Saint Valentine’s feastday is celebrated worldwide. In the Italian city of Terni, land of this saint, thousands of couples in love gather and vow their fidelity on the tomb of the saint. But beyond the promises and exchange of gifts there is something very profound.
ZENIT talked about this with the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family and of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute, Bishop Jean Laffitte.
ZENIT: What is the most profound meaning of engagement?
Bishop Laffitte: Engagement has a very profound meaning. It begins when two young people who love one another and have declared their love to each other wish to live together for the rest of their lives; they want to get married.
Thus, a certain time of preparation begins for them, and the Church provides for it before the marriage. In the meantime, it is a period that has particular meaning, because it is the time of promise, not that of living together.
ZENIT: What is the difference between being engaged and living together, as happens often in the West?
Bishop Laffitte: There is a great difference, the promise is not yet the definitive commitment; therefore, it doesn’t create an absolute right for a future common life. It means walking together so that the commitment is made in the best possible conditions. It indicates a time of preparation, of growth, of reflection and maturation. The sentiment must be transformed into a free decision to be committed for life, because engagement is not about giving oneself but about preparing for the gift of oneself.
ZENIT: What is the problem today?
Bishop Laffitte: The lack of awareness between the promise and the enjoyment of the goods proper to marriage, in other words, living together. When two young people love one another and live together, they are already having a good that only marriage can offer. The gift of oneself to another means that the future of one belongs to the other, and the other enters into my liberty and my future. Instead when they live together, and a difficulty arises, they can say, “we have had a good time together, let’s remain friends.”
ZENIT: What are the consequences of pre-marital cohabitation?
Bishop Laffitte: They are twofold. First, because one is not properly prepared for the gift of oneself and has unduly appropriated the availability of the other. And the second problem is a situation – and mothers of families will understand me – which is more unfavorable for the women than for the men, because they don’t give the same thing. Whereas in marriage, both must give. There is no equality of expectations.
ZENIT: Is the demographic winter growing because of this pre-marital living together?
Bishop Laffitte: Certainly, because this delays very much the birth of the first child, and also because one gets the habit of living sexuality outside openness to life, with contraceptive methods, to say nothing worse. And to use one’s sexuality in a contraceptive way makes persons unprepared for receiving the gift of life.
It’s curious to see that couples that lived together for a number of years, when they get married, have a tendency to separate, to divorce in the first two years. It’s odd …
ZENIT: Pre-marital cohabitation brings heavy collateral effects, no?
Bishop Laffitte: As long as cohabitation is presented as an innocent way to get to know one another. Well, the truth is, it’s not so. And when they get married they discover that they no longer have the freedom they had before. Studies show that there is more hypo-fertility in those cases, perhaps it’s a psychological phenomenon, or related to age, or because it’s more difficult.
ZENIT: How can the feast of Saint Valentine be lived well?
Bishop Laffitte: Beyond the festive side, one must ask oneself: What do I expect from the loving relationship I have? What is the real desire of my heart? And adults and friends who support those who are going to get married must help them understand what the most profound expectation is.
ZENIT: Is there a dimension of love and fidelity in human nature?
Bishop Laffitte: John Paul II said that the greatest desire is to love and to be loved, and he was referring to the fundamental dimension of life. For instance, there is no adolescent in the world who, when he falls in love for the first time, let’s say at 16 or 17, doesn’t have the desire that what he is experiencing will last all his life. The desire of a love forever is entirely natural in man.
When young people are helped to ask themselves what they really want, then they realize that the “flirt” of a night in a disco or at the university might have been enjoyable but it didn’t satisfy the desire in their heart.[Translation by ZENIT]