The albatross is a fascinating bird. These birds travel thousands of miles across the seas of the world, but when they return to their breeding grounds they seek out their original mate and after elaborate greetings and wagglings of beaks, the pair mate and bring up their baby before setting out on their next long journey. You might think that such lifelong faithfulness in marriage ought to be an example to us. But we humans have one thing that these birds lack – free-will – the ability to imagine and choose alternative actions – even alternative lifestyles! The albatross mates for life by instinct. We humans are blessed and cursed with the power to choose, so that marriage can both be the glory of love freely given, and the immense sorrow of hurt or betrayal.
Notice today in our Gospel (Mark 10:2-16) that Jesus does not go on about the sadness of divorce. Instead he points, as ever, to the ideal we should aim for – to the original and perfect ideal of marriage, as a faithful lifelong partnership. He supports this, by quoting from near the beginning of the first book in the Bible, Genesis, which we heard as our 1st Reading today. (2:18-24)
Of course, we all fail to live up to our ideals in many ways – not just in the area of sex and marriage. So it is important to think most NOT about the mistakes we make, but on what we should be aiming for – the thing that is best for us in the long-run. For that is always God’s will. So while the world glories in gloating over the scandals and betrayals – presenting them to us in a way that easily titillates our imagination in wrong directions – we Christians need always to think and proclaim the beauty of good marriages, where people stay together through all the ups and downs of life, and then to treat with the utmost compassion those who find themselves in the tragedy of marriage breakdowns and divided families.
Many of you will have heard in the last few months of the way Pope Francis has been asking the Church to look at this problem of marriage and divorce. I think it is fairly clear that the Church will not suddenly say that divorces and second marriages can be declared OK, but there are two things worth noting that will change. The first has happened already. The Pope has simplified the process of annulment so that those whose first marriage has failed will find it easier to present their case for consideration, and it will not take so long. He has also made clear that people should not have to pay for their annulment, something which has been happening in some countries, so that it might seem that the more you pay the more likely you are to get an annulment. This has not been the case here in England where there has been a very small administrative fee. Perhaps there are some listening (or reading) this who might now consider the possibility of getting an annulment and thus regularising their second marriage with the Church? The process has never been as complicated as some thought, but now it will be even simpler, although it is still going to be the case that not every request for annulment will be granted.
The second thing that Pope Francis wants the Church to do is to be more compassionate and welcoming to those whose marriage has failed. This is something I have always tried to do myself, but sadly some priests and people, in some parts of the world, have turned the teaching of Jesus, that marriage for life is the most perfect way, into a persecution of those who fail to live up to this. Pope Francis wants this to stop. He does not think that the way to make people more perfect is to condemn them when they fail. He wants us to be like Jesus (John 4:4-26) who when faced with the woman at the well, whom he knew to be living with a man who was not her husband, still spoke to her in a way that encouraged her to seek God through him.
Remember too his compassion for the woman taken in adultery, and for many others who fail to be perfect in one way or another. Jesus and his followers were not naïve about these things. They lived in a Roman world which was as pornographic as our world is today, and they knew it was wrong. But unlike the Pharisees, Jesus does not spend his time condemning people, but always offers them the love and mercy of God. That is surely why Pope Francis has declared a Year beginning on December 8th when the whole Church is called to stress the mercy of God, because that is the way of Jesus, which sadly some Catholics, even some Bishops and Priests, seem to have forgotten.