Tag Archives: marriage

On Synods and Samaritans

In the opening chapter of her widely read book, Forming Intentional Disciples, author Sherry Weddell paints a troubling – at least for concerned Catholics – statistical picture of trends in the Church’s membership. Simply put, in the United States and other Western countries, the Catholic Church is bleeding members and has been for quite some time.

The reasons for Catholic defections are as complex as the people involved; still, I believe Weddell is on target when she points to insufficient evangelization and catechesis as key factors. Particularly telling is her anecdotal evidence from active Catholics she encountered during her research. Even among those serving in leadership positions within their parishes, many do not self-identify as disciples of Jesus.

The hard truth is that faith-formation for adult Catholics, at least in the West, is seriously deficient; and, that problem has enormous implications for the Church and her remaining members.

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In recent weeks, there has been a media firestorm raging around the Synod on the Family, convened by Pope Francis. One of the more controversial issues addressed by the Synod fathers was a proposal by Cardinal Kasper to make the Eucharist, which Catholics believe to be the “Real Presence” of Jesus, more readily available to divorced Catholics who have remarried (via a civil service) without having their prior marriage officially annulled by the Church.

Some of the Cardinal’s brother bishops were quite outspoken against his proposal, their rationale being that Jesus specifically proclaimed marriage to be indissoluble. While I have great respect for those bishops and their office in the Church, I wonder if their position is pastorally insensitive and, more importantly, inconsistent with the example set by Jesus himself.

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When the Nicene Creed is recited during a Catholic Mass, all present are instructed to bow their heads as these words are spoken of Jesus: “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” This gesture of reverence honors one of the most sublime teachings of the Church, the Incarnation – namely, that the second Person of the Holy Trinity actually became human and, in the words of John’s Gospel, “pitched His tent among us” (John 1:14), i.e., became intimately and permanently connected to humankind.

In the person of Jesus, the perfect God, incapable of suffering, as an act of gratuitous love, willingly entered into our dysfunctional, unjust, and often brutal world, embraced our pain and struggles, and drew the broken human experience into the very heart of God.

In his ministry, Jesus loved people, even – or, perhaps, especially – messy and/or misguided and/or hurting people; and, his uncompromising charity inevitably got him into trouble with those preoccupied with legal observance.

In the Gospels, we often find Jesus transgressing established religious and cultural conventions to personally encounter people in need. I am reminded, for example, of the occasion when Jesus healed a man with a withered hand and, in doing so, raised the ire of religious leaders because he had done prohibited work on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14). On another occasion, when his hungry disciples plucked ears of grain on the Sabbath, again the religious leaders protested, leading Jesus to say, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). And, then there’s John 4:1-42, where we find the famous encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan “woman at the well.” Much could be said about this story, which has inspired prayerful reflection for centuries; but, I will limit my observations to a few pertinent details.

This woman’s marital status was far from a model of holiness. She’d had five different husbands and, at the time she met Jesus, was living with a man who was not her husband. Yet, Jesus – the original “Real Presence” – went and met her in her chaotic moral circumstances; and, that encounter transformed her life. In fact, as a result, she became an evangelist among her people.

This timeless story is a marvelous example of pastoral need trumping religious conventions. After all, according to accepted practice among Jews of his time, Jesus should never have conversed with the (enemy) Samaritan woman at all. Even his disciples were reportedly shocked that he did so.

I can’t help wondering…

Why did Jesus’ disciples try to keep the little children away from him when Jesus just wanted to love and bless them? (Luke 18:15-17)

Why did people try to silence and exclude the blind Bartimaeus as he cried out for Jesus’ help from the side of the road? (Mark 10:46-52)

Why did John and the other disciples forbid a man from casting out demons in Jesus’ name because he was not a part of their company, while Jesus would have permitted him to do so? (Luke 9:49)

Why are Jesus’ disciples, both then and now, tempted to push back against what is so obviously happening in the Incarnation?

The Gospels reveal a “Real Presence” who delights in reaching out to, and healing, those who are marginalized. Jesus said it best:

Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12b-13)

Mercy was at the heart of Cardinal Kasper’s proposal.

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As some Synod fathers indicated, Jesus’ own words on the closely related topics of divorce and adultery do seem uncompromising (see Matthew 5:31-32). When reading such strong words, however, we must resist adopting a strictly literalist interpretation. In evidence, I offer the verses immediately preceding, wherein Jesus says:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.** 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

I apologize in advance for being so blunt; but, if a Synod father is struggling with a habit of viewing pornography and/or with masturbation, must he take the Lord’s words literally and maim himself? Of course not.

The words of Jesus must be seen and interpreted within the entirety of His ministry, i.e., in light of just such encounters as He had with the woman at the well.

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If, as Sherry Weddell convincingly argues, many adult Catholics are inadequately formed in their faith, several vital questions concerning marriage logically follow. For example: Do the average Catholic bride and groom truly understand the Sacramental character of marriage? Do both parties self-identify as disciples of Jesus? If not, what foundation exists upon which to build a Sacramental marriage? Are both parties active members of a parish? And, if so, does their parish offer ongoing support to enrich and strengthen marriages? Are both parties emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually prepared to enter into a Sacramental marriage? And, was the marriage preparation program in their parish sufficient to meet their needs in these important areas?

