Category Archives: Marriage and Family Life

Marriage, RCIA, Evangelisation

Marriage___Illustration_by_Sabtastic

There can seem to be a harsh, difficult-to-bridge chasm, sometimes, between the beautiful standard of life in Christ, and the messiness of the lived reality of many (well, if we’re honest, every single one of us). When I used to coordinate RCIA in my old parish, I realised why young adult ministry was SO vitally important: how important it is to evangelise young adults before they get involved in messy marriages that could cause them massive problems if they convert later down the line…

People arrive at RCIA with countless different attitudes. They often approach the Church tentatively, wondering if there is something here for them, some new life, new relationship that could give their life meaning. Their enthusiasm may increase during the precatechumenate. Perhaps they arrive already enthusiastic, happy to be part of a strong community, and wanting to understand what’s at the root of all this.

But, then, BAM! Your heart sinks as you look on their form and see that either they or their partner has ticked the, ‘This is not my first marriage’ box. What an innocent-looking box. Little do most people know what it means when they tick it.

The first thing is – at least there’s a form with this particular box on it. We had an extremely thorough form that people completed after a couple of enquiry (precatechumenate) sessions. I’ve heard of some cases where these questions are not even asked. It’s vital we uncover any problems early on (no – not when they’re being signed up for the Rite of Election).

I think it’s good practice that someone should not leave the precatechumenate if they are in an ‘irregular marriage’ which, as someone commented to me recently, is often a euphemism for no marriage at all. After all, if they are unable to be received into the communion of the Church because of their marital status, we are deceiving them by allowing them to become a catechumen (through the Rite of Acceptance) or a candidate (through the Rite of Welcoming).

As I write this, it all seems unbearably hard, doesn’t it? Someone whose faith is only just beginning to awaken or grow, suddenly has an enormous obstacle in their path, an obstacle that their faith is probably not strong enough yet to take on. It seems much, much easier, doesn’t it, just to let them continue, not mention anything, and hope that something will happen to make it go away. Which of course it won’t.

I had some experiences of this during the time I coordinated RCIA. Wonderful people who had either been married before, or whose partners had been. I can tell you, that when a situation seems impossible and desperate – when it seems a person cannot enter the Church because of their marital situation even though they dearly desire to – this is when the Holy Spirit can amaze us and work miracles, slowly, patiently, in hearts. It can, and often does, take years. But with grace, love, patience, sacrifice, often situations can be turned around. This seems light-years away when we first broach the issue with someone. It can feel like their whole world has just smashed into an ‘other-worldly’ reality. They have just dipped their toes into it, and yet already it is presenting them with granite-tough obstacles.

It is massively difficult, maybe one of the most difficult pastoral problems you can face in a parish. In the face of it, only grace and prayer can break through. Faith that the enquirer will not have yet, so we need to provide that for them, through friendship and persistence in keeping in touch when they drop off for a time.

There is so much to discuss on this topic – and it’s particularly relevant given the Extraordinary Synod later this year. Ultimately, the messiness of the world we live in requires of us immensely strong faith. It seems to me, we need continually to face up to two things – the chaotic messiness of the world, and the incomparable beauty of life offered in Christ – and realise that a lot of faith, prayer, work and sacrifice needs to take place in order to cross from one into the other.


Warming Hearts in the Family of the Church

family love

Pope Francis spoke recently on priestly formation. This is off-topic for this blog, but a lot of what he said has meaning for all of us in the Church. Pope Francis painted a picture of a seminary that has become a cold, loveless place. Instead, the Holy Father said, the task should be to “form hearts”. 

Hearts cannot be formed without love, without warmth, without family spirit. How important this is for the whole Church. At times, the Church – our parishes – can be cold places. Any place that is merely a service-provider will inevitably be cold. Only when a church is a place where people want to be, not to get something, but to be themselves and with others, will the heart of the parish be love, a place that can start “forming hearts”.

