Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Celebrating lives of service, two Sundays in a row

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Last Sunday, Holy Name Cathedral was filled with couples who had come to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their marriage. (See photos on page 6.) Rejoicing with them, it was clear to me how they had been transformed by the grace of the sacrament of matrimony. Reading their own accounts of how they solved problems and faced difficulties together, of what they judged to be the best part of being married (companionship); of how their faith had strengthened their marriages, it was also clear to me what was the source of the joy so evident last Sunday. For 50 years, in good times and in bad, their love for one another was rooted in their encounter with Christ.

On the same day as our archdiocesan celebration here, our Holy Father in Rome witnessed the marriages of 20 couples. (See story on Page 2.) They would certainly benefit from the advice that those celebrating 50 years of marriage here could give them. In their various responses to questions put to them by our Marriage and Family Life ministry, our 50th anniversary couples urged: “Listen carefully to one another; plan for your future; never allow relatives or parents to interfere in your relationship; be tolerant and forgiving; pray hard and stand firmly by each other.” Perhaps a single quote sums it up: “A perfect marriage is just two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other. Daily prayer helps a lot.”

The 20 couples in Rome last Sunday certainly benefited from what Pope Francis himself told them in his homily: “The love of Christ can restore to spouses the joy of journeying together. This is what marriage is all about: man and woman walking together, wherein the husband helps his wife to become ever more a woman, and wherein the woman has the task of helping her husband to become ever more a man. This is the task that you both share…Here we see the reciprocity of differences.”

The church calls marriage a sacrament of service. There are two such sacraments. The other one is Holy Orders. These are sacraments that are received not for the benefit of the one personally receiving the sacrament but for the benefit of another. In the case of matrimony, the “other” is the husband or wife, as the pope explained above. The husband‘s task in life is to help his wife become a saint. The wife’s task in life is to help her husband become a saint. Both serve their children, first of all, by handing on the faith and helping the children become saints. On the way, everyone will become holy; but the first concern, as a new relationship is formed in the sacrament of matrimony, is for the other.

Like Jesus himself, the ordained priest is married to the church. The priest is ordained for the benefit of the church, not for his own benefit. His vocation is to help the people he pastors to encounter Christ and become saints. He is to love the church as Christ loves her, as a husband loves his wife. His joy is in this service. When you ask a priest for his “title,” he will tell you what local church, what diocese or religious order, called him to serve as a priest. He is a priest, for example, of the Archdiocese of Chicago. That is the church that is his spouse, his wife. Without such a title, he is not an ordained priest. Because he is married, he can be what we call him, a father in Christ’s family.

How do you prepare people for a life of service? All the good will in the world, even the experience of falling in love, might not be enough to help one persevere in the lifetime service to which marriage and holy orders call those who receive these sacraments. In the case of matrimony, the assumption has been that being raised by a father and mother in a loving and faith-filled family almost automatically showed one what the sacrifice and joy, what the service born of married love look like. Children learned by watching their parents, and that is often still the case. Still, because intact families are fewer and there are more strains on marital unions now than in years before, the church has been trying to strengthen pre-Cana and other marriage preparation “courses.” The period of engagement has often been lengthened. Many books to help men and women prepare for marriage have been written. There is no uniform way to prepare people for the sacrament of matrimony, but at least we are all aware of the problem and want to help.

Preparing men to serve as ordained priests is more systematic. The time in seminary is like a long engagement. The seminarian spends time studying the church’s history, her doctrines and moral teaching, her prayer life and worship and pastoral methods. At the same time, the church, through the spiritual directors and instructors in the seminary, looks at the candidate to be sure he will be a good “fit.” As in a marriage, it’s not just a question of intelligence or of piety or of skills, necessary though they be; it’s basically a question of the seminary directors being able to say at the end of four to eight years: “He loves Christ and his body, the church.”

This coming Sunday, the annual seminary collection is being taken up. Please give in order to prepare your future pastors to become the kind of priests you can love and be proud of. Congratulations again to those celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and a promise of prayers for those preparing to serve as priests in our seminaries. God bless you.

Editor’s note: Cardinal George references questions asked of the couples by the Family Ministries Office. The couples’ responses are published in the booklet “True Soul Mates: Couples married 50 years share their advice for a successful marriage.” This booklet can be purchased for $15 online or by calling the office at (312) 534-8351.