only virtuous but better for them.
This young couple had experienced a true conversion that dramatically changed their way of living. I found it fascinating that although they were making a very difficult sacrifice, they both seemed so happy.
By contrast, Elizabeth shared about some friends who said they had not even taken the time to make love on their wedding night. She and Jack, on the other hand, could not imagine not being in anxious anticipation of consummating their love for each other after their marriage vows! Thanks to their new outlook and discipline, their wedding night would be the beginning of a totally new covenant between them.
Aim for the Best! Why wait? Or why start waiting if you've gotten ahead of yourselves? Because sexual intimacy between a husband and wife is central to the "faithful and forever" commitment of married love. Besides, sexual intimacy involves the removal of a person's most private and vulnerable veils; they should not be given away cheaply.
It is a great experience to wait expectantly—or to get back into the waiting room. By waiting, you are already giving of yourself to your future spouse, even though you might not have met him or her yet. Already, you are learning what it means to be like Christ, to be "faithful and forever," and to be "self-giving."
Christian marriage is an amazing relationship between two people who love each other, in Christ, with every ounce of their being. Wait and prepare for it, then, and don't settle for anything less!
Fr. Alfredo Hernandez is pastor of St. Juliana Church in West Palm Beach, Florida.