The Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If you’ve been to any number of Church weddings, you have probably heard today’s first reading, and part of the Gospel proclaimed.  Obviously we usually leave out the part about divorce, but these readings are quite popular for weddings.  The reason, of course, is that the story is about how man and woman were created for each other.  The totality of the readings we have today, though, are challenging.  We do have that piece about divorce there, and it does present a challenge in these days when so many marriages fail.

Jesus’ point here is that the Christian disciple is called to a level of faithfulness that transcends the difficulties of life.  We can’t just throw in the towel and walk away when things are difficult: marriage vows make demands of people – I say that in every wedding homily I give.  In the very same way, ordination promises make demands of priests.  We have to pray for the grace to be faithful in good times and in bad.  But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

That being the case, I want to take this opportunity to make some points and dispel some myths about the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, remarriage, and annulment.  I do this because I know it is the source of pain for so many people, perhaps some people among us today.  It’s important that we all understand these teachings so that we can help one another live faithful lives and avoid making judgments about others which are best left to our Lord.

The first myth is that divorce is a sin that excommunicates a person from the Church and does not allow them to participate in the life of the Church or receive the sacraments.  But divorce is not a sin in and of itself.  It may well, however, be the result of sin, and a consequence of sin.  Whatever led to the divorce, on either or both sides, may in fact have been sinful.  Those who are divorced, however, remain Catholics in good standing and are free to receive the sacraments including the Eucharist, sacramental absolution in the sacrament of Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick.  However, they remain married to their partner in the eyes of the Church and are not free to remarry, unless they receive an annulment.  Those who remarry without an annulment have taken themselves out of communion with the Church and then, and only then, are not free to receive the sacraments.

The second myth is that an annulment is really just “Catholic Divorce.”  Annulment is instead recognition by the Church that a valid marriage, for some reason or another, had never taken place.  The diocesan policy document on annulment defines it in this way: “Although not every marriage is a sacrament, every marriage (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Non-Believer, etc.) is presumed to be a valid marriage.  The good of all concerned (spouses, children, in-laws, society, the Church, etc.) demands this presumption.  In every presumption, the opposite may be true.  If sufficient evidence can be shown that a particular marriage is invalid, the original presumption no longer holds.  Therefore, when it can be shown that a particular marriage is not a true marriage, or not a sacrament, or not consummated, then it is possible for the Tribunal to declare that the parties are free to marry in the Catholic Church.” (Declaration of Nullity Proceedings, Diocese of Joliet , p.3)  The annulment basically states that a valid marriage never happened in the first place, usually because the parties for some reason were not free to marry.  These reasons may include extreme immaturity, a previous and previously undiscovered prior marriage, or entering marriage with no intention of remaining faithful or of having children.  Pope Francis added some other reasons a few years ago, including a fictitious marriage that enabled one of the parties to enter into citizenship, a very brief marriage, stubborn persistence in an extramarital affair, and the procurement of an abortion to avoid procreation.  In addition, Pope Francis somewhat simplified the process of an annulment in order to decrease the amount of time it takes to proceed.

A third myth is that those who are marrying a non-Catholic who had been previously married are automatically free to marry, since the non-Catholic’s marriage did not take place in the Catholic Church.  But as I just said, the Church presumes marriages between non-Catholics to be valid, so their previous marriage would have to be annulled by the Catholic Church before a Catholic is free to marry them.  This is a very often misunderstood principle.

A fourth myth is that the Church always insists that the parties stay together.  Certainly, that is the Church’s preference: today’s readings show that the permanence of the marriage relationship is the intent of God.  However, we all understand that there are circumstances in which that may not be possible.  The Church would never counsel someone to stay together in a relationship that is abusive and puts one of the parties in danger.  That is completely unacceptable. If you are in an abusive relationship, whether the abuse is physical, verbal, or emotional, you need to seek help and safety.  The Church will support you in that decision.  If you find yourself in that kind of relationship, whether you are married or not, I want you to see someone on our staff immediately.

Finally, there are some misconceptions about annulment proceedings that I want to clear up.  First, if you do receive an annulment, that does not mean your children are illegitimate.  The Church sees children as a gift from God, and thus never takes away their status as sons and daughters of God.  Second, people think annulments are too expensive.  They are not.  The cost of an annulment in our diocese is around $700, not the tens of thousands of dollars people had thought was necessary in the past.  But, under no circumstances will an annulment be denied if a person cannot meet those expenses.  Having said that, I always tell people that there are other costs in an annulment, most of which are emotional.  An annulment dredges up all sorts of things that may have been suppressed, and that’s never going to be painless.  But that kind of pain is part and parcel of any healing, so when you are in the right place for it, if you think your marriage was invalid, you should speak to someone who can help you begin the process.  That person is called a field advocate, and here at Saint Mary’s, that would be me, Father John or Father Mike.  Please feel free to speak with us any time.

