Marriage was made a sacrament by Jesus. He did so with his first miracle at the wedding at Cana.

“With this sacrament, Jesus Christ reveals his own help in an effective way, in order to save and strengthen the couple’s love through the gift of theological charity and to give them the strength of fidelity. We can also say that the miracle worked by Jesus at the beginning of his public life is a sign of the importance marriage has in God’s saving plan and the formation of the Church,” Pope St. John Paul II stated in a May 1992 audience titled “Christ Made Marriage a Sacrament.”

Our Lord made clear what God intended marriage to be from the first chapter of Genesis: “Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Matthew 19:6).

Sadly, today, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Catholics fare better, but still suffer a 27% divorce rate. All are disappointing figures. The Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops — with the theme “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” — at the Vatican this month attests to the need to strengthen marriage and family life.

How is a divorce rate of 0% — a real zero — a real possibility?

Back in the 1990s, I heard a homily focused on marriage and the priest’s firsthand knowledge of a Croatian town in Bosnia Herzegovina with the tongue-twisting name of Siroki-Brijeg. It is about 25 miles from the more well-known town of Medjugorje.

Siroki-Brijeg is remarkable, the priest said, because there had never been — in everyone’s collective memory — a single divorce among the Croatian Catholics in the town, which had approximately 13,000 residents at the time (although other numbers put the population at more than 25,000).

Their “secret” to marital happiness was no secret at all. The bride and groom followed a long-standing tradition: They make their wedding vows with their hands clasped on a crucifix. Then they kiss the cross, because, as our faith teaches, the cross signifies the greatest love.

These couples realize that marriage is a vocation and that we need to take to heart the words of Jesus and seek his constant help to live and grow in this vocation.

I never forgot that priest’s lesson. No doubt, he and his fellow priests told many of the faithful the same story — because the custom has spread throughout Europe and the United States.

When my wife, Mary, and I married, we did not have to think long about how we were going to make our wedding vows. We gratefully, joyously and sincerely exchanged them with our hands holding the crucifix.

We realized this was not just a custom of the moment, to be packed away and forgotten, but that its meaning would continue throughout our married life.

As the priest tells the couple, “You have found your cross. It is a cross to be loved, to be carried — a cross not to be thrown away, but to be cherished.”

After all, Jesus told us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

With these vows, the cross leads to salvation, to love and to blessings. But to abandon one’s wife or husband is to refuse and abandon the cross — and to abandon Jesus. That is a lasting lesson for married life.

Little wonder that this lovely wedding custom sees newlyweds putting the crucifix on which they took their vows in a highly visible place in their homes.

Mary and I have ours in our living room.

If a couple encounters difficulties, they pray before the cross. There, they find help and see the truth in Christ’s words: that his yoke is easy and his burden light.

At our wedding, before the final blessing, we brought flowers to our Blessed Mother in the church’s shrine altar and offered a song to her — As I Kneel Before You — to put ourselves also in her care. It was a fitting end to our wedding, because there is no greater foundation for a happy and blessed marriage than with Jesus, the cross and our Blessed Mother.

Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.