Pope John Paul I, known especially in Italy as “il Papa del sorriso,” or “the smiling Pope,” while greeting the various groups of pilgrims in attendance at his General Audience on Wednesday, September 13, 1978 (just eighteen days after his papal election, and just fifteen days before his death), told the following story at the conclusion of the Audience:
“On our right, on the other hand, there are the newlyweds. They have received a great sacrament. Let us wish that this sacrament which they have received will really bring not only goods of this world, but more spiritual graces. Last century there was in France a great professor, Frederick Ozanam. He taught at the Sorbonne, and was so eloquent, so capable! His friend was [Father] Lacordaire, who said: ‘He is so gifted, he is so good, he will become a priest, he will become a great bishop, this fellow!’ No! He met a nice girl and they got married. Lacordaire was disappointed and said: ‘Poor Ozanam! He too has fallen into the trap!’ But two years later, Lacordaire came to Rome, and was received by Pius IX. ‘Come, come, Father,’ he says. ‘I have always heard that Jesus established seven sacraments. Now you come along and change everything. You tell me that he established six sacraments, and a trap! No, Father, marriage is not a trap, it is a great sacrament!’ So let us express again our best wishes for these dear newlyweds: may the Lord bless them!”
Pius IX was right, of course: marriage is not a trap, marriage is a great sacrament. John Paul I didn’t recall the story simply because he thought it was funny (imagining this conversation between Pius IX and Lacordaire is somewhat humorous, though)—no, John Paul I recalled the story because it’s important! The sacraments do not trap us, because Christ does not lead us into traps, and he instituted the sacraments. The Catechism affirms this, quoting the Council of Trent: “‘Adhering to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus . . . of the Fathers,’ we profess that ‘the sacraments of the new law were . . . all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord” (CCC 1114). Christ instituted the sacraments.
Further, the Second Vatican Council taught that the “purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the body of Christ, and, finally, to give worship to God” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 59). The sacraments sanctify us: this is why Christ gave them to us—“For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3). By being incorporated into the body of Christ and by worshiping God, we are sanctified.
Marriage is not somehow exempt from this sanctifying power. It is true that married people do not always dispose themselves to be sanctified by their marriages, but nevertheless God can and does sanctify his people through the sacrament of marriage, and for that we give him thanks and praise.
Thank the Lord today for the gift of marriage, and if you are married, thank him for the gift of your marriage, by which he sanctifies you and your spouse. For “marriage is not a trap, it is a great sacrament!”