Imagine a world without divorce. Imagine families without separation. Imagine no children or hearts torn apart.
Marriage is the most challenging vocation there is and divorce everywhere is on the rise. Yet there is one small town in Europe that is an exception – a notable exception – to this disturbing statistic.
In the town of Siroki-Brijeg in Bosnia and Herzagovina, not one single divorce or broken family has been recorded in living memory among its more than 26.000* inhabitants! So what is the secret of their success?
The answer is the beautiful tradition the Croatian people of Siroki-Brijeg have for marriage. In fact the Croatian marriage tradition is beginning to take hold in the rest of Europe and America among devout Catholics who have seen the blessings it bestows!
For centuries the people in Siroki-Brijeg have suffered cruelly as their Christian Faith was always threatened by first the Moslem Turks and then the Communists. They knew through experience, that the source of salvation comes through the Cross of Christ! It does not come from humanitarian aid, peace treaties or disarmament plans, even if these things may bring limited benefits.
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.
When the bride and bridegroom go to the church to be married they carry a Crucifix with them. The priest blesses the Crucifix and instead of saying that they have found the ideal partner with whom to share their lives, he exclaims, “You have found your Cross! It is a Cross to love, to carry with you, a Cross that is not to be thrown off, but rather cherished.”
When they interchange the marital vows, the bride puts her right hand on this Crucifix and the groom puts his right hand over hers. Both are bound together and united to the Cross. The priest covers their hands with his stole while they pronounce their promises to love one other in good times and in bad, proclaiming their vows to be faithful according to the rites of the Church.
Then they both first kiss the Cross, not each other. If one abandons the other, they abandon Christ on the Cross. They lose Jesus! After the wedding, the newly-weds cross the threshold of their home to enthrone that same Crucifix in a place of honour. It becomes the reference point of their lives and the place of family prayer, for the young couple believes deeply that the family is born of the Cross.
In times of difficulty and misunderstandings, as all human relationships experience at some time, they do not turn immediately to an astrologer, or a lawyer or psychologist, they turn to the Cross. They kneel, weep tears of repentance and open up their hearts, begging for the strength to forgive each other, and imploring the Lord’s help. These pious practices have been learnt from the time of their childhood.
Here the children are taught to reverently kiss the Crucifix daily and to thank the Lord for the day before going to bed. These children go to sleep knowing that Jesus is holding them in His arms and there is nothing to be afraid of. Their fears and their differences, so normal sometimes between siblings, melt away in their kiss of Jesus on the Cross. They dream of enthroning a Crucifix in a home of their own one day.
The family is indissolubly united to the Cross of Christ. Is this simply a morbid outlook on marital and family life? Or is it a piece of wisdom that few in our modern world can understand?
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”.
In marriage we cannot rely on our own human strength, and if we think we can, we shall fail. 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. 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 might be days when it all seems hopeless. Then a moment of true grace can bring a flood of renewed 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.”
*Some sources quote the number of inhabitants of Siroki-Brijeg as only 13.000 (and almost 100% Catholic!) However after some research I believe the true number of inhabitants to be more than double this figure.