Page 4, 3rd January 1975

3rd January 1975
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Page 4, 3rd January 1975 — Christian renewal and marriage

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Christian renewal and marriage

'For me there can be no massive Christian renewal which does not make marriage the pillar, the cornerstone, the basis of the return of Christ in the lives of men and women/ writes Dr JACK DOMINIAN

This assessment of the state of Christian Marriage in the post Vatican II period needs a more general comment on the situation of the Church today. I am committed to the view that the world — and particularly Western societies — are in the midst of the most profound restructuring of human values arising from the technological, scientific, social and psychological changes occurring for the last two centuries but accelerated in the last few decades.

If this is true, as I believe it to be, then there can be no Christian renewal which does not understand and reflect these developments. So that no amount of liturgical, structural or functional innovations is likely to succeed unless the people of God are reached sensitively and accurately at the level of these massive changes of personal experience.

As far as marriage, sexuality and the family are concerned, we arc in the midst of probably the single most important human revolution that has ever occurred, involving the biology of sex, procreation, population, the status of woman and the man-woman relationship, and one has to say frankly that Christianity as a whole — and the Roman Catholic Church in particular — has yet to get hold of the measure of these monumental changes and their significance.

There cannot be the breakthrough needed in theology, liturgy and practice until a proper assessment is made positively of all that is involved. At present the most common reaction is still negative and critical of some features of the so-called permissive society.

Although some of these strictures are undoubtedly true, few are really going to be impressed unless they sec the criticism in the context of a much wider perspective and comprehension of new value systems. There can be no evangelisation unless the Good News speaks to people in a way that makes sense of their living reality.

Traditional value systems

The value system that the Catholic Church has used as far as marriage is concerned can be summed up in the Augustinian principles of the goods of marriage defined as permanency, mutual fidelity and children increasingly embedded in a juridical and canonical structure which placed overwhelming emphasis on the nature of the contract and therefore, for practical purposes, the marriage ceremony. Thus, up to Vatican 11, attitudes prevailed which can be summarised as follows.

Most of the theology of marriugt was caught up with canon law and used a language that was largely incomprehensible. Thus, even in 1963, two eminent authors could say of marriage that "It is the juridical bond with its ends and properties created by the consent of the partners and that all the acts of conjugal life and love without exception can be absent while marriage itself remains."

Such abstraction totally Unrelated to life was the background of the teaching and training of priests on marriage.

At the practical level, however, there were a number of attitudes which were absolutely clear. The all pervasive fear and negativity to sexuality influenced the constraints of courtship with a morality that finished more like a geographical map of the body of the territories that were safe to touch or not.

Catholics were obsessed with purity which consisted of a series of "don'ts." Beyond this they were urged to court fellow Catholics, to avoid having premarital sexual intercourse and to marry in the Catholic Church.

After marriage the emphasis focussed on having children and at a popular level the more the better, avoiding contraceptives, sending the children to a Catholic school, raising them as Catholics, and of course, remaining chaste and faithful to each other.

Most, if not all, that was heard from the pulpit centred on these issues which, important as they are, left the overwhelming majority of the married with a sense that, as far as the Church was concerned, these were the only things that mattered and, coupled with attendance at Sunday mass and praying, would ensure that all would be well.

Catholic Marriage Advisory Council

As a cradle Catholic this was the background of Catholic orientation I had when I started working in 1959 at the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council. What I saw there had a profound influence. Very briefly I found that week after week

was seeing couples who had done all that the Church had asked them and, despite it, their marriage was in ruins. For me this was a real test of faith.

People fulfilled all the legal requirements demanded of them by marrying according to the laws of the Church, avoiding contraceptives, having children and so on and yet their "marriage" remained non viable.

My response to this crisis was not to leave the Church nor to attack it but with the conviction of faith to seek a new understanding of the meaning of marriage which I set out in my first of several writings on the subject, namely the book "Christian Marriage." The essential points in that book were a severe critique of the canonical, legalistic approach,the urging of a change of language with the dropping of such terms as primary and secondary ends, a return to the scriptures and perhaps the most important conclusion of all that the essence of marriage was not of a legal contract but a personal relationship.

