When I first became a pastor, a neighboring parish to mine was being closed. Among those who found their way to my parish was an older couple named Neil and Mary Helen. Although they found it difficult to see the parish that they had dearly loved closed, they made the best of it, found a pew at St. Mary's Church, and became a fixture at our Saturday 4pm Mass. Over the years, I've discovered that I describe people in terms of where they sit at Mass. Neil and Mary Helen? Halfway up, middle section, St. Joseph's side.
Last weekend, I attended a party that celebrated the 70th anniversary of Neil and Mary Helen. It was a beautiful celebration where I ate with great friends and had the privilege of helping Neil and Mary Helen renew their marital promises. Married in 1945, Neil and Mary Helen have lived and seen a lot together. The have lived to see their children's children's children. They have known the joys of new life and the sorrows of burying some of their own children.
Neil and Mary Helen's family turned their parent's anniversary into a celebration of marriage itself. All of the guests were asked--if they were married--to send a photo of their wedding day. They compiled these photos into a book beginning with Neil and Mary Helen's photo and going from 70 years of marriage to the most recent weddings. Each couple was asked to write a little blurb next to their photo of what they think is necessary to live a good marriage. It was a beautiful tribute to marriage. We need to see good examples in our life. We need to see good Christians, good priests, good religious, and good married couples. The good example of others spurs us on.
On the day Neil and Mary Helen were married, the priest probably read to them a beautiful exhortation on marriage. I shared an excerpt of it before they renewed their vows 70 years later. I did so because standing in front of us were a man and a woman who have lived those vows for 70 years. When they first uttered them, everything was hidden from their eyes. But they said them. Now 70 years later, they can look back and see the road that they have travelled together. When I was driving home from their anniversary celebration, I thought to myself, "I want to be as faithful to my priesthood as they are to their marriage." I want to look back decades from now and see how the promises made on my ordination day--even though the future joys and sufferings were hidden from my eyes--were the beginning of something good and true and beautiful. I hope that my priestly life helps my married friends to live their vocation better. I know that the example of Neil and Mary Helen help me to live my priestly vocation better.
I include that exhortation here. I highly recommend it--especially to those who are married. To all of us who have made promises before God, let us be encouraged to hold fast. When we see the example of those who have lived their promises, we know it was all worth it.
Exhortation Before Marriage
My dear friends: You are about to enter upon a union which is most sacred and most serious. It is most sacred, because established by God himself. By it, he gave to man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way he sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under his fatherly care.
Because God himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self. But Christ our Lord added to the holiness of marriage an even deeper meaning and a higher beauty. He referred to the love of marriage to describe his own love for his Church, that is, for the people of God whom he redeemed by his own blood. And so he gave to Christians a new vision of what married life ought to be, a life of self-sacrificing love like his own. It is for this reason that his apostle, St. Paul, clearly states that marriage is now and for all time to be considered a great mystery, intimately bound up with the supernatural union of Christ and the Church, which union is also to be its pattern.
This union, then, is most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate, that it will profoundly influence your whole future. That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own. And so not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.
Truly, then, these words are most serious. It is a beautiful tribute to your undoubted faith in each other, that recognizing their full import, you are, nevertheless, so willing and ready to pronounce them. And because these words involve such solemn obligations, it is most fitting that you rest the security of your wedded life upon the great principle of self-sacrifice. And so you begin your married life by the voluntary and complete surrender of your individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wider life which you are to have in common.
Henceforth you will belong entirely to each other; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affections. And whatever sacrifices you may hereafter be required to make to preserve this mutual life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete. God so loved the world that he gave, his only-begotten Son, and the Son so loved us that he gave himself for our salvation. "Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on. And if true love and the unselfish spirit of perfect sacrifice guide your every action, you can expect the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears. The rest is in the hands of God.
Nor will God be wanting to your needs; he will pledge you the life-long support of his graces in the Holy Sacrament, which you are now going to receive.