This Christmas, I spent quite a long time at home with my family. A lot of us were there for several days together, and it was an extremely joyful time. Long hours were spent in front of the fire, not doing very much, simply being together. There was lots of laughter, jokes about each of our own weirdnesses, funny games, endless chatting and sharing our thoughts, and love and forgiveness. I found myself asking, “Why isn’t the Church more like this?” It seems obvious – the Church is the “gathering together” of everyone into the Father’s house. It should be the place, par excellence, where we want to hang out, rejuvenate ourselves, before going back out into the mission. It should be the place where we joyfully spend time together, not out of duty, but because we love and energise each other. This seems to be a reality within new movements (e.g. Youth 2000, Communion & Liberation, Neo-Catechumenal Way) and in good university chaplaincies (I feel blessed that my own faith was nourished in a brilliant chaplaincy). Our joyful family life (where we are blessed to experience this) should be a reflection of the warmth and joy in the heart of the communion of the Church. But often this community in the Church is a rare exception rather than the rule.

Then I asked myself, “How can the Church be more like this?” Clearly, it is down to each of us. Pope Francis has been asking us endlessly to “warm hearts”, and there are a million ways we can each do this, according to our own charisms. One thing we can do is encourage “family spirit” especially among our peers in our parish communities. Make time to meet someone for a coffee if they are going through a hard time. Be interested in people’s lives, pray for their worries, go out of our way to tend to their concerns.

Above all, we need to care for our priests. I am sure crisis in the priesthood is down to loneliness. How can it be good if one of our “Fathers” spends most of his days alone? Who can exist without love, let alone give of themselves? (Blessed John Paul II said in Redemptor Hominis, 10, “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”) Priests especially should be surrounded by love, drawn into our families, have a special place in our daily prayers. 

The renewal of the Church will come from “raising the spiritual temperature” of our parishes with acts of love. As we know, St John the Apostle repeated often, “Little children, love one another.”

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.” (1 Jn 4:7-11)


Are we in crisis?

I was interested to read one of the bishop’s homilies at the excellent Joshua Camp – the Catholic Church’s frontline evangelisation initiative during the Olympics. Here is some of what he said:

“it is easy to think that we live in a time of crisis. I don’t think it is true. I don’t think we are that privileged or special to live in a time of crisis, for the Church has been in crisis since the cock crowed the first time. But our society has lost its way.”

For the full homily, click here.

In other corners of the Church, you hear nothing but crisis-talk. At a recent conference, we listed all the challenges afflicting the Church as we face out into the world today.

This intrigues me. Either the time we currently live in is a crisis for humanity, or it is not.

In favour of “crisis”, we could cite the distorted anthropology exhibited in everything from the gay marriage debate to the catastrophic misunderstanding of the human body, epitomised by the skimpily-clad Jessie J at the Closing Ceremony. We could cite the attacks on the dignity of the human person, from abuse of the elderly in care homes to the (let’s be realistic) holocaust that is abortion. We could cite the social disintegration in our society, from the pressure on teenagers living in certain postcodes to join gangs, to the shocking acts of violence in the riots last summer. With all respect, I don’t think it is exactly a “privilege” to live in the midst of all this.

At the same time, let’s not be too hasty. Let’s not forget the many details we see of the beautiful and great in our society. This has been beamed into our lives over the last few weeks in the Olympics. We have seen an exquisitely beautiful vision of the human person achieving excellence by being pushed to the limits. We have seen the human body, created by God, giving him glory in achieving feats we don’t imagine are possible. We have seen a heart-warming spirit of charity and self-sacrifice in the volunteers and commuters patiently putting up with the chaos.

While I don’t think we should play down the extreme, horrifying attacks on goodness, truth, and beauty in our society, neither should we vilify secular society, keeping within the safe walls of our cosy little Church.

For example, we may speak of the horrors of medical care related to life issues, but coming from a family of nurses, I know that there is much that is taught and practised in hospitals, which upholds the dignity, truth and beauty of the human person. Whatever is good and true “belongs” to the Church in a sense. This is what St Irenaeus meant when he talked about seeing the “seeds of the Word” in the world.

I just want to encourage all Catholics that we need to be right at home in the world 🙂 Especially as lay people, there is a “secular character” to our vocation which means finding God in every aspect of our lives and of the world, not just at Mass or on a retreat.

Maybe we are in crisis. I agree that many disturbing aspects of our society suggest this. But, especially if this is true, Christians need to be right in the world, sanctifying it. Not accusing it, moaning about it, writing it off… But loving the world. Allowing the Holy Spirit to transform it from within, through us.


Contraception, Cohabitation, and the Catechumenate

OK, as promised, here’s a post on tackling these issues in the Catechumenate. January to Easter is the time when we turn towards the deepest changes catechumens need to make in their lives, after they have received much grace, teaching, and experience of community.

