VATICAN CITY — President Henry B. Eyring of the LDS Church's First Presidency bore a very personal witness Tuesday at the Vatican of “the power of the union of a man and a woman in marriage to produce happiness for each other and for their family.”
Standing before an audience of hundreds of international religious leaders and scholars at the Vatican summit on marriage opened Monday by Pope Francis, President Eyring, 81, called for "a renaissance of happy marriages and productive families” based on the principles of the Proclamation on the Family issued by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1995.
His 15-minute talk was given as a “witness” or testimony on the afternoon of the second day of Humanum: An International Interreligious Colloquium on The Complementarity of Man and Woman, a conference convened by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a prefect at the Vatican.
President Eyring began with what he described as a “very personal” account of how he met, courted and wed his wife of 52 years, Kathleen.
He told of how his self-satisfaction as a single graduate student at Harvard University was disrupted by the strong feelings he had when he saw Kathleen for the first time. He said the thought that came to his mind was, “If I could only be with her, I could become every good thing I ever wanted to be.”
The audience chuckled when President Eyring said he was married within a year of first meeting Kathleen.
He provided a succinct explanation of what Latter-day Saints call eternal marriage, a marriage ordinance that promises the couple the blessings of marriage not just in mortality but throughout eternity.
“We were promised that after this life, we could continue to enjoy whatever loving family sociality we could create in life.”
That distinctly Latter-day Saint concept contrasted with the speaker who presented directly before President Eyring, the Rev. Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Church in California and the bestselling author of "The Purpose Driven Life."
The Rev. Warren shared his belief that there is no marriage in heaven.
President Eyring said his own marriage has brought tremendous fulfillment.
"I have become a better person as I have loved and lived with her," he said, his voice breaking with emotion. "We have been complementary beyond anything I could have imagined. Her capacity to nurture others grew in me as we became one. My capacity to plan, direct and lead in our family grew in her as we became united in marriage. I realize now that we grew together into one — slowly lifting and shaping each other, year by year. As we absorbed strength from each other, it did not diminish our personal gifts.
"Our differences combined as if they were designed to create a better whole. Rather than dividing us, our differences bound us together. Above all, our unique abilities allowed us to become partners with God in creating human life. The happiness that came from our becoming one built faith in our children and grandchildren that marriage could be a continuing source of satisfaction for them and their families."
The Eyrings have six children and 31 grandchildren. The audience applauded when he announced that their first great-grandchild was born on the weekend, which he learned upon his arrival in Rome.
The first counselor in the faith's First Presidency, President Eyring read a large section of the LDS Church's The Family: A Proclamation to the World, including a passage similar to what Pope Francis said on Monday:
"Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity."
In his speech opening the Vatican conference on Monday, the pope said, "Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child's development and emotional maturity."
After his reading from the proclamation, President Eyring said, "Those are things people must do for us to have a renaissance of happy marriages and productive families.”
He encouraged couples, saying small, persistent efforts in this regard will lead to exponential results over a handful of generations.
Nonetheless, he said, “Such a renaissance will require people to try for the ideal —and to keep trying even when the happy result is slow to come and when loud voices mock the effort.”
The transcript of his talk is available at MormonNewsroom.org, where the LDS Church also provided a link to an essay it posted last year called "Homage to the home: Why society needs strong families."
This idea of struggling to reshape and give new life to society and culture, President Eyring's renaissance of families, was echoed in the remarks of other speakers.
For Dr. Jacqueline Cooke-Rivers, executive director of the Seymour Institute, the term was “a movement.”
Rivers, a statuesque figure with ageless features and a mellifluous alto voice, described herself as “a follower of Jesus Christ for 40 years, a leader in the black church in the United States, who has worked among the poor for over 30 years; a daughter of the African diaspora, a Harvard-trained sociologist, a wife and a mother of two young adults.”