Marriage as a


"Christian Marriage" was written during the years 19631964 reflecting my experiences in the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council. In it I stated that "Christian Marriage is a God-given, life-long community, created to ensure the most appropriate conditions for the promotion of life, the life of children and that of the spouses. It is based on a series of relationships of love which in a chronological order are those of the spouses, the spouses and the children and the children among themselves. "It is upon the physical, psychological and social integrity of these relationships, participating in the sacramental life of grace, that the essence of marriage ultimately rests." Some ten years later I find

that I would not wish to change anything in this formulation except to add to the series of relationships that of its members to the rest of the community. In this formulation what is emphasised is love, relationship and the priority of the husband-wife partnership over procreation.

This point is made as a direct result of my professional experience that the traditional emphasis on children has been made at the expense of the spouses and yet it is the quality of their relationship that determines the survival of the marriage and the loving upbringing of the children.

Second Vatican Council

Shortly after completing "Christian Marriage" and some two years before its publication, in December 1965 the Pastoral Constitution on the Church, Gaudium et Spes, was promulgated. Readers ought to be reminded that this constitution had the unique distinction of originating directly from a suggestion made, on the floor of the council. It shows the shift in the council from its original theological preoccupations to the pastoral realisation that man has to he addressed in his contemporary setting and experiences.

In my view, as already stated, this is the principal challenge facing Christian renewal. The council made an important beginning which has to be consolidated and extended a great deal more if Christianity is really to have significance again in the world.

Nevertheless, the short section on marriage and the family contained some remarkable achievements of which the vast majority of Catholics are still unaware. Literally overnight the linguistic structure was dropped. We 'do not find anywhere words like "primary" and "secondary" ends which had formed the backbone of theology for centuries. The legalistic framework is dismissed entirely in favour of the concept of love. Marriage and the family is spoken of as a "cornmunity of love." The partnership of married life is described in the biblical terms of "covenant" and in terms of "relationship." Sexual intercourse is now an expression of love which is noble and worthy, not a remedy for concupiscence. These are all ideas found. in a germinal sense in the famous encyclical of Pius XI, Cacti Connubii, and in an implicit tradition from the time of Trent which always considered the personal aspects of marriage.

All this emerges for the first time as the central aspect of the theology of marriage. The sec-. tion of Vatican 11 could, of course, do no more than point the way; they were a mere outline but they provide magnificent material for the new theology which was needed.

Personally I had hoped for no less and a great deal more so that my initial reaction was disappointment but at last here were the foundations for a theology based on love which is the only language that is consistent with Christianity. My hopes were raised that a good beginning existed for further

detailed development. Little did I know, back in 1966, that my hopes would soon be dashed by the commotion and confusion of Humanae Vitae which, whatever else it did, directed attention away from the nature of marriage and concentrated on one aspect of its life.

The encyclical Humanae Vitae

This sincere and well-meant encyclical has turned out to be confusing, divisive and, in my view, premature. Quite clearly there were and are major

differences among Catholics in

their attitude to contraception held in good conscience and with profound conviction. The first unfortunate result of the encyclical has been that it came

at a time when the Church was in the midst of the upheaval following Vatican II.

A large part of this upheaval was the issue of authority and the confusing aspect of the encyclical has been that it became a testing ground for or against obedience to the Pope, thus inhibiting a genuine discussion of its merits. Following from this it has become a divisive document.

As every bishop, priest and Catholic knows, the encyclical has set up all sorts of problems of conscience which are -per sonal, within individuals, between priests and the people of God, between priests and their bishops and we have finally resorted to silence because the present situation is one of impasse.

There are those who are adamantly opposed to the underlying thinking of the encyclical and those who adhere to its traditional teaching and, for the time being. there can be no fundamental breakthrough.

In my view the reason for this is that the encyclical was premature. There cannot be a theology of contraception isolated from a theology of marriage which takes cognizance of all the changes that are taking place in this institution and has time to develop the new emphasis on love. There was not time to do all this by 1968 and so we are temporarily faced with an encyclical which acknowledges the major changes of Vatican II but is still heavily dependent on the preceding theology. Hence the impasse. In some ways this was inevitable; But there is no point in blaming the Pope, attacking the bishops, priests or individual Catholics. At present all we can do is to acknowledge that the encyclical is the official teaching of the Church and therefore deserves all the respect due to it, while recognising at the same time that a major problem remains which, at the practical level, can only be handled in the context of understanding, love and compassion and, in the long term, after a renewed examination of the theology of marriage as aliwh.ole in the light of its new reaty.

