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!