That Sunday morning began a bit foggy, with the usual dampness and clouds. By noon, however, the sun was shining and the day turned out to be a beautiful Autumn day here in the Northwest. That Sunday morning found the usual crowds and high energy gathered for the Masses but by 4 p.m. I got a second wind. Twenty five years ago, this couple was married and one of the two priests who presided at their wedding was also invited to con-celebrate and preach at the Mass. I saw him about two weeks ago and we confirmed his coming.
However, as the time drew near to begin the anniversary celebration, Father was a no-show. Don't know why but for whatever reason, he never arrived. That left the preaching to me for the Mass and it became a "Come Holy Spirit" moment, many of which I've had in my priesthood. So, what to do? "O, just wing it Father" was the advice I was given. Thanks for the vote of confidence.
As I regularly do before preaching I whispered a personal plea to the Holy Spirit to speak through me as he wills. So, since our school secretary is well acquainted with our weekly school Masses, I felt moved to go down to where the couple was sitting and ask a few questions. Well, one question of each of them. So, I asked the wife if she could think back 25 years to their courting time - to the moment they decided to marry each other.
"What gave you confidence this man was the one for you?" I asked. She thought for a moment then answered that she felt he would be dependable and treat her with respect. Good answer I thought. Then she added that she believed he would always be there for her. Another good answer.
So, I picked up on this and addressed the same question to her husband. He is not a man of many words so I wondered if he may have been embarrassed to answer publicly but he readily did. He agreed with his wife, a good thing for a husband to do I understand, and basically recognized her same assurance of faithfulness. It was clear to me, their early perceptions were correct.
Ah, I thought, we've gotten to what I think is the very heart of the married vocation - loyalty and respect between equal partners. Why does the Church value the married life so highly? Well, the vast majority of our adult parishioners are married and to them we turn for support and involvement. But even more than that, the married life of man and woman is so core to balance and order in society and to the future of generations yet to hear the good news of Christ. A faithful married couple stand as an icon, a sign of unity between Christ and his Church. While that is certainly a lofty scriptural image, it provides a challenge and a vision for all married people to reach. Through their openness to God's grace and their mutual cooperation, it is possible to attain.
The Gospel chosen by the couple was taken from the Gospel of John, chapter 13, and Jesus' own words to "love one another as I have loved you." Our Lord isn't speaking in reference to marriage specifically in that passage but what he implies is certainly at the heart of the marriage covenant. To love as Christ loved is to be willing to sacrifice one's self for another - as Jesus did for our salvation so must the married couple reach for the ideal of Christ-like love towards one another.
In my experience of priesthood, I have found nothing more devastating to married life than infidelity. Once trust is lost, it's very difficult to gain it back. It would take some heroic effort on the part of the unfaithful spouse and great faith and loyalty on the part of the other spouse to rebuild the original trust established, and rightfully assumed, at the beginning of one's marriage.
Although we priests do not have a spouse and children, we have an obligation of fidelity to the people we serve and to Christ's Church. It is a marriage between us, the people and the Church. If we shatter that privileged trust, as some priests and some Bishops sadly have done in recent years, we wound not just a spouse but an entire parish or Diocese, which ever the case may be.
So, we had a nice sharing with the couple and their friends gathered for Mass yesterday afternoon. They were all smiles, as was everyone, about half of whom were at their wedding 25 years ago.
It's surprising to note the wife told me the priest who had married them told her he didn't think their marriage would last! Thankfully, we priests are not infallible and sometimes just make our best guess.
Many thanks to all the faithful married couples who have allowed the tough moments in their relationship to form and strengthen the substance of their marriage. They hung in there with a willingness to sacrifice themselves with a Christ-like love for each other.