Saturday, April 9, 2011

More on marriage and pastoral care

I have had a couple of very insightful comments from two people I admire very much concerning my post on Archbishop Sheehan's recent pastoral letter, Marriage as a sacrament of salvation, a channel of God's grace. One from a brother deacon in Los Angeles, Eric Stoltz, and one by none other than the IC herself, who had the great misfortune of being my theology professor in graduate school. Along with Deacon Vince Tomkovicz, Deacon Eric co-authored the fantastic book, which is our RCIA text, Ascend: The Catholic Faith for a New Generation. I also recommend the IC's book, Dear Communion of Saints: amusingly foolish advice for Christians (as a non-writer myself, I am always happy to give plugs for friends with gifts).

Commenting on Facebook, Deacon Eric, who has a passion for reaching out to those on the margins of the church, expressed his concern about the punitive approach taken in the letter. Indeed, there are six consequences listed for those in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe who are cohabitating without ever being married, those who were previously married and are now re-married without having their previous marriage annulled, or their attempted marriage officially voided by the church, as well as those who are Catholic and only civilly married. In my previous post I listed three of the six specific instructions given by His Excellency in the letter.

As to cohabitation prior to marriage, I think it is always good to point out to couples who are cohabitating, or are thinking about it, that those who live together before marriage have a significantly higher rate of divorce than those who don't. Many mistakenly believe they are setting themselves up for success, when they are doing the opposite. Msgr Francis Mannion, one of my early mentors, summed this up well well when he said "People who live together before marriage tend to keep living together after they are married."

While I am writing about this issue I feel the need to highlight the pastoral failure of the church in providing extensive, thorough, and high quality marriage preparation. As I mentioned in my previous post, if marriage is truly a vocation to which most Christians are called, one akin to being a priest or a professed member of a religious order, then why is the preparation for this state of life often slip-shod or even non-existent? Look at the resources we dedicate to priestly formation, diaconal formation, and lay ecclesial ministry formation, then consider what we put into marriage formation. Now, admittedly, the hope is that those who are formed for pastoral ministry do a lot by way of marriage formation. However, even granting that, my point is still valid.

How do we do in equipping couples to fully live out their vocation, one challenging dimension of which is preparing them to observe what the church teaches with regard to sexuality? I think Bishop Olmsted exhibited a lot of courage and genuine pastoral concern when he began requiring all couples seeking to be married in the Diocese of Phoenix to take a full-blown course on NFP, learning how to do NFP, instead of the one-shot, 3 or 4 hour overview, where couples learn about NFP, which is all most dioceses require. Getting involved with marriage preparation strikes me as a wonderful opportunity for married permanent deacons and their wives, collaborating with other committed married couples in their parishes, to be of great service to the church! In other words, the issues Archbishop Sheehan brings up are a call to action, not to sit in the bleachers and cheer.

Thinking about the need for better marriage preparation prompted me to remember when Holly and I were getting ready to be married: other than Engaged Encounter and the mandatory NFP class, from which we were exempted due to the fact were planning on using NFP and so were working weekly with a certified instructor, all we did was meet with our associate pastor twice. One time was to go over our FOCCUS results, which were scored improperly (before computer scoring), making it useless, and the other was to plan our wedding liturgy. But he thought because we were both committed Catholics we didn't need anything else by way of preparation.

While our associate pastor was a truly a wonderful priest, frankly, I don't think he had much to offer us. So, we did some intensive preparation, including a weekend retreat, in an Evangelical Christian setting. It was a great decision, something which has benefited us as a couple in terms of our need to pray out loud together, read Scripture together, etc. In fact, because our spiritual life together has been on the wane this past year, just last night we started reading together Couples Who Pray: The Most Intimate Act Between a Man and a Woman, which includes the 40 day challenge. You can poo-poo such things all you want, but here's my question- If you're married, how often do you pray with your spouse? Plus, we need something simple, not a discourse on prayer!

The IC wrote in wondering what effect reading the archbishop's letter from the ambo of every church at each Sunday Mass across the diocese had on those who were suddenly and, likely, unexpectedly "called out," as it were. I have to honestly admit that I have no idea. So, while I certainly laud Archbishop Sheehan for tackling head-on an urgent and persistent problem, I also hope his pastors, associate pastors, and deacons have been diligent in their pastoral follow-up with those who are affected by these episcopal directives, actively reaching out to those affected in their parishes, realizing the potential for disaffection and offering them a helping hand, a sympathetic ear, and even a shoulder to cry on. I have absolutely no doubt this is Archbishop Sheehan's intent. While I believe that such a straightforward approach has the potential to do great good, we also have to be careful about lobbing hand grenades and then ducking behind the altar. In my view, if this not taken as a call to pastoral action, it won't amount to much apart from more people leaving, opting to either stop attending church altogether, or moving to where they perceive themselves as more welcome.

Since I am privileged to serve quite a few people who are in irregular marriage situations (I stopped doing marriage prep a several years ago, but in my ministry I still deal with some who are cohabitating) this is something with which I personally have a lot of experience. I can honestly say that I cannot think of any person who has not been most eager to resolve these issues and have their marriage convalidated in the church. The trouble, as far as I can tell, is that nobody has ever reached out and offered to help them do this. In fact, quite a few people thought their situation was irresolvable and were overjoyed to learn it was not.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

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