Like many of the speakers, Rivers catalogued the human suffering caused when marriage disappears, noting the particularly devastating effects within her own African-American community, where marriage culture was destroyed initially by the cruelty of human slavery.
But she also noted how struggle could overcome adversity, and, just as the black church had felt called to struggle for civil rights, she felt that we are now called “to a global movement to protect the correct definition of marriage.”
She called on this movement to take full advantage of sub-Saharan Africa’s continued commitment to what she referred to as God’s divine plan for marriage and convene another conference next year in Africa to plan the campaign to promote strong families and show how the world is united in a divinely supported view of marriage.
Rivers and President Eyring were two of 17 witnesses for marriage on the program of the three-day conference, which concludes Wednesday. Witnesses were invited to "draw from the wisdom of their religious tradition and cultural experience as they attest to the power and vitality of the complementary union of man and woman."
President Eyring said he was grateful "to give evidence that a man and a woman, united in marriage, have a transcendent power to create happiness for themselves, for their family and for the people around them."
Among the witnesses in Tuesday's morning session was the Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the biggest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The Rev. Moore took strong aim at moral relativism, especially with regard to sexual relations and marriage.
“The sexual revolution is not liberation at all," he said. "The sexual revolution is merely the imposition of a different sort of patriarchy. The sexual revolution empowers men to pursue a Darwinian fantasy of the predatory alpha male, rooted in the values of power, prestige and personal pleasure.
“Does anyone really believe that these things will empower women and children?” he asked, “when we see the wreckage of sexuality as self-expression all around us, and we will see more yet.”
He encouraged the 14 faith traditions represented at the conference to work together.
“All of us must stand together on preserving marriage as the complementary union of a man and a woman," he said, "but I want to add to that — that there is a distinctive Christian urgency to why Christian churches must bear witness to these things.”
After he spoke, President Eyring was interviewed briefly for a 20-second video clip posted on the Humanum YouTube site.
"Marriage makes us better when we look for the best in the other person and try to build up ourselves to serve them even better," he said with a broad smile. "It has made me a better person. I am this day a better person because I've seen the best in her and I've tried to give her the best I could myself."
Three other witnesses spoke with President Eyring in the Tuesday afternoon session.
Iqbal Gharbi, a Muslim woman who works as a professor of sharia and religious principles at Ezzitouna University in Tunis, spoke directly after President Eyring. She was followed after a break by Cyrille and Yvette Seke, the founders and directors of La Puissance de L’Amour, or Love Power, an organization based in Benin that seeks to promote a more humane society through strong marriages in West Africa.
The Rev. Warren, one of America's most influential Evangelical pastors, was listed as a presenter. During his 41-minute presentation, he said that marriage supporters need to consciously celebrate healthy marriages.
"It's not enough to defend marriage, we have to celebrate it. We have to be a proponent of what's right, not simply an opponent of what's wrong. We have to offer an appealing alternative to the empty promises of the world," he said. "Celebrating and highlighting and honoring marriage, I believe, is the best defense."
He suggested local churches could do four things to celebrate marriages in their congregations — present testimonies of happy marriages in church services, publicly recognize anniversaries or otherwise reward long-term marriages, continually point out the benefits of marriage, offer marriage courses, promote marriage with media and provide an opportunity for couples to annually renew their wedding vows.
Three new short films on marriage debuted at the conference on Tuesday:
• "Understanding Man and Woman," which describes how men and women are different but equal and complement each other in their differences.
• "A Hidden Sweetness: The Power of Marriage Against Hardship," about the instrumental value of marriage that "allows humanity to thrive through tragedy, poverty and even war."
• "Challenge and Hope for a New Generation" shows young people who understand marriage is a foundation for life, not a "status capstone."
Those followed two films released on Monday, "The Destiny of Humanity: On the Meaning of Marriage," and "The Cradle of Life and Love: A Mother and Father for the World’s Children."
A sixth film on marriage, culture and civil society is scheduled to be released on Wednesday.