New realities of marriage

Having referred several times to the new realities affecting marriage. it is time to spell these out. The first of these refers to unarguable biological and sociological facts. As a result of the intervention of modern medicine and the general rise in the standard of living, the expectation of life has increased on an average since the turn of the century by some twenty five years of life. This means that the duration of marriage has lengthened considerably particularly as marriages are occurring earlier. The average duration of marriage in 1911 was 28 years, in 1967 some 42 and before long it will be 50 years.

Christianity that is cornmitted to life-long fidelity and indissolubility — and rightly so — nevertheless cannot simply attack infidelity or divorce as evils without offering a profound revision of what is required in personal relationships to maintain these ideals for a much longer period.

The second reality is also linked to unarguable biological and sociological facts. For cen

turics much of woman's time was occupied with pregnancy and procreation, both of which were associated with a high mortality rate. In 1911, for example. infant mortality was 129.4 per 1,000 live births, in 1970 this figure became 18.4. Similar striking reductions are to be found in stillbirths and the mortality of mothers,This century has seen a transformation of procreation freeing an unprecedented amount of time for women. It has also posed a profound moral dilemma regarding world population size.

Even more important and absolOtely crucial for Christianity is the next fact. For some three centuries — and particularly in the last few decades — the physiology of reproduction has come increasingly under man's control. The process of ovulation, its timing, the life of the sperm, all these are well known so that, with or without contraception — even just the use of the infertile period— it is becoming possible for a couple virtually to relate the number of children they want to an equivalent number of sexual acts.

This statement is deliberately an 'exaggeration and certainly not widely true today but it will certainly be more so by the end of the century when man may well have virtually complete control over the process and timing of the spersn-ovum fusion. Man's control over reproduction is already well advanced and this means that a new value system has to be developed for the meaning of sexuality which is positive and reflects the image of God in man.

Christianity has placed so much emphasis on the link between sex and procreation that it is largely unprepared for a major change in its thinking. All it has done hitherto is simply to attack the inevitable confusion in men and women over the consequences of such separation between sex and procreation.

But the responsibility of the Church is not simply to attack but to illuminate the meaning of human actions in the light of revelation, It has been particularly painful for me to see the Church tearing itself to pieces over contraception when it has a profound and illuminating answer to give to man in his quest for the new meaning of human sexuality.

The third reality is the changing status of woman. If we were to look for the sources which are aiming to find new value systems, one would certainly not look at Christianity or the Catholic Church as pioneers of formulating new ideas on the emancipation of woman. The best it can do is to follow the lead of others. But this will simply not do. If St Paul had the vision to realise and write in his epistle to the Galatians that we are all one in Jesus Christ and there are no distinctions between male and female, it seems to me astounding that the development of this truth should be left to all but Christian hands.

The fourth and final reality is the most difficult but, in some ways, the most important of all: namely, that man's expectations are rising. Despite the prevalence of pockets of poverty in our own society and in other parts of the world,

nevertheless rrtihseeln in ess the West and come of standards nevertheless rrtihseeln in ess the West and come of standards have of the traditional scourges, such as famine, disease, poverty and squalor, have been brought under greater control although much remains to be done in the under-developed countries.

Although the Church has been relentless in pointing out the evils of the inequalities between advanced and underdeveloped nations, it has been particularly slow to understand the significance of the changes in developed societies. In these societies man is exploring the meaning of life in which much energy has been freed from the challenge of physical survival. In a number of my writings I have described man's changing consciousness of himself through the seeking of meaning in the next layer of being. The next layer of being is concerned with social justice and the personal world of feelings,

emotions and instincts which have been emerging as new value systems considered as personal rights.

The difficulty is how to integrate all these realities into a new unity which respects the traditional values of permanency, fidelity and children and yet goes well beyond these. In my view this cannot be done without resorting to the psychological and sociological sciences which provide us with the key of the new understanding of marriage as a relationship.

