Since I was appointed as parish priest of St Peter’s and St Mary’s, this year has been the most exceptional in one particular aspect: the combined number of marriages I have conducted – and there’s still one more in the pipeline. Among the many priestly ministries I carry out, weddings are the most joyous of services, when (usually!) happy couples make their mutual love into a lifelong commitment to each other. Although I’ve been conducting marriages for 18 years, I still experience intense stage fright before each one, because I know the wedding day is very special for the couple and I don’t want to spoil it. I want to play a positive part in that milestone day in their lives.
Being in active priestly ministry for that long also has a darker side. Over the years I’ve come across broken families and single parents abandoned by their spouses. I’ve heard many sad stories, loaded with an explosive mixture of anger, betrayal, humiliation, disappointment… the list can go on and on. These stories often sound similar, but at the same time each one is unique because it involves two human lives. This part of my ministry is extremely difficult because – unlike my role in weddings – I’m usually totally helpless. Part of the problem is that people tend to hide their marital difficulties from view, from the outside world, until it’s too late, when the divisions are too deep and too wide to be bridged, and resentments have reached the point of no return.
From my point of view as a priest, this kind of experience is as difficult to cope with as the ministry to the terminally ill: in both these situations there is a strong sense of helplessness. In common with everyone else, I’d like to be able to find a possible solution, to offer a useful piece of advice or to be helpful in practical terms. In reality, quite often the only things I can offer are prayer and my personal presence. Somehow it’s a bit easier to minister to those who are terminally ill, as their ultimate destiny is quite clear and certain, and it is therefore a bit easier to come to terms with the inevitable. A broken marriage is anything but that, so those involved need support even more.
The Church’s stance on marriage as a life-long union between a man and a woman is based on Jesus’ teaching, as we heard in today’s gospel. It added a strong religious component to a very practical arrangement of safeguarding women and children who had no rights in many societies of the past, and in many places nowadays. The Church’s teaching on marriage is to create and to protect a loving environment for upbringing of children. Unfortunately, sometimes such an environment turns into an unloving, toxic, even fatally dangerous one. I’ve never met divorced people who made the decision to separate lightly. Parting is always a painful and traumatic experience, one which sometimes takes years to get over and to rebuild their lives. The last thing these people need is a feeling of rejection and condemnation by the Church. The Synod on Marriage and the Family that kicks off in Rome this Sunday evening is a good opportunity for the Church to re-think its practical attitude and approach to those who have already gone through such a painful experience. I personally hope we in the Church will be more understanding and sympathetic. I believe that the Church’s vision of marriage is good. But I don’t believe that the Church should punish those who have failed to achieve it. As Jesus shows us, love and empathy are much more effective tools at lifting people out of their misery.