I said that these two issues were the ones we are challenged with the most in our Catechumenate, and I must say, it is far easier to write about them then actually deal with them. So, here goes…

Firstly, these are emotionally-charged issues. People feel threatened at a very deep level because the Church’s teaching in this area touches the most intimate spheres of their life. We have to recognise this and not blunder in, all gung ho, like a bull in a china shop. You can argue with them about Humanae Vitae till the cows come home, but this is not going to help them change their life. Rather, this is why I believe the Catechumenate (excluding the earlier Precatechumenate) should last at least a year. Because over that time, the catechists and sponsors have had time to build relationships with the catechumens – you know them as friends, they have shared some joyful times with you, they trust you because they know you care about them and want the best for them. They have experienced the lengths you have gone to to answer their questions, introduce them to the parish, help them in other areas of their life.

The second point I would make is that, while we mustn’t charge in, we can’t skirt around the issues either, avoiding them until the ‘allotted session’. Right from the outset, catechumens will be aware that contraception is a particular area where their lives are currently at variance with the Church. So, if it is a question that comes up in the Precatechumenate, answer it fully and clearly. Don’t beat around the bush. At the same time, acknowledge that the Catechumenate is long, and it has built into it the opportunities to understand and learn in more depth how they can realistically put this into practice in their lives. Emphasise the initiative of God throughout – he is leading them on this journey, he gives everything that is needed at the right times. Assure them that everything the Church asks of us leads us to a freer, more fulfilled life, and that God never demands anything of us for which we are not ready.

Sponsors are 100% key in this area. One woman was aware throughout her Precatechumenate and Catechumenate that birth control was an area she was terrified of changing in her life; her sponsor cottoned onto this early on and provided her with wonderful emotional and practical support throughout. It is also vital that the catechesis given is top quality. Every year, I invite an excellent catechist to teach this session because of the angle from which she teaches it. Her teaching is utterly rooted in her own lived experience of the vocation to marriage, and the joy as well as sacrifice of being open to children. She speaks of the benefits of using natural methods for your marriage (it keeps open conversation, and it means the burden isn’t all on one person – e.g. “you forgot to take your pill!”) Then she speaks about the “grave reasons” a couple may have for not having sex in the fertile period. Throughout, she speaks completely candidly about her own marriage, extremely realistically about the difficulties of marriage, and with homespun, practical wisdom about how this fits into your family’s lifestyle.

It is a perfect example of how conforming our lives to Christ’s teaching does not limit our freedom or obscure our individuality (see previous post).

Friendship needs to permeate the Catechumenate to help effect conversion

So, in summary, it’s good to present the Church’s teaching on openness to life within the context of the beauty of Catholic marriage and family life (not by banging people over the head with Humanae Vitae), and it is vital that the person teaching is a living, joyful witness to this life. (An exhausted, bedraggled Catholic mother who has given up on her hair and make-up is probably a living saint, but is unlikely to fill catechumens with joy at the prospect of their new life…)

I am happy to say that, all the candidates and catechumens this year have decided to begin learning natural family planning methods. It is therefore vital that we also provide them with the opportunities to receive NFP classes, that we support them individually in the conversations they have with their spouse, that we pray with them and for them as they take the courageous step of making this lifestyle change.

The other challenging moral question is cohabitation. People are less aware about this than contraception because it is 100% the norm for young couples to move in with each other as soon as it starts getting serious. I mean, why not? It makes perfect economic sense. They can ‘try each other out’ before committing to anything more definite. If you have young, unmarried people in your Catechumenate, it is likely that this is a subject you will have to broach before long. Once again, the sponsor is paramount: a young woman in our Catechumenate who was living with her boyfriend was matched with a young, twentysomething sponsor who was newly married. It is important that we give catechumens and candidates living witnesses, showing them what is possible, and what will bring them fullness of life.

There’s one story I will share with you from this particular genre of Catechumenate obstacles… There was a wonderful catechumen who had had a big conversion and was beginning to discover the joy of life in Christ: she was getting up early to pray before work, she was devouring every Catholic book she could find, she was eagerly evangelising her friends. When we went on retreat, she experienced another beautiful experience of God’s love. But she lived with her boyfriend, was completely oblivious to the fact this may not be a wise idea, and eventually, I had her over to my house for lunch to broach this subject once and for all. We had a lovely lunch, very long conversation, we prayed together, we discussed ways forward, we decided to pray a novena for the next nine days. What a grace that this young woman was open to what God was asking of her. How amazing that the grace of our joint novena began to bear fruit in her life, and she is due to be baptised at Easter.