Personal encounter

Traditionally we have tended to see marriage as an institution in which spouses perform certain clearly delineated roles. The husband goes to work, earns the money to maintain the family, is its head, takes decisions and is the ultimate authority which is all in keeping with patriarchal social standards. The wife remains at home, bears children, nurtures them, looks after the house and is a catalyst of affection, symbolised by the kitchen, cradle, hearth triad.

For centuries the "good" marriage was the one in which the spouses performed these roles effectively and avoided infidelity or divorce. Little attention was paid to the quality of the personal relationship which was often left to the poets to describe. Love might or might not permeate the life of the spouses. It was certainly very desirable but not essential.

Today the reverse is occurring. The expectations of the couple increasingly concentrate on the quality of the personal relationship while the traditional roles remain important but no longer define the viability of a relationship. This reversal is one of the keys of understanding the new meaning of marriage and my own understanding has come from an extensive experience of marital breakdown which is the point reached when the minimum needs and expectations in the physical, emotional, social and spiritual relationship are no longer met.

The detailed description of these minimum needs and expectations requires much greater space than is available in this article but they can be summarised under three key headings — sustaining, healing and growth — which are the characteristics of 'all relationships of love.


The first feature of sustaining — and the one that conies most easily to mind — is material. A couple have to provide shelter, food, warmth and the essentials for physical survival. Much cruelty described in courts, including marital breakdown, stem from the absence of sustaining care in terms of money, excess of physical violence, cruelty associated with alcoholism and the absence of suitable accommodation.

Beyond physical sustaining a couple have to communicate with words; that is to say receive each other's inner world through understanding and respond to it affirmatively. Thus inevitably another common set of complaints is either too little communication or too much, which is usually called nagging. And beyond physical and verbal sustaining there is need for social support.

A couple need to meet others as well as having several roles in the community, such as being active in organisations, participating in group activity, exploring hobbies, etc. Spouses can and do let each other down by being indifferent and even hostile and critical to any role other than the one which looks after them and also by failing to join in mutual activity which leaves their partner lonely and isolated.


Beyond sustaining the modern couple look to each other for healing. Very few would use this word but this is in effect the substance of their complaint when the marriage breaks down, Now why is healing needed? As long as marriage concentrated on certain clearly defined roles and fidelity, the inner world of the couple was not expected to be much in evidence.

Now increasingly the reverse is true and the inner world, which means the world of feelings and emotions, is expected to occupy a prominent, place in an open, intimate and close personal relationship. In which case the couple must make known to each other the accumulated wouads of two decades and more which they bring to the marriage.

These wounds are principally psychological. They include an excess of anxiety, insecurity, lack of trust and confidence. uncertainty, indecision, lack of self esteem, immaturity, an inability to feel worthwhile and lovable and an excess of impulsiveness, anger, jealousy, envy among many other factors.

Now in fact couples can and do offer to each other the possibility of healing as they respond to each other's limitations and suffering with patience, providing them with a second opportunity to learn new experiences which overcome their defects and give them strength and a new image of themselves.

In fact, marriage is the central relationship of healing in society in the new type of relationship that is developing. Vatican 11 speaks of marital love as having the special gift of healing and perfecting.


Perfecting not only refers to healing but to growth as well. This is no longer physical or intellectual but personal growth. By personal growth is meant the ability to use one's resources more effectively and expand an awareness of what these talents are. For this we need another person who understands and loves us sufficiently to bring to our notice hidden qualities we are not aware of, to help us to clarify our internal confusion and affirm our goodness and in return they need all this from U.

Besides this personal affirmation we never cease to develop until our last breath in our capacity to grow in patience, understanding, compassion, generosity, to learn how to receive and donate ourselves, to avoid hurting, to forgive and to repair swiftly and effectively any damage we have caused.

It is in the context of the personal encounter in which people are continuously sustaining, healing and growing that the ultimate meaning of sexual intercourse will be found. For the physical, the body with its exquisite pleasure, becomes the vehicle for personal affirmation.

Sexual intercourse is the act which confirms the nurturing, healing and growth so far and gives hope and meaning for its continuation the day after. Through the body the couple are saying to each other (with or without words) "You are the most important person in my life. You are the most important man/woman in my life.