What it all comes down to is this: we must all do what we were created for.  Relationships and vocations are opportunities to do that, but to be effective, we must choose to be faithful.  And we must choose faithfulness each and every day – maybe even every moment.  When life throws stuff at us, as indeed it will, we must choose to be faithful anyway.  But if brokenness destroys that grace, we should turn to the Church for guidance, reconciliation, and mercy.

Just as man and woman cling to one another and become one flesh, so all of us are called to cling to God and become one with him. The Sacrament of Matrimony foreshadows the relationship that God has with the Church and the world.  We are all called to be caught up in God’s life and live forever with him.

The Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If you’ve been to any number of Church weddings, you have probably heard today’s first reading, and part of the Gospel proclaimed. Obviously we usually leave out the part about divorce, but these readings are quite popular for weddings. The reason, of course, is that the story is about how man and woman were created for each other. The totality of the readings we have today, though, are challenging. We do have that piece about divorce there, and it does present a challenge in these days when so many marriages fail.

Jesus’ point here is that the Christian disciple is called to a level of faithfulness that transcends the difficulties of life. We can’t just throw in the towel and walk away when things are difficult: marriage vows make demands of people – I say that in every wedding liturgy I do. In the very same way, ordination promises make demands of priests. We have to pray for the grace to be faithful in good times and in bad. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

That being the case, I want to take this opportunity to make some points and dispel some myths about the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, remarriage, and annulment. The first myth is that divorce is a sin that excommunicates a person from the Church and does not allow them to participate in the life of the Church or receive the sacraments. But divorce is not a sin in and of itself. It may well, however, be the result of sin, and a consequence of sin. Those who are divorced, however, remain Catholics in good standing and are free to receive the sacraments including the Eucharist, sacramental absolution in the sacrament of Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick. However, they remain married to their partner in the eyes of the Church and are not free to remarry, unless they receive an annulment. Those who remarry without an annulment have taken themselves out of communion with the Church and are not free to receive the sacraments.

The second myth is that an annulment is really just “Catholic Divorce.” However, annulment is recognition by the Church that a valid marriage, for some reason, had never taken place. The diocesan policy document on annulment defines it in this way: “Although not every marriage is a sacrament, every marriage (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Non-Believer, etc.) is presumed to be a valid marriage. The good of all concerned (spouses, children, in-laws, society, the Church, etc.) demands this presumption. In every presumption, the opposite may be true. If sufficient evidence can be shown that a particular marriage is invalid, the original presumption no longer holds. Therefore, when it can be shown that a particular marriage is not a true marriage, or not a sacrament, or not consummated, then it is possible for the Tribunal to declare that the parties are free to marry in the Catholic Church.” (Declaration of Nullity Proceedings, Diocese of Joliet , p.3) The annulment basically states that a valid marriage never happened in the first place, usually because the parties for some reason were not free to marry. These reasons may include extreme immaturity, a previous and previously undiscovered prior marriage, or entering marriage with no intention of remaining faithful or of having children. Pope Francis recently added some other reasons, including a fictitious marriage to enter into citizenship, a very brief marriage, stubborn persistence in an extramarital affair, and the procurement of an abortion to avoid procreation. In addition, Pope Francis somewhat simplified the process of an annulment in order to decrease the amount of time it takes to proceed.

A third myth is that those who are marrying a non-Catholic who had been previously married are automatically free to marry, since the non-Catholic’s marriage did not take place in the Catholic Church. But as I just said, the Church presumes marriages between non-Catholics to be valid, so their previous marriage would have to be annulled by the Catholic Church before a Catholic is free to marry them.

A fourth myth is that the Church always insists that the parties stay together. Today’s readings show that the permanence of the marriage relationship is the intent of God, and the strong preference of the Church. However, we all understand that there are circumstances in which that may not be possible. The Church would never counsel someone to stay together in an abusive. That is completely unacceptable. If you are in an abusive relationship, whether the abuse is physical, verbal, or emotional, you need to seek help and safety. The Church will support you in that decision. If you find yourself in that kind of relationship, whether you are married or not, I want you to see someone on our staff immediately.