I admit it, being British we’d run a mile before ‘intruding’ into other people’s lives. But this is the importance of friendship. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have had that conversation with someone I barely knew, or who I didn’t consider a friend. And what’s more, as catechists and sponsors, this is truly a part of our call, what God is asking of us – to care so much for the people he has entrusted to us, that we do all we can to ensure they receive the fullness of life. It does cost us. It is a difficult apostolate. But it is one way we can lay down our lives for our friends.


Marriage as a path to holiness

I have already written about this from different angles. In this post, I want to offer a married couple as a model for holiness. Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St Therese, are often referred to, and when I was researching for the recent Faith Matters talk, I came across this inspiring, French-Canadian couple (not yet beatified) who were in the diplomatic service: Georges and Pauline Vanier.

This couple shows us that holiness means fulfilling the duties of your state in life and your profession to the best of your ability. Georges Vanier went into the diplomatic service after the First World War in which he had served. During the War, he had had his right leg amputated and suffered pain from the wound for the rest of his life. When he was invited to become the Governor-General of Canada, he accepted this appointment despite his constant pain. One friend commented: “Good heavens, Vanier, you’ve already got one foot in the grave,” to which Georges replied, “I know, but it’s been there 41 years.” He said, “If God wants me to do this job, he will give me the strength.” This sense of service marked the Vaniers’ public and private lives. Recognising the importance of family life and discovering great joy in it themselves, they established the Vanier Institute for the Family, to give aid to families in need.
 
The Vaniers lived a life of entertaining prime ministers and dining with royalty and when, in the 30s, they lost much of their wealth, they had to continue to keep up appearances within all of these duties. Pauline Vanier stated that the hardship of these years had in fact been the best thing that happened to the children. She suffered from her own personal problems, tending to be highly strung and suffering from depression. Yet, without being overly pious, the couple quietly devoted time each day to prayer, meditation and spiritual reading. In relation to prayer Georges told his daughter: “We can all find time to do what we want.”
 
In the 50s, most of the Vanier children had grown up and left home – one became a doctor, one became a Cistercian monk, and one became a painter. Their fourth son, Jean, who had studied philosophy in Paris, later found his own vocation – he bought a house near Paris and took two men with mental disabilities to live with him – this was the beginning of the L’Arche community, where Pauline Vanier herself would go to live towards the end of her life.
 
There is nothing remarkable in the Vaniers’ life, which I think should be encouraging for us. As husband and wife, they were faithful in carrying out their duties both within their family and professional life. In this faithfulness, we can see what the kingly aspect of our baptismal vocation looks like – to govern and bring order within our lives and the field in which we work. Lumen Gentium explains this by saying, “it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (LG 31).
 
Finally, it could be said of the Vaniers that they grew in holiness together. Georges experienced a spiritual awakening in 1938, after which he resolved to accompany Pauline to Mass each day and did so until his last days. Their friends said of them, “We always think of them together”. It is true of all of us – whether married or single – that we grow in God’s life with others. In relationship with others we are in the image of God because that is who God is – an eternal relationship of three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a life of endless joy we are invited to share.


The Holiness of God in the Lives of His Saints

Yesterday evening I gave a short talk as part of the Faith Matters series, a catechetical series put on in the Westminster Diocese which this month is entitled “Last Things First”. It was great to be at this event with a wonderful group of people, on the feast of All Saints. Fr Stephen Wang gave some theological reflections on the communion of saints, and I followed up with some real-life examples of saints of the 20th Century. I chose three examples, all lay saints of the Church, and linked each example to our lay baptismal vocation to share in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and kingly role. Here is the first saint I spoke about:

Saints are great gifts to us in our life of faith – and not just because they pray for us. When God took on human flesh he revealed to us who he is. How is this related to the saints? When saints allow God to fill their life with his life, they are giving him, so to speak, “another humanity”, another little “incarnation”, so that in their own humanity, people may glimpse God. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (a French Carmelite nun of the late 19th Century) prayed to the Holy Spirit to “create in [her] soul a kind of incarnation of the Word: that [she] may be another humanity for Him in which He can renew His whole Mystery.” It is God’s holiness that is radiant in them – so through their character, and the events of their life, we catch a glimpse of him.
 
