Why We Care About Marriage (Part 1)

12 Aug

bride-and-groom-768594_640June 28, 2003, was one of the most joyful and significant days of my life as it was the day I married my wife, Libby.

We were planning to work full-time together as youth ministers in the same large, suburban parish in the Twin Cities, and this was part of the excitement as we headed toward our wedding day. Our mindset was, “Not only will we be missionaries for Christ bringing the good news of His love to teens, but we will be doing it together as married missionaries!  What could be better?!”

During our engagement, like many couples marrying in the Church, we met several times with our pastor. I don’t remember everything he told us, but the one thing I do remember is his telling us that our most important ministry to the youth and other parishioners we were preparing to serve was the ministry of our marriage. We really didn’t have any idea what he meant at the time, even though we took him seriously.  We thought we would run some good programs for teens that would awaken them to their relationship with Christ. But as the first few years of our marriage and youth ministry unfolded, it became clear what our priest was trying to teach us.

Don’t get me wrong, we were qualified and competent youth ministers, but the greatest thing we ever did for our parish community was the witness of our married love for one another in the midst of great suffering. Libby and I faced the great trial of having two of our infant children pass away from a rare genetic disease. Both our son Peter and our daughter Gianna died when they were about three months old, about 18 months apart.  Our sacrament gave us access to limitless grace, and since grace is God’s life within us, it sustained us through that difficult time, giving us the strength to witness to God’s love in the midst of tremendous suffering.  We could not have imagined when we said, “I do,” nor would we have chosen, that our suffering would be the primary witness that Libby and I would proclaim, but yet it was the opportunity we had. Trial can often be the occasion for a wedge to form between couples, but our faith turned us to one another and to the Church in a deeper way than we imagined. Our suffering brought us closer together, and that closeness was a sign to all in the parish of our trust in God and one another.

Let me give a few examples.  Shortly after our daughter Gianna passed away, a teen in our program approached my wife about some issues she was having in her family. She was a quiet young woman who was very guarded with her emotions and was not especially involved in parish youth ministry. My wife was surprised to hear from her, and asked what had prompted her to reach out. The young woman said that she wanted to ask how we had dealt with our tragedy. How could we still believe in a loving God? It was our suffering that “earned” my wife the privilege of listening to this young woman’s heartache. Our sacrament sustained us like a well of water in the desert and gained my wife the credibility to share with this young lady about the reality of God and His desire to be close to us when we face hardship.

On another occasion after our children died, a couple that worked with us received news that their unborn child would not live long after birth. This couple, who had become close friends, told us that they received strength from our experience and looked to our example of how to deal with loss. They learned from us who had walked the road before them, and they received the grace from their sacrament to walk the same agonizing road.

Recently, now seven years after the loss of our second child, a friend of ours lost her mother and we were discussing how helpless we felt to help her with another friend. The second friend told us, “I don’t know if you realized this, but we’ve all been watching you in your grief. You have taught us how to stay faithful in grief. You’ve already helped.”  These three examples are just a few of the ways my wife and I “ministered through our sacrament.”

Are Libby and I somehow special? Are we somehow called to “minister through our sacrament” when no other couple is called to do the same?  I don’t think so; trust me when I say that Libby and I are not super humans. In fact, this points to how extraordinary God is. If He can use us to communicate to the world a glimpse of His goodness, then He can use anyone. The truth is that He desires to speak to the world through the ordinary couples who have their relationships infused with the power of the Sacrament of Matrimony. After all, our God has revealed Himself as a God who communicates to humanity. Jesus is the WORD of God. I do not know the circumstances He wishes to use or the timing in which He desires, but I know that if a couple chooses to invite Him into their love by opening themselves to being a sacrament in the Church, He will use that couple to speak to the world.

It could be through suffering that God communicates; it may be through the blessing of finances that He chooses to communicate; it may be through the befriending of your next-door neighbor in a time of crisis that He chooses to use your marriage. It may simply be through the heroic and hidden sacrifices of everyday caring for children that He communicates through your marriage, but make no mistake about it, He desires to communicate a specific message of goodness and love through you that no other couple can communicate. Our challenge is to simply open ourselves up to this possibility and say, “Yes!”   Through your sacrament, you will receive an abundance of grace to fulfill your mission!

With this in mind, I would like to examine more thoroughly what a couple is saying “yes” to when they freely choose to be a sacramentally married couple in the Church.  Over the next three posts, we will examine three distinct aspects of sacramental marriage and how that sheds light on some other Church teaching regarding marriage. I invite you to join me in this examination of marriage and to invite someone who may not understand fully what we believe as Catholics to join us as well.  Hopefully, it will strengthen your own bond, and you can serve to strengthen others!

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