Thus, every sexual act — far from being a remedy of concuscipence — uses sexual pleasure as the instrument of knowing and confirming each other's meaning and sexual identity. The Bible , refers to sexual intercourse as an act of knowing and here we find the eternal wisdom of the creator which endowed the act with personal and increasing potential beyond the procreative capacity.

Thus. theonly characteristic that is always and must always entia remaie potlly open is its capacity to reinforce the personal love of the couple in an increasing renewal of personal knowing and meaning.


The link between sexual intercourse and children was commonly widely recognised, as the one giving meaning to sex. It can be seen that, in my view, this is no longer so. Children, of course, remain vital but we arc no longer concerned with numbers. Instead of numbers we are concerned with quality which in turn depends on the ability of the parents to meet their children's physical, social, emotional and spiritual needs.

In my formulation these needs, and particularly the emotional ones, cannot be met satisfactorily unless the parents are able to fulfill each other. Hence the emphasis is undoubtedly first on the life of the parents and then on the children, for only then can the VICIOUS circle of deprived and wounded 1,:hildrol glowing up and being deprived parents who continuethe pattern ever be stemmed.

Traditionally Christianity has emphasised the importance of children and relatively ignored the relationship of the parents. I am suggesting that both are important but the primacy of importance lies with the parents without whose stability children suffer.

Marital breakdown

Marital breakdown is on the increase throughout the world and reflects man's changing consciousness of the ineaeieg of personal relationships in marriage. In England and Wales the petitions filed in the courts show the magnitude of the increase. After rising steeply in 1947 to 48,501 following the war, they dropped-to a low

level in 1959 with 25,237. Since then they have never ceased rising.

In 1968 the figure had become 55,007, by 1971 — the First year of the new Divorce Act — the numbers had doubled to 110,017 and by 1973 the figure had reached approximately 115,000.

There is no doubt that this rise involves Christians including Roman Catholics. Marital breakdown is becoming an increasing pastoral problem affecting the spouses and their children.

The Christian response

I,grew up with the notion that divorce was evil. Today I have

no doubts at all it is an evil but not as I understood it in my younger days in which the evil was somehow linked with the fault of the couple, blame being attached to whosoever had committed the matrimonial offence, who was made to feel guilty and bad. This is not remotely true.

There is too much suffering for all concerned in marital breakdown to reduce the event .to such a naive formulation,. nor can the tide of divorce be simply stemmed by such summary condemnations, as we have just seen in Italy. A totally new view is needed which requires a twofold approach.

First, we have to develop a new theology for marriage and begin the process of educating the people of Gad for the new values in marriage. This is a long term programme which has to be complemented by a practical response to those in distress and whose marriages have already broken down.

Those in distress should have access to marriage counselling in the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council. This Council has an extensive nationwide organisation which is certainly not used effectively. Partially this is the novelty of counselling and also the lack of awareness and encouragement from many priests who are doirrg far Jess than they could to encourage and sustain couples in the process of counselling. This is a grave defect in the present situation.

When a marriage does break down there are two needs. First to ensure that the parties remain in touch with the sacraments. In the past such people. particularly the divorced, tended to drift away feeling censured and disapproved of. Today such a judgmental approach would be inexcusable.

Sensitive point

Finally, there are many who want to marry again and marry in the Catholic Church. Here we come to the most sensitive point of all. There can be no doubt at all that part of the effectiveness of the Christian position against divorce in the past was the severity of attitude against it and the aura of shame and guilt that was associated with it. It is felt that if anything is made easier this wall of defence will collapse. I can see the strength of the case and yet I totally reject it.

Such an approach is negative, nihilistic and counterproductive. First of all the wall is already breached. Secondly, man cannot be made to love through fear; this much is clear in the gospels and epistles of St John. Thirdly, Christianity must aim to seek the best formulation of the truth and do justice to those whose marriage has broken down.

Vogue of divorce

The marriage tribunals of the Church have always tried to do their best to give relief and yet uphold the principles of Christian Marriage. Despite the vogue of divorce today, marital breakdown has always been with us and St Paul was one of the first people to give a basis for relief in the Pauline privilege . This relief has been extended in the course of history and the details today are extensive and complex.

