We live in a time that is very difficult on marriages. Due to our failures to properly prepare our young people for marriage many enter the commitment of marriage without complete understanding and sadly bring with them impediments that ultimately result in annulment.
In America many young couples have a tangible fear of ever getting married. With the divorce at 50% young folks today do not want to relieve the nightmare of divorce that they, themselves, have already endured as a child. Reflective of this, it is estimated that 60-75% of couples today live together before getting married. As a result (and ironically), many begin with higher odds for divorce by cohabitating before taking their vows. Data now reveals that by the time couples do decide to marry, many have lost the mental and psychological ability to cross over from the mentality of living together to making the lifelong commitment necessary to get through the hard times of marriage. Evidently some couples are taking steps and adopting new traditions in order to strengthen their marriages from the start. This new practice comes from Croatia where the cross is placed at the center of the wedding ceremony. In America the priest or minister traditionally says "You may kiss the bride" after vows are exchanged. In this new tradition, newlyweds instead hear, "you may kiss the cross."
Sister Emmanuel explains this Croatian tradition:
Now let me tell you about a most beautiful tradition the Croatian people have for marriages. In the town of Siroki-Brijeg, not one single divorce has been recorded among its 13,000 inhabitants. Not one single family has broken up in living memory.
Does Herzegovina enjoy a special favor from heaven?
Is there a magic formula that keeps the demon of division at bay?
The answer is very simple: For centuries (because of the pressure from the Turks and then the Communists) the people suffered cruelly as their Christian faith was always threatened. They knew through experience that salvation comes through the Cross of Christ. It does not come from disarmament plans, from humanitarian aid or peace treaties, even if these things may bring limited benefits. The source of salvation is the Cross of Christ! These people possess a wisdom that does not allow them to be duped over questions of life and death. That is why they have indissolubly linked marriage with the Cross of Christ. They have founded marriage, which brings forth human life, on the Cross, which brings forth divine life.
The Croatian marriage tradition is so beautiful that it is beginning to take hold in Europe and America!
When a young couple is preparing for marriage, they are not told that they have found the ideal partner. No! What does the priest say?
"You have found your cross. And it is a cross to be loved, to be carried, a cross not to be thrown away, but to be cherished."
If the fiancés were told this in France (or America!), they would be struck dumb! But in Herzegovina, the Cross represents the greatest love and the crucifix is the treasure of the home.
When the bride and groom set off for the church, they bring a crucifix with them. The priest blesses the crucifix, which takes on a central role during the exchange of vows. The bride places her right hand on the crucifix and the groom places his hand over hers. Thus the two hands are bound together on the cross. The priest covers their hands with his stole as they proclaim their vows to be faithful, according to the rites of the Church.... the bride and groom do not then kiss each other, they rather kiss the cross. They know that they are kissing the source of love. Anyone close enough to see their two hands joined over the cross understands clearly that if the husband abandons his wife or if the wife abandons her husband, they let go of the cross. And if they abandon the cross, they have nothing left. They have lost everything for they have abandoned Jesus. They have lost Jesus.
After the ceremony, the newlyweds bring the crucifix back and give it a place of honor in their home. It becomes the focal point of family prayer, for the young couple believes deeply that the family is born of the Cross. When a trouble arises, or if a conflict breaks out, it is before this cross that they will seek help. They will not go to a lawyer, they will not consult a fortune-teller or an astrologer, and they will not rely on a psychologist to solve the problem. No, they will go straight before their Jesus, before the cross. They'll get on their knees there and in front of Jesus; they will weep their tears and pour out their hearts, and above all exchange their forgiveness. They will not go to sleep with a heavy heart because they will have turned to their Jesus, the only One who has the power to save... They know that Jesus is holding them in his arms and that there is nothing to be afraid of, and their fears melt away in their kiss to Jesus. (Source: loveoffering.com 2002)
The Catechism teaches that "love should be permanent or it is not true love. It is not a feeling which comes and goes, but a power to give which should be there even when feeling dies out"(1).
In marriage we cannot rely on our own human strength. Temptation enters into every marriage in one way or another. On one's wedding day it is hard to imagine a day when it all won't be perfect. Little do the young hearts know that they are embarking on a road which will travel to the highest peaks and the lowest valleys. It is during those times spent deep in the valley that it takes heroic efforts by both to stay the course. At times it is even necessary for one spouse to have the mental discipline to pull the other spouse back into the marriage. This can be physically, mentally, spiritually or all of the above. Those who are experiencing this or have in the past can fully appreciate the grace that is necessary to hold on through the storm or the silence. There are days when it all seems hopeless. Then a moment of true grace can bring a flood of re-newed love and vitality back to the relationship to renew the sacramental bond. It is during these times of intense difficulty that spouses can experience what is truly meant by those seemingly prophetic words now being added during some marriage ceremonies : 'you may kiss the cross.'
The darkest hour is often right before the crack of dawn.
(1) The New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism (pg. 217)