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Sacred Vows

The trend line is shifting as the Church shines a light on marriage and family

By Bill Brewer
Photography by Stephanie Richer

Marriage matters.

How can we tell in this day and time, when a quarter to half of all marriages end in divorce, younger single people are waiting longer than ever to marry — if they even do marry and the divorce rate among older adults is climbing?

The most important way to still tell is that Jesus Christ made marriage one of the seven sacraments. And then there are the additional transcendent reasons: love, having children and creation of family, lifelong commitment, and companionship — all strongly favored by the Holy Spirit.

Despite the beauty and catechism of the marriage sacrament, and the fact it has been the foundation of the family for millennia, the practice seems to be ebbing across society.

Katie West and Nathan Byrd wed at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Chattanooga in November 2015.

In some of the most recent statistics, while there were more than 420,000 Catholic marriages in 1970, that number dwindled to about 154,000 by 2014, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

While statistics suggest the institution of marriage continues to be threatened by social pressures, the news isn’t so bleak for Catholics.

Young people in the Catholic Church are trending toward more traditional attitudes about marriage, CARA research has discovered. CARA researchers say millennials are more romantic and more interested in marrying in the Church, which is indicative of a cultural shift among the youngest of Catholic adults. Further research supports the assertion that committed younger couples are causing the U.S. divorce rate to drop.

In response to that emerging trend and troublesome reports of an increasing divorce rate among older married couples, the Diocese of Knoxville’s Office of Marriage Preparation and Enrichment held the first Call to Love Marriage Conference on March 23 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The bilingual, daylong conference featured an English track led by presenters Dr. Tom Neal and Father Michael Cummins and a Hispanic track led by presenters Jorge Paredes and Viviana Martinez.

The purpose of the conference was to discuss and highlight marriage and family in the mission of the Church, explained Marian Christiana, coordinator of marriage preparation and enrichment for the diocese.

“Pope Francis is very strong on the family. But our culture is trying to pull families apart. It’s designed for individualism and consumerism, and while not always possible, it is still important to have two-parent families,” Mrs. Christiana said.

She cited statistics that show children whose parents stay together do better socially and academically, and couples who pray together in front of their children stand a better chance of their children remaining active in their faith.

She noted that Pope Francis has witnessed the pressures of today’s society on the family, which, as the domestic Church, is where children learn their faith for the first time.

Hispanic couples in the Diocese of Knoxville participate in the Call to Love Conference in the Sacred Heart Cathedral parish hall on March 23.

At a time when the Church is facing pressure on several fronts — from declining membership in Europe and in some pockets of the United States, the priest abuse scandal around the world and its impact on the faithful, growing physical and societal attacks on Christianity around the globe, and societal temptations facing Catholics to abandon Catholicism and Christianity altogether — Mrs. Christiana is encouraged that the Holy Father and Bishop Richard F. Stika are emphasizing, supporting, and promoting the role of the family in the Catholic faith.

“Divorce has a profound impact on children. There’s a ripple effect of divorce on families, such as children of divorce becoming hesitant to make lasting relationships. In the last 14 years of working with marriage preparation, I’ve watched the ages of couples getting married move from 24-25 to 29-32. Millennials wait longer. Many of them have witnessed divorce firsthand and don’t want to repeat those mistakes,” Mrs. Christiana said.

Dr. Neal described marriage and family as the hearth and heart of love, where the hearth is a fireplace in the heart of a home that gives off warmth and light, and it can feed us.

“Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina opens with the line, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ All happy families are made out of what St. John tells us God is: love. All unhappy families are made of one or more of the 10,000 departures from love. Yet, in reality all families blend some of both happy and unhappy,” Dr. Neal said.

“The family, with marriage at its heart, is God’s No. 1 salvation project, and we are both His handiwork and His co-workers. The healing of broken humanity is meant to happen first and best in marriage, then in family, then in the rest of humanity,” Dr. Neal added. “In the scheme of human and cosmic history