Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2018
Fr. Phillip Forlano, St. Stanislaus Parish
From Monday to Thursday of this past week, I attended the Spring Workshop for Priests. Usually these workshops, as part of our ongoing formation as priests, give us updates on programs and policies in the Archdiocese and practical suggestions on how to deal with pastoral issues we face on a daily basis. This year’s workshop was on the Sacrament of Marriage, but this workshop was different. There was no new program that we were being asked to implement. There was no new translation or update on the Rite of Marriage that we were told we needed to use by a certain date. Rather, we were being introduced to a new initiative of Archbishop Chaput that is a follow-up to the World Meeting of Families. It is called, “Remain in my Love.” The title comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 9 – the verse that follows today’s Gospel passage. But this same theme or exhortation of Jesus to “remain in me” echoes throughout the readings today. What we are being asked to do is reevaluate our approach to marriage and family life within the context of the parish experience to make sure not only that we are using good catechetical materials but that our engagement with married couples and those preparing for marriage is rooted in a personal encounter with an evangelical and relational approach.
We should look at marriage preparation in a similar way that we look at someone who enters the RCIA – who is interested in becoming Catholic. It should be less about preparing for the reception of the sacrament – a one-day event, and more about accompanying the couple on a journey of faith to prepare them for marriage as an integration into the life of the Church, for only in union with the life of the church will a couple have the support to live a faithful and fruitful and happy marriage. We hear Jesus say in today’s Gospel, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” The couple can get all the right teaching at the Pre-Cana, but unless they have the lived experience of encountering couples joyfully living out the church’s teaching, the teaching will remain abstract and disconnected from daily life. Forming relationships with other married couples – sharing life as married couples, allows them to discover the meaning of the sacrament they have received.
Outside of the notice in the bulletin the several weeks prior to the wedding, do we even know that couples are getting married at this parish? Are their marriages celebrated by the parish as a whole? When they come back from their honeymoon, are they welcomed as a newly married couple in the parish? One presenter spoke about how he and his wife, being a newly married couple in their parish, were invited over for dinner by a couple with several children. This more mature couple became mentors for them and an inspiration as they began their married life together. This wasn’t a formal program. They grew in faith and understanding of marriage through friendship with this couple. This process takes time. A weekend Pre-cana or a 4 part catechetical series on marriage, even with great content, is not enough. It takes time and people willing to accompany others over time. This is not just the responsibility of the clergy but of the entire community or congregation. People need to be able to speak about the real challenges of married life – that it is hard – without the stigma or the shame. Are we willing to listen to couples who are struggling? Where can we as a parish become more “family friendly” to encourage or to facilitate married couples to participate more in parish life? If childcare is not provided, surveys tell us, it is very difficult for a couple with young children to participate in parish events or activities as a couple. Where within parish life can married couples build relationships with other married couples to find support in their vocation? And do we feel that we can remain in the church when we have sinned or failed or our marriage is broken in some way? If we are currently in an non-sacramental marriage or other “irregular” situation, do we find in the parish community the encouragement and the welcome needed to return to full communion? We get a good example from Barnabas in the passage from Acts today. “When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing he was a disciple. Then Barnabas took charge of him and brought him to the apostles…” Saul had a pretty bad reputation – a checkered past. He wanted to join the community, but the disciples were reluctant to receive him. Barnabas took him under his wing and brought him to the apostles. I am shocked how often I hear when talking to people who come in to register at the parish or to register for a baptism, that they are in a non-sacramental marriage with no reason not to be married in the church. “I didn’t think I could get married in the church because my fiance was not Catholic.” “We didn’t even ask about the possibility because I was married to someone else before.” They were given bad information and no one brought them to talk to a priest. The church experiences renewal and peace, not only when there is sound teaching, but when there are people like Barnabas to guide and to encourage those who have had a bad prior experience with the Church or difficulties in their past that make them think they are not welcome.
As St. John says, “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” The truth is a person – Jesus Christ – and the truth is communicated through a personal relationship, not simply through having the right words but through a lived experience, through the life of an active and engaged community, filled with the Holy Spirit. I look forward to sharing this initiative with the parish to help those who are married here, baptized here, and come to various celebrations here, to remain here in His love. By remaining connected to parish life, God forms us, we bear fruit and become his disciples. Let’s look to encourage each other to remain connected to the true vine, so Jesus can accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us.