Finally, there are some misconceptions about annulment proceedings that I want to clear up. First, if you do receive an annulment, that does not mean your children are illegitimate. The Church sees children as a gift from God, and thus never takes away their status as sons and daughters of God. Second, people think annulments are too expensive. They are not. The cost of an annulment in our diocese is around $700, not the tens of thousands of dollars people had thought was necessary in the past. But, under no circumstances will an annulment be denied if a person cannot meet those expenses. But I always tell people that there are other costs in an annulment, most of which are emotional. An annulment dredges up all sorts of things that may have been suppressed, and that’s never going to be painless. But that kind of pain is part and parcel of any healing, so when you are in the right place for it, if you think your marriage was invalid, you should speak to someone who can help you begin the process. That person is called a field advocate, and here at Notre Dame, there are two of us: Dr. Muir and me. Please feel free to speak with us any time.

What it all comes down to is this: we must all do what we were created for. Relationships and vocations are opportunities to do that, but to be effective, we must choose to be faithful. When life throws stuff at us, as indeed it will, we must choose to be faithful anyway. But if brokenness destroys that grace, we should turn to the Church for reconciliation and mercy.

Marriage Renewal Day Homily

Today’s readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 47; I John 4:7-12; Matthew 5:13-16

The Rite of Marriage gives us so many wonderful images for the spiritual life.  Speaking of the bride, the nuptial prayer asks that she may model her life on “the holy women whose praises are sung in the Scriptures.”  Speaking of the groom, it prays that he might remember that “she is his equal and the heir with him to the life of grace.”  And speaking of their union, the Liturgy speaks of it reflecting the marriage of Christ with his bride, the Church.

The Scriptures portray so many people for us.  Some of them are models of what not to do, but there are holy women and men that are meant to be an inspiration for us.  We remember the courage of Esther as she took her life in her hands and spoke out against the pending injustice of the extermination of her people.  We remember the kindness of Ruth as she refused to leave her mother-in-law alone in a foreign land.  We remember the holy women who attending to Jesus on the way of the cross and who witnessed the resurrection.  The wedding Liturgy prays that the bride would emulate their qualities, be devoted to the people in their lives, stand up to injustice, and always walk with Christ.

It goes on to pray that the groom would assume responsibility for leading his family in the spiritual life.  The life of grace is our goal, which is realized most perfectly in heaven, and we are all heirs to that life if we would follow our Lord and live the Gospel.  Coming together as equals, the bride and groom raise up children for the Kingdom of God, becoming a family that shines like a light in a dark place.  The love of bride and groom reflect the love of Christ for the Church.  A marriage is not a relationship meant to be kept to itself; it is meant to be salt and light, proclaiming God’s love by living as Christ has taught us: loving God and our neighbor.

So with these wonderful images to guide you, you embarked years ago on a journey of married life.  Would that every day were a moment of grace, but life gives us good times and bad, sickness and health.  Some days, it’s hard to be Esther or Ruth; some days we detour off the life of grace; some days spiritual equality isn’t foremost in our minds.  Yet that is our calling, and where sin corrupts, grace heals: the entire story of our life and relationships cannot ever be boiled down to one moment.  Thank God.

So day by day, we let God write that new covenant on our hearts.  God forgives our iniquity and sin, and we once again remember that our brokenness is no match for God’s love; that sin and death don’t follow us to the Kingdom of God, that the struggles of this life make the life of faith and grace so much more important, so much more urgent in our lives.

My parents’ marriage was inspirational to me.  Dad always worked so hard for our family, but was never an absentee father.  He was there for mom and for all of us, every day of his life.  He and mom were great partners; they always did everything together; unfortunately even to the extent of being diagnosed with cancer a month apart.  Dad has been gone for five years now, but mom continues on, being the source of wisdom and common sense, and love that she always was.  Their marriage nurtured them both and helped them to be a source of love and grace for us, and for so many others that God put in their lives.  They taught religious education to high school kids in their home for years, and those men and women, grown up now, still have a fondness and respect for both of them.  My vocation as a priest grew out of their vocation as parents.  I am called to Fatherhood in a way similar to my dad’s vocation, and as a Father I am called to shepherd and love my family – this parish – into heaven.

Your lives and marriages have their own story.  Times of challenge build character and endurance.  Times of grace give us strength to journey on.  The ups and downs of married life, lived faithfully and intentionally, have brought you here today.  Your marriage is a sign that God’s love never ends.

And so it goes: our lives are bound up together in the love of our bridegroom, Jesus Christ.  We live our vocations shining as a light in the dark place this world can be sometimes, seasoning a society that has grown bland with apathy and sadness with the love of Christ.  Today we pray for all holy vocations, of whatever station in life, that they might be lived with faithfulness and love poured out in great abandon, confident that we never run out of love because God is the source of that love.  May God’s grace continue to call men and women into vocations to priesthood, religious life, and married life.  May God help us all to love as perfectly and freely as he loves us!

Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It would probably come as no surprise to you that today’s first reading and a part of the Gospel were read at the wedding I celebrated yesterday.  Obviously we left out the part about divorce, but these readings are quite popular for weddings.  The reason, of course, is that the story is about how man and woman were created for each other.  The totality of the readings we have today, though, are challenging.  We do have that piece about divorce there, and it does present a challenge in these days when somewhere around fifty percent of marriages fail.

Apparently, the people of Israel were unable to accept the fullness of the teaching of marriage – not unlike today, obviously – Moses gave the men permission to divorce when necessary.  In that society, a woman’s reproductive rights belonged first to her father, and later to her husband.  So adultery could only be committed against the husband whose rights had been violated.  Our modern sensibilities see this as completely wrong, and Jesus seems to agree.  Jesus says that the man who remarries is committing adultery against his first wife, because she has rights in the marriage too.  Jesus levels the playing field here by giving both spouses rights in the relationship, but also the responsibility of not committing adultery against one another.

In our society, we have to contend with this painful reality still.  Each spouse has rights and also responsibilities, and while we are all ready to accept our rights in just about any circumstance, we are hardly ever ready to accept our responsibilities.  That has led us not only to the problems we have with divorce, but in so many areas as well.  We are a people very unaccustomed to the demands of faithfulness, not just in marriage but also in our work and our communities, just to name a couple.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word rejects this lack of faithfulness.  Christian disciples are to be marked by their faithfulness to each other, to God, and to their communities.  Faithfulness is hard and very often inconvenient.  But for us, brothers and sisters in Christ, faithfulness is not optional.

In wedding liturgies I always tell the bride and groom that faithfulness will make demands of them.  They will have to make a decision every day to be faithful to the promises they make at their wedding.  They will have to make a decision every day to love one another.  And sometimes this is easy, but sometimes it is hard to do, but either way, it’s still their calling.

The same is true for me as a priest.  I have to renew my ordination promises every day.  I have to make a decision every day to be faithful to my God, be faithful to my ministry, be faithful to my promises, be faithful to my own spouse which is the Church, and my own family which is the people I serve.  Sometimes that’s a joy and the easiest thing in the world.  But then there are the days when we have a rough staff meeting, or I’ve celebrated the fourth funeral in the last ten days, or any number of challenging and frustrating things have happened.  Those are rough days, but I’m still called to be faithful.

We are all of us called to be faithful citizens.  That is easy when our candidate wins the election or legislation we’ve been hoping for passes.  It’s not such a joy when he or she loses the election, or we don’t get to host the Olympics, or our interests aren’t being met, or the economy is plunging.  But we still are called to be faithful, doing our best to make things right, standing up for the poor, needy, and must vulnerable members of society, building the kingdom of God on earth whenever and however we can.

One of the biggest challenges of our time is something of which we are mindful in a special way this month, and by that of course, I mean the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.  It’s easy to remain faithful to that call when we don’t have to make the decision, but harder to remain faithful when someone we know is having a difficult pregnancy, or has been raped.  It’s hard to defend life to natural death when a loved one is suffering, clinging rather tenaciously to life even when they’re unable to live it.  It’s hard to defend life when someone in our community has been murdered and the death penalty is on the table.  But we disciples don’t get to pick and choose the occasions during which we will be faithful.  If our witness to life is to mean anything to the watching world, we’re going to have to be faithful always, even when it’s hard, even when it stretches us.

The little vignette at the end of the Gospel reading today almost seems out of place.  I use this story at every baptism I do, and it’s easy to see why.  But I also think it relates to our call to faithfulness today.  Jesus promises the Kingdom of God to those who are like children.  Obviously he isn’t extolling the virtues of being childish here.  He is getting at, as he often does, something much deeper.  He notes that children are dependent on their parents or guardians for everything.  They don’t yet have rights in the society, they are unable to provide for themselves.  So they depend on the adults who care for them for all of their needs for safety and care.

This is the kind of faithfulness Jesus would ask of us.  We need to approach our relationship with God with childlike faith.  We need to depend on God for our safety and provision.  We need to be faithful to God in good times and in bad, even when we cannot see the big picture.

Faithfulness makes demands on us.  The disciple is the one who is ready to accept those demands.  The disciple makes a decision to love God and the people in his life every day.  The disciple makes a decision to be faithful to his or her vocation, whatever that vocation is, every day.  The disciple makes a decision to be faithful to God and the teachings of God’s Church every day.  Some days those decisions are easy, and some days they are more than challenging.  But the faithful disciple, the one who accepts the Kingdom of God like a child, has the promise of entering into it.