Building marriages that last a lifetime

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila

Our culture talks a lot about marriage tragedies but not enough about successes. In the checkout line at the grocery store, on TV shows and in the news, we hear about celebrities whose marriages are falling apart.
But why don’t we hear more about marriage successes? I am always edified by the couples at our annual marriage anniversary Masses who are celebrating 50, 60 or even 70 years of marriage. They are a real sign of what the Lord desires for marriage.

A realistic look at the state of Catholic marriages shows that some couples who marry in the Church struggle because they didn’t receive a good foundation, or they never addressed underlying personal problems.

To help address this, the Church observes National Marriage Week, Feb. 7-14. I am dedicating this column to highlighting this celebration, the resources it provides and to offering some advice to couples from my experience as a pastor.

Over the years of accompanying married couples, there are at least three characteristics that stand out to me. Couples who have strong marriages are those who place faith first, seek to selflessly serve their spouse and extend forgiveness often. The order of these characteristics is important, since they flow from one another. Without faith, it’s extremely difficult – if not impossible – to selflessly serve another person, and without this loving exchange of kindness, forgiveness can be quite hard.

When I think of those couples who have strong marriages, faith comes first for them. By placing faith first, I mean husbands and wives who intentionally seek the Father’s will in their personal lives and in the life of their marriage and family. This is done through the couple praying together and for each other. Those couples whose marriages bear great fruit have done this in different ways. It can be praying the rosary together, reading and reflecting upon the Scriptures together, or spontaneous prayer to the Holy Spirit as a couple.

When husbands and wives take the chance to open their hearts to the Father and each other, and invite him into their marriage, they become united in purpose and receive the graces needed to respond to the challenges that come their way.

In his well-known book, Three To Get Married, Archbishop Fulton Sheen speaks eloquently about the way that marriage passes from its honeymoon phase into the deeper, more selfless form of love. He writes, “The deep ecstatic love that some Christian fathers and mothers have after passing through their Calvaries is beautiful to behold. True ecstasy is really not of youth, but of age. In the first ecstasy, one seeks to receive all that the other can give. In the second ecstasy, one seeks to give everything to God.”

This second characteristic of a lasting marriage is one that plays out countless times in parishes. Most often it occurs when a husband or wife devotedly cares for their sick spouse, even when they themselves are suffering with an ailment. These people aren’t just drawing upon their inner reserves of strength and love. If you asked them how they did it, they would tell you that they are only able to do it with God’s help.

The final feature of successful marriages is that forgiveness is freely and frequently exchanged between the spouses. Forgiveness is both a decision and a process that takes time. This is where a husband or wife who have been selflessly serving their spouse comes into the picture. Selfless acts involve exercising the will and intellect – the two powers required to forgive. When one spouse offends or hurts their spouse, the victim doesn’t usually feel like forgiving the offender, but they can engage their will and their intellect to decide to forgive. We see Jesus extend that forgiveness with his first words from the Cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

I recently heard a story from the Made for Love Podcast in which a couple that had been married for over 10 years reflected back on their early years. When they first got married, they thought their love for each other would overpower any imperfections they had. But after several months, they saw that each other’s faults weren’t going away and they had to apologize far more than they ever thought they would. If they hadn’t been able to decide to forgive each other, their marriage would have suffered. Because they are practicing Catholics who desire to selflessly love each other, despite sometimes failing to do so, they had the grace and virtue to forgive the other.

The family, founded upon marriage, is the fundamental cell of society. Perhaps the greatest impact that we can make upon the future of our country is to form marriages that are lasting and fruitful. During the upcoming celebration of National Marriage Week, I encourage all who have discerned a call to marriage or who are already married to work on strengthening themselves through growth in faith, selfless service and forgiveness. May God bless and inspire all married and engaged couples in the archdiocese to continue to give witness to Christ’s love for the Church!

COMING UP: Here’s what 65 years of marriage looks like

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While divorces are still very common and the average age of young people marrying is older every year (for men, it’s almost 30; for women it’s about 27), true love still exists.

But it doesn’t look the way the world imagines it to be: Heart-pounding, butterfly-stomach, head-over-heels, warm, fuzzy feelings. It’s much deeper.

For Bill and Fran Chism, 89 and 91, who celebrate 65 years of marriage this year, it looks more like faithfulness — especially in the difficulties of life.

Four years ago, Fran broke her hip and her health quickly declined. Soon, she was diagnosed with dementia.