So that is the first point. Saints give their humanity to God, and they make him visible. We know well that, although we might know our faith very thoroughly – and that is good, we need to – we only really know it – deeply and tangibly – in our experience. Particularly in our own experience, but also in the experience of others: this is where truths that we know come alive. This is another way of saying the same thing: in the lives of the saints, in the experience of others, we glimpse the deep realities of our faith in a way that makes them alive and real to us.
 
The numerous saints of the 20th Century are vivid images to us of God’s holiness – perhaps more so than earlier saints – because their world seems closer to ours: we have photographs and even videos of them which make them more real to us. What I want to do is use three examples of 20th Century saints – two Italians and one French-Canadian married couple – to show what holiness means, in concrete ways. These points are not even necessarily the most important points about holiness, but they are points that shine vividly in the three examples. I have also chosen only lay saints – I think it’s important that, as lay people, we have strong examples of what holiness looks like in a lay life, and indeed, that it is possible. The overarching theme in all three examples is that Christ’s holiness shines through a person’s personality: his holiness does not obscure or obliterate that person’s character, but rather makes it bloom, makes them fully alive.
 
My first example is a married woman from Milan, a wife, mother and doctor: St Gianna Beretta Molla. In St Gianna’s life, we see that holiness means loving those who are given to us to love. These can sometimes be the hardest people to love! In Gianna’s life, in her twenties, this initially meant those she served in her professional life as a doctor. We know that she gave free medical treatment to the poor, often giving them money as well as free examinations and medicine, and helping those who could not continue with their work because of their health to find new jobs.
 
She married at 33 and as a wife and mother Gianna devoted herself to her husband and her children: for her, this was taken to the extreme when, at the end of her life, she loved her child even above her own life. She knew that the continuation of her fourth pregnancy meant that her own life was in danger, and on the way to the hospital, she made clear to her husband: “if they should ask you which of the two lives they should save, do not hesitate…first, the life of the child”. Throughout her pregnancy she had been aware of this risk, suffering without complaint but constantly speaking with God in prayer. She suffered seven agonising days after her daughter’s birth, telling her husband, “it is not just that we should appear before the Lord without much suffering”.
 
What can we learn from this? Because we are baptised, we share in Christ’s role as priest, prophet and king. And when we offer sacrifice in our lives, we are exercising our priestly role. When we do our work well and offer it to God the Father, when we love and sacrifice for those in our lives, when we offer our sufferings to the Father, we are acting as priests – sanctifying and consecrating the world to God. For Gianna, this offering became the offering of her life itself, and it is clear that in this, she sanctified the world around her. After her death, countless people came to see her, all of them aware of the sacrifice she had made, and many going to Confession before they entered her room.

The two other examples will be posted soon!


God’s Plan for Holiness through Marriage

Wow – today I am in amazement of Catholic families, and parents who authentically live marriage and family life as a path to holiness.

I talked with a wonderful young Catholic mother a few days ago. She is a sponsor for one of the women who is in the RCIA process. I think that today, one of the hardest things about becoming Catholic, must be changing your mentality and lifestyle in the area of family planning. This is particularly hard given that there are plenty of Catholics out there who do not live this faithfully, which is a damaging counter-sign to those who are being initiated into the full life of the Church.

Thank God for the wonderful, faithful Catholic couples in our parish. We have one lady who gives a session each year to the catechumenate on how natural family planning is a way of holiness within marriage. Sometimes it is a Cross to bear, it undoubtedly involves much sacrifice, that, as an unmarried person I cannot fully comprehend. But it is powerful when a woman speaks about the truth of this Church teaching – not simply because it says it in the Catechism – but from her and her husband’s experience of living it, year after year. From the standpoint of experience, and perhaps also of struggle and suffering as well as joy, there is more chance that the candidates will hear this as something authentic and true.

It’s one thing to know this teaching as true, and another thing to put it into practice in your life, especially if your spouse is not hot on it. This is why the encouragement, honesty and witness of the sponsor is paramount. Hence the gratitude I felt when I chatted to one of our sponsors who is giving just this: prayer, encouragement, support, advice. I hope that a year of prayer, grace received in the liturgy, teaching, witness from others, and love from within the community will be enough for the people in initiation to put out into the deep and learn to trust God in this area of their life – that his plans for them are not plans of disaster, but for hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).