Surely it is worth our consideration that a vocation to priesthood or religious life is very carefully discerned over a period of years by both the person seeking the vocation and by those charged with his/her formation. Marriage is also a life-long vocation, yet nothing remotely approaching that level of formation and discernment is offered by the Church for her members. This seems to me a serious injustice.

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Recently, Pope Francis, in comments made during an audience with the Schoenstatt Apostolic Movement, anguished over the current state of marriage, opining that the Sacrament has been devalued and “made a social event.”

Assuming the Pope’s assessment is accurate, one just might find a root of marriage’s devaluation in the Baltimore Catechism’s cartoon-based vocational ranking system. Therein, one cartoon depicting a newly married couple is juxtaposed to another depicting someone in religious life. The first image carries the label “This is good” while the second is captioned “This is better.”

I’ve often wondered how deeply ingrained that mentality – and its sister, clericalism – is in the Church that I love.

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The Holy Father went on to call for couples to engage in “profound” preparation for Sacramental marriage – a call that would seem to place an onus for formation squarely on the Church’s shoulders.

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I favor Cardinal Kasper’s position because I believe it to be just, merciful, and true to the example given us by Jesus. And, I will go a step further.

My hope is that the final product of next year’s Synod will be a document within which the Church publicly repents of her negligence of marriage, opens the doors widely to the faithful scarred by divorce, and details a clear path toward strengthening the Sacramental marriages of her children.

An Anniversary of Sorts : Time Passing… (Part Three)

Today, September 13th, marks the 33rd anniversary of my wife, Marianne, and I beginning to “go steady.” Since that day, twelve thousand and fifty-three days ago, our lives have become wonderfully intertwined.

Drawing heavily on God’s grace, we navigated some turbulent early days while we both learned to value “us” above our individual selves. Now, “us” seems so natural, so right, and so holy.

Throughout these many days and years, hers have been the only eyes to hold me captive, hers the only hands I’ve held in that wonderful, romantic way.

We have shared countless experiences, some joyful and some not so much, but always unfailingly together.

We have exchanged millions of words, yet I never tire of the sound of her voice.

At night, if my foot or leg happens to brush against hers in our bed, I’m drowsily aware of the consolation of her presence… and it helps me fall back to sleep.

Some fruits of our relationship – namely, three wonderful children and six (so far) delightful grandchildren – are obvious to see. Others, however, are known only to those closest to us, and still others to us alone.

What we have forged together is love, of course, but also mutual respect and trust. Each one would be impossible sans the other two.

Every moment of every day is better when shared with the woman I have loved since my youth.

Now, we’re growing old… together. I am so very grateful.

Tick – tick – tick!

“I Lost My Stan”

(The names have been changed in this true story.)

Nearly half a lifetime ago, I spent the better part of a year teaching an evangelization program to a dedicated group of adults in two Catholic parishes. During that time I met some truly wonderful people; and, the memory of that experience – and of those good souls – blesses me to this day.

One couple, Stan and Jill, left a particularly indelible impression. They were both in their early sixties, but their love seemed much younger. They held hands during class, often smiled knowingly at one another, and, perhaps as much as any couple I have ever known, seemed inseparable.

When one spoke of the other, it was frequently in possessive terms – “My Stan” and “My Jill” – and, each seemed entirely comfortable in that identity.

By the time I got to know them, Stan had already suffered a serious heart attack, and there had been lasting damage. Perhaps as a result, both he and Jill seemed genuinely grateful for every moment together. Their faith, like their love, was pure.

When the program ended, I lost touch with most of the participants, including Stan and Jill; but, I remembered…

A few years back, I was in the area and decided to attend Mass at one of the churches where I had taught long before. As I took my seat, I looked around wondering if I would recognize anyone. There, in a pew several rows in front of me, I saw Jill seated with another elderly woman. Stan was notably missing.

When Mass ended, I exited the pew and walked toward her. As I approached, I could see that Jill’s memory was jarred, but there was a slightly puzzled look on her face.

“I’m Steve, Jill. Steve Dalton… from the evangelization program way back when.”

“Oh, Steve,” she said, reaching to hug me. “It’s so wonderful to see you again.”

Her face, like my own, was considerably older. Her smile, however, was every bit as radiant.

We briefly exchanged pleasantries, but then sadness rushed in.

“I lost my Stan eight years ago.”

Though anticipating such news, her words nonetheless stung me. I listened… and then attempted to offer some hope; but, I knew in my heart that the gesture would fall woefully short.

Stan and Jill are one. Death cannot overcome that God-ordained, eternal reality. For a season though, Jill must live with an absence that defies complete consolation. Such is the risk/cost of true love.

“My Marianne” and I have now reached the age of knowing our mortality. With the help of heroic couples like Stan and Jill, we too are coming to terms with the cost of truly becoming one. In fact, we sometimes speak of the inevitable. Marianne has even said to me, “I hope that you go first,” wishing to spare me the pain of her absence.

Our children recognize the wisdom in Marianne’s hope. My youngest son, Matt, once said to me, “Dad, if Mom dies before you, you’ll probably die too within a week.” He may be right.

True love is life’s greatest investment! But, like every investment, risk is involved…