“We thought we were going to lose her a couple times in the hospital,” Bill said. “She had an upper chest infection…her memory was slipping away, and then she got shingles last September, and that just wiped out her memory.”

Bill put her in a memory care facility so she could have help being cared for; but even then, he was still with her most of the day, getting her up for breakfast and putting her to bed at night.

Just a month ago, Bill took Fran home to care for her on his own — even getting a knee replacement a year ago at the age of 88 so that he would be able to take care of his wife.

“[He] thought he wouldn’t be able to take care of her the way he’d need to with the pain and the problems with the knee,” said Dede Chism, Bill’s daughter-in-law.

So, despite the doctor pushing back due to his age, Bill convinced him to do the knee replacement. It wasn’t long before he was taking walks around the park again and caring for Fran.

Now, though her memory suffers, Fran is able to do most things on her own, and Bill cares for her every day in their quiet home.

 

Early days

Bill and Fran met in Downtown Denver at a dance, and initially, Fran wouldn’t marry him because he wasn’t Catholic. After talking to a priest about the issue, he decided to become Catholic after his term with the navy was over. World War II was just ending; he would later serve in the Korean war as well.

After that, Fran agreed, and they married in 1952 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. They drove from Colorado to San Francisco, Calif., where Bill would ship out only 10 months after marrying Fran.

They were also expecting their first son.

“I was shipping out and she was due, that was tough,” Bill said. “I told the doctor…I hope she can have the baby before I leave…sometimes if you give them castor oil, it’ll induce. She didn’t need it. We just got back and she started having pains. Took her [to the hospital] and was told, ‘Oh you better go back home, she’ll be here all night.’

“I no sooner left than she went into labor and she had a hard time with our first son, he was nine pounds, and she’s kinda small. So I wasn’t there when he was born, but I got the word after he was born that it’s all over now; they told me it wouldn’t happen till morning,” Bill said.

Bill and Fran Chism celebrate 65 years of marriage together this year. Married in 1952, they have three sons, five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

The couple went on to have three boys, five grandchildren and now have 11 great-grandchildren. It wasn’t until having a couple kids that Bill was able to join the Catholic Church, in 1960.

“It took a while to get around to it, and I took instructions,” Bill said. “She knew how to pray, I didn’t, I still have a little difficulty with it.”

The couple practiced their faith together in the form of praying every night before bed with one another.

 

‘I do means I do’

So what’s kept their marriage strong through all the “ups and downs” of life: Wars, sicknesses, deaths in the family?

“Commitment,” Bill said. “When we got married, we made a commitment. That’s what’s holding us together. With me, when I make a commitment, I stick with it.

“Oh, we’ve had our ups and downs. Not fights, but misunderstandings or arguments. But it wouldn’t be life if you didn’t,” he added.

According to Bill’s son, Ken Chism, the couple believes they’re just ordinary, simple people, and they are. But the simple example of true love in a marriage that’s weathered many joys and struggles in the family is an example that’s sorely needed today, Ken said.

“He said I don’t know why you want to hear from me, we’re just simple people,” Ken said. “The fact of the matter is, the simplest truth is that you don’t have to know all of the theology. What you need to know is God has called you, and with that ‘I do,’ that God’s grace and his love is enough.”

“[Bill] said, ‘When I said I do, I do,’” he continued. “The problem is so many people find ‘I don’ts’ to put in that, instead of always ‘I do.’ You can’t have anything that you’re not willing to do, or your relationship will fail. And that’s both [spouses]. Both have to have that attitude. So for me to watch what’s happened the last five years especially…you don’t know what you’ve got to live with. And he’s lived out the ‘I do’ like no one I’ve ever seen. And it’s very, very special to be able to watch that.”

You can’t have anything that you’re not willing to do, or your relationship will fail. And that’s both [spouses]. Both have to have that attitude.

Dede said that though Bill and Fran have weathered every decade where marriage looked so different, God has remained the foundation, which never changes.

“A marriage grounded in faith and Christ is a marriage that will succeed, regardless of what comes your way, because God succeeds,” she said. “And I would say that that one thing is the center of our marriage. Wars, sicknesses…you can survive anything because with God, all things are possible.”

 

Couples celebrating 25, 50 or 50+ years of marriage this year are invited to the annual Anniversary Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Northglenn. Bishop Jorge Rodriguez will be the celebrant, and cake and coffee reception will follow. For more information, contact Jennifer Sharn at 303-715-3252 or jennifer.sharn@archden.org.