Much emphasis has been laid on the distinction between nullity and divorce and the fear has been expressed that, if grounds for nullity are extended, this is the hack door entry or another form of divorce. Put in these terms there is much in favour of this argument. But these terms do not do justice to reality.

No one approaches a divorce court of a Church tribunal unless their relationships of marriage has ceased to exist. By appealing to the rightness of nullity and the wrongness of divorce we are simply confusing the issue with emotional overtones. What we need to establish is the meaning of marriage; i.e., when is a 'marriage a marriage?

In 1963 I answered this question in a paper written for the Ampleforth Journal as follows: "In my plan, which sees marriage essentially as a relationship, I interpret the Pauline privilege as the recognition that no marriage can exist in the absence of a spiritual relationship, the privilege extended to non-consummated marriages as the acknowledgement that no marriage can exist in the absence of a physical relationship and we have now reached the most important stage of all, the recognition of the emotional relationship, without which it is absolutely certain that a marriage cannot exist."

At the time this was taken by some that I was advocating divorce. In fact, quite independently theologians were reaching similar conclusions in various parts of the globe and the principles now described as "due discretion" are guiding the Church tribunals throughout the world.

Readers who are interested in an up-to-date review of this topic can find the information in Vol. 7. No. 9 of Concilium in 1973.

The future

V the conclusion of such a review what consideration can we give regarding the future?.

I believe it is pertinent to remember that the Catholic Church has defined marriage as a sacrament and therefore the most important task for the people of God is to understand far more deeply the modern meaning of this secular reality in which, as the Vatican council says, authentic married love is caught up in divine love.

We can sec that the new characteristics which emphasise sustaining. healing and growth are not new in the sense that man has only discovered these in this century. They are new in the sense that only now has man the freedom and consciousness to focus his attention on the attainment of these goals, hence the changed expectations. But these expectations cannot be realised without a relationship which sustains continuity, reliablility and predictability which are the new words for the traditional values of permanency and fidelity. ,

If these expectations are. to be met then there have to be widespread changes in the Christian community which will acknowledge the unique importance of this sacrament. In my view, and this statement will undoubtedly cause controversy, marriage is the most important sacrament after the eucharist for it is the source and promotion of life which allows the initiation and maintenance of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ with the assistance of the sacraments and the life of prayer.

Education important

If this is the case then there can. be no renewal, no evangelisation without a profound renewal of this sacrament. How can this be achieved?

Clearly the married people of God must make their contribution and there are few instances where the new understanding of the nature of the church is more relevant.

Education for marriage must, become just as, if not more important, as the priority we have hitherto gissen the Catholic education. Education for marriage means not only preparation at home and school but the concept of in-service training, that is to say, we must see marriage as an unfolding relationship going through several phases in which couples have to be helped to understand and deepen its meaning.

This means that the parish, must become the focus of new activities involving the married in family groups, days of renewal and the development of a new liturgy in which the events of their married life arc caught in reality and symbolism in new forms of prayers, masses and liturgical events.

Priests must be informed about marriage both during their training by snending a specified period of time with the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council and also later by attending refresher courses on this subject. None of this can be achieved without study and research and the Christian cornritunity must become the source for promoting both.

Finally, hale can be achieved without resources. People and money will be needed. This means that there has to be a revaluation of resources and priorities. It is my firm belief that marriage must be placed at the top of such prionties and in creasingly funds and personnel now allocated for Catholic education must be channelled towards the development of marriage.

Diocesan teams

The success of a plan needs the setting up in each diocese of a team, which should be ecumenical in nature, which will bring together the various agencies working with families and integrate their work of how best to meet the needs of the married in its area.

At the .present moment there seeems to be a big gulf between the secular world and Christianity, particularly the institutional Churches. This has been interpreted as a loss of interest in God, 1 do not believe this to be true at all.

There is no lack of interest in God but there is a severe break of communication in that the Good News as propounded by the Churches does not reach the inner life of people in their experience of love. Marriage is the central event where people experience the meaning of love and, if see can begin to approach them accurately in their loving experiences within marriage, then the bridge of love between the Good News of the Gospel and the inner life of people will be formed.

For me there can be no massive Christian renewal which does not make marriage the pillar, the cornerstone, the basis of the return of Christ in the lives of men and women.

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