June 17 is my parents’ 58th wedding anniversary. Since I’ve been around for all but 10 of those years, I consider myself somewhat of an expert on their marriage. So first, I’d like to say: Congratulations, Mom and Dad! And I’d like to offer an observation about marriage and how it can affect children.
At the start of every day, many Catholics say a Morning Offering, asking God to be with them through all their “prayers, works, joys, and sufferings.” When I was a young child saying these prayers, I remember thinking that this was a bold prediction about the day ahead. It also seemed contradictory: joys and sufferings? What’s with that? And yet, as each day would play out, the prayer’s predictions rang true.
As I became older, it dawned on me that it’s not just the single day that will contain prayers, works, joys, and sufferings — but our whole lives. The difference is that each of these components becomes deeper, more ingrained, and more profound. Looking back, that is the story of my parents’ marriage: prayers, works, joys and sufferings.
They suffered, but suffering didn’t stop them. My dad’s service in the Vietnam War didn’t stop them, nor did financial struggles, medical difficulties, health scares, job losses, a leg amputation, company startups, company failures, miscarriages or a house fire. I witnessed those sufferings, but not all of them. Every couple experiences some adversities known only to them and God. What I did appreciate was their perseverance. There were times, as the song goes, they had to “dust themselves off and start all over again.”
And they started again together.
Regarding works and prayers, I’ve never explained to my mom how much it meant to me as a little boy to go to daily Mass with her and have her explain what happened at the moment of Consecration. As one who is often engaged in apologetics, I want to note that my mother was the first apologist I ever knew — and to this day, one of the finest.
I’ve never explained to my dad how proud and privileged I am to push his wheelchair into Sunday Mass alongside my mom. When I was little, my dad helped me into Church; when he is old, I help him.
How can a son ever explain the impact of these things? Offering an explanation would imply a full understanding of impact, but their works and prayers will affect me in ways I’ll never fully grasp in this life.
As for joys, that has been the constant, although not always in the way that the world understand joy. C.S. Lewis wrote that joy “is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’” For Catholics, joy has an “about to be” anticipatory feature that goes well beyond fleeting, emotional moments. My parents had that joy — even in suffering — and instilled it in me as best they could.
The things I’ve just outlined might seem like self-centered observations about how my parents’ marriage — sacramental togetherness — has affected me. But it’s high time our society started broadly appreciating a healthy marriage’s effect on children. And the corollary is to understand just how devastating divorce can be. Because we simply forgot.
Sometimes when people hear about a marriage breaking up, they say things like, “Well, at least their kids are grown.” As if their parents divorcing will no longer affect the children.
How much does it mean to me that my parents are still together? The world. It not only means the world, but in so many ways, it constitutes the world — my world. Today — when societal and ecclesiastical chaos combine to stress-test what Russell Kirk called the “permanent things” — what would rattle me? Let me assure you: it would not be a priest leaving the Church. It would not be my political party betraying its foundational beliefs. If I had to list the things in life that would really be earth-shattering, my parents separating would appear near the top of my list.
And I’m 48 years old.
That’s “grown,” certainly, but also adult enough to realize something pretty clearly — something that my parents taught me that has shaped my own marriage. That something is this: for any marriage that is blessed with children, marriage isn’t only about two people. It’s about a family. And when a family gets divorced, few things are as rattling. Our refusal to recognize that central fact has devastated the church, contributed to a crisis in the priesthood, and caused ripples and tears throughout society. Whatever crises the Church might be experiencing, nothing will improve until we realize the value of marriage, how it affects children, and move Heaven and Earth to protect this precious sacrament.