Lasting Faithfulness


I think this synod is making me think too much about marriage and the family! But I’ve wanted to write this stuff for a while and the synod has given me a  context for my rambling thoughts about this subject. It’s also been a good kick to get me restarted on the blog!

Father Michael once wrote me an email saying that he’d love to talk to me about marriage sometime. Well, we had talked about it in our appointments…several times. I’d been surprised by what he said and even more by what he didn’t say. I think, from his lack of response to many of my statements, that I surprised him with my being somewhat conservative. At that point, he definitely wanted to avoid any disagreements with me. One thing that stood out for me from those talks was Father M’s stating “Well, you know they’re all living together”. Of course that was old news . But Father talked about how some of the engaged were grandchildren of ‘long-time’ parishioners, or devout parents, and talked about not wanting to their hurt the relative’s feelings, etc.In other words Father treated them with care  and courtesy, no matter what their living arrangement. I asked “Do you say anything about cohabiting to them? I know they are with you to do the ‘right thing’, but do you say anything ?”  Father Michael said ” Because they have already ‘shared intimacy’, I tell them that after they are married, God will now bless what they have.” I looked at him and said “That’s it?”  And he nodded.

I’m not stupid. I know that scolding is not the way to go and that these engaged people are aware of their actions. But I have to say, even now, that I was so disappointed in what Father M said.It really kind of shut me up and our appointment ended. I was disturbed by our talk and afterward kept thinking about it. A few days later I sent Father an email. Here’s part of it:

“Off and on I have been thinking about our talk the other day. Remembering what you said about engaged couples, almost all living together , coming to you to prepare for marriage made me kind of sad.I know no one wants to alienate them, since they are at last doing “what they should do”. I’m sure that neither you, nor their parents, nor anyone involved with them wants to rock the boat by saying something to make them feel uncomfortable or chastised in any way. But what struck me was how saying “God will now bless what you are already doing” or ” already have” (I’m sure I’m misquoting you crudely, sorry) though absolutely true, seems so wanting.

I guess I think of the situation as a parent would, hoping that somehow all I hoped I’d taught my child and all the traditions and beliefs I’d tried to convey in rearing them Catholic would still be supported by the church. Almost like another type of seamless garment? Kind of like the trust you have in your spouse that he/she will project the same values to your child that you yourself do. It just seems to me that there should be reminders of these things even if the particular couple doesn’t reflect the ideal. Something should be said. Of course it should never be done in a nasty way and I don’t know how I would even attempt it. Easier said than done, for sure. But I feel like our traditional beliefs should still be held up as worthwhile and as what is really pleasing to God. And then, I think it seems in reality all we are offended about is premarital sex. But sex can be such a profound experience of God; it shouldn’t ever be minimized or overlooked. Glad YOU  are the priest , Father Michael. I’d be freaking out.”

Father Michael’s email response was “You wouldn’t believe some of the things the engaged tell me”. I  didn’t answer him, but thought ‘Oh yes I would’. He never elaborated or discussed this further with me. I have an added understanding now since Father’s cancer fight.I learned that he really abhorred and feared criticism – and I’m sure he saw criticism in my email. So he ignored it. I do wish he would have been willing to discuss it.

  Father Michael often mentioned how he helped people with their annulments. He always had paperwork to do for them. Later in the two years I knew him, he would mention going out to a celebratory dinner with couples who had been waiting for an annulment to marry. It was very clear that he felt people should explore the annulment process -if they were divorced or separated. I think it was a great joy for him to deliver the news that the annulment had been granted. I remember that in the later months of his illness he always made the time to meet with these people. He admired their courage and their desire to make things right with the Church-and their love for each other.

Father Michael  had difficulty in seeing the commitment of engaged couples. He also said that many people really just wanted the church building for their wedding, but not the Church, not the sacrament. He had a hard time officiating at most marriages for this reason. He often spoke in wonder of the sacrifice and evident love shown by older couples, particularly if one partner was ill and the other was a caretaker. He would always say he was awed by this. Father Michael felt that most of the couples he saw had no clue as to what ‘for better or worse, in sickness or in health’ might mean for them down the line.

On the other hand, I recall Father Michael talking about the stories of how some couples met and how God’s hand was so evident. He was very excited one time about a couple who both had children from previous marriages-and they had found each other. He said they had a wonderful story—and Father Michael loved those stories.  He said “so they will be a blended family”. I said ” Oh like that old movie ‘Yours, Mine and Ours’.” Father Michael  laughed and said “No ‘Ours’ yet!”  He paused and thought a second and then said “well ….MAYBE!”

I did get a different perspective on Father M’s beliefs on marriage from other experiences and things he’d say. Once we were on Ashland Avenue by St Pius, waiting to cross. Father was well into his cancer treatment and was very weak. I was about to drive him to St Vincent’s. We were talking about Thomas Peters’ recovery (see ‘The Wonderment of God’).  I mentioned that there was still so much online vitriol toward Thomas regarding his upholding the church’s teachings on marriage. Father Michael said “You mean the traditional church teaching on marriage?” I said “Yes, of course”.  Father Michael got visibly agitated and said “Hey, he has it easy. Anyone who upholds the established position has it much easier than those who question it.”  The light changed and Father rushed ahead into the street. I caught up with him. I said I disagreed– that it really depended on the circumstances and conditions— that ALL  sides would find it difficult in some circumstances. He didn’t answer me. I decided that I would not pursue it as I seldom had an uninterrupted time with Father. I didn’t want to waste the nice ride in the car on an argument .

Once, shortly after Pope Francis was elected, Father Michael called me. Unusual for us, we had a real conversation as opposed to the typical talk about chemo, the weather and the lottery. Father was agog at the “Who am I to judge?” Francis quote.  I remember being comfortable enough to disagree and expound on different situations where I felt ‘who am I to judge’ was not applicable. I had no sense that I was bothering Father Michael. I remember talking about some people expecting this would pave the way to same-sex marriage. At that point Father interrupted me and said forcefully ” I know something has to change……I’ve known too many people who suffer”. I started to respond,then he said “Oh, I’m here at the clinic, talk to you later”.  That was kind of a pattern: Father would say something controversial, then cut off the conversation… least with me.

So my gut tells me that, despite Father Michael’s reverent and awe-filled view of the sacrament of Matrimony, he might have been open to other non-traditional views of it. I have so many moving impressions of how a truly holy priest perceived and admired the vocation of marriage.Yet I have additional memories of things that he said hinting at a very liberal and non-traditional perspective, at odds with church teaching.  What was the truth ?  I’ll always wonder.

All this from that darn synod !