Exploring the roots of a divorce-free city

Inhabitants of the city of Siroki-Brijeg, Bosnia, with its approximately 26,000 Croatians, have defended their Catholic faith through ancient Muslim invasions and the atheistic communism that followed. With God’s help, the moral and cultural values have been safeguarded in the family social structure.

Reports from several trusted Catholic sites say, “Siroki-Brijeg is remarkable, for in the collective memory of all there has never been a single divorce among the Croatian Catholics of the city,” (Plinio Maria Solimeo, The Only Divorce-Free City in the World.)

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How is this possible? Croatians in this almost 100 per cent Catholic city, take their faith and traditions very seriously. They defend the indissolubility of marriage and the monogamous family formed by the union of a man and a woman, as stated in the country’s Constitution, with the blessings of Holy Mother Church.

More significantly, they see marriage as a cross indissolubly united to the Cross of Christ. Spouses face their union without romanticism, false expectations, or illusions. They know that in this valley of tears everyone has defects. There is no mutual understanding without a mutual exercise of patience.

This Catholic view of marriage is supported by a ritual that further prevents the incidence of divorce and separation. “During their married life, the spouses find strength by praying together before the crucifix they held together during the religious wedding ceremony.”

In the ceremony, the priest blesses the crucifix, places the fiancée’s right hand upon that of the groom, and covers them with a stole. The couple then makes their vows with their hands clasping the crucifix.

The priest tells them they have found the ideal “partner” with whom they must share their lives with the following words: “You have found your cross. It is a cross that you must love and take with you every day of your lives. Know how to appreciate it.”

After kissing the cross, the spouses enthrone it in a place of honour in their homes, showing their profound belief that a family must be born of the cross. In difficult times or trials, the couple kneels before the crucifix to ask for strength. Our Lord’s yoke “is easy, and his burden, light,” (Matthew 11:30.)

The spouses are keenly aware that if one abandons the other, they are abandoning Christ. The children learn from an early age to venerate the family crucifix and direct their early prayers to the cross.

Ideally we can build the faith in the family unit, the domestic church. Here we can place God and our faith as the center of our lives. The rituals of family prayer will strengthen and protect the faith: the family that prays together, stays together.

I was fortunate to grow up in a rural faith community where everyone went to church on Sundays and where marriage vows were sacred. During a visit to the Philippines, Pope Francis cited the need for “holy and loving families to protect the beauty and truth of the family in God’s plan and to be an example for other families.”

We cannot all move our marriages to an idealized religious community that will safeguard our family bonds and cultural values, but we can all turn to the Cross as the central strength in time of troubles.

Our Lord’s yoke “is easy, and his burden, light.”