One participant says, ‘Our marriages are the fire, the warmth, and the light of God’s love in the world’
By Marian Christiana
Our first Call to Love Marriage Conference was held March 23 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Sixty-four couples participated in this bilingual event. There were both English and Spanish tracks, and all the participants ended their day at the 5 p.m. vigil Mass celebrated by Bishop Richard F. Stika in the cathedral.
At the end of Mass, Bishop Stika led the couples through a renewal of their marriage vows with Father Arthur Torres translating. I am happy to report that the day was very well received by all who attended. The day was so impactful that I want to share with you a bit about the format of the conference and some takeaway messages of the day as shared by our participants on their evaluations.
Jorge Paredes and Viviana Martinez, founders of the apostolate “God With Us,” presented John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work to a full house. This all-day workshop took the couples through a series of presentations and exercises that taught them how to incorporate the seven principles into their day-to-day lives. These principles are intricately connected to trust, commitment, honor, and respect of each other. One of the attending couples said that they learned that they must continually work on their marriage, that marriage is lived every day, and that the wedding day is just the very beginning of the journey. All of us who live the vocation of marriage must continue to grow closer to our spouse and to God.
Dr. Tom Neal, academic dean and professor of spiritual theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, opened the English track with a talk on the “Hearth of Love: Marriage and Family in the Mission of the Church.” At the heart of Dr. Neal’s talk was this insight shared by one of our participants: “Our marriages are the fire, the warmth, and the light of God’s love in the world.” This insight spoke to me on a very personal level because it reaffirmed the work this office does with engaged couples.
During our diocesan Picture of Love marriage-preparation program, we stress to couples that through their sacramental marriage they bring Christ’ light into the world and reflect His love. Dr. Neal also stressed that it is around the family hearth that we learn to love, trust, forgive, offer forgiveness, and accept ourselves and each other. He compared it to participating at Mass. Our Picture of Love marriage-preparation program also compares family life to what is happening at Mass. We build a prayer table around the family dining table stressing how this family school of love, trust, forgiveness, and acceptance reflects the elements of the Mass. I loved the image of the hearth and will be tweaking my presentation for the engaged couples to reflect that imagery.
Another of Dr. Neal’s insights was to show us how suffering shapes us into the people we are meant to be. We can look at our trials and complain or we can look for the blessings that have followed because of those trials and rejoice. Dr. Neal used an example of the relationship between his autistic half-brother and his stepmother. His stepmother says that loving his brother and being loved by him has changed her in ways she never dreamed possible and all for the better. Altering our perspective on suffering can be a real game-changer for marriages when we realize that our trials can be our call to holiness. With the proper perspective, we can change our sufferings into a gift for our spouse and the world by using them to reflect the love of our Lord.
Father Michael Cummins, pastor of St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport, spoke about the “Garden of Love: Christian Family and Vocation” through the use of Scripture stories. A very popular insight from Father Michael’s talk was that “you plant the tree knowing that you will never sit in its shade.” All five Scripture stories illustrated the fact that we must live our vocation of marriage for the benefit of future generations. Like Abraham, Sarai, Mary, and Joseph, we must place our trust in the Lord. We must realize that we may not see the fruits of faithfully living out our wedding vows but that living out those vows will have an effect on our children and on future generations. We are a people of hope.
I love to garden so this imagery of planting a garden of love spoke directly to my heart. It is difficult, however, to acknowledge that we may not always see the results of our efforts. I have been reflecting on this particular insight and think its imagery can be very helpful to couples whose adult children have left the Church or are estranged from the family.
Recently I have experienced this in a very personal way. My nephew had not spoken to his parents for two years. Our extended family is very close, so my nephew’s absence left a large hole in the family. We all joined his parents in praying for his return. My sister and her husband continued to keep their family hearth burning brightly for him and showed us all what hope in the Lord looks like on a daily basis. Last week our prayers were answered when he came home for a visit. One visit did not sort everything out, but we still rejoice in his return and pray that the relationship will continue to improve. This time we did get to witness the seeds of love planted many years ago starting to flower. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, but if we live in hope and fidelity to our vocation of marriage, our love will echo through the generations. The Scriptures promise this to us.
As is usual when we have a marriage- enrichment event, I feel spiritually uplifted and renewed in my marital vocation. It is definitely one of the perks of the job. If you missed this conference, I hope you will join us at our next marriage-enrichment event. Special thanks to Blanca Primm, Rocio Gonzales, and Karen Byrne for collaborating on this Call to Love Marriage Conference! Their commitment, hard work, and attention to detail were appreciated by everyone in attendance!
Marian Christiana is coordinator of the diocesan Marriage Preparation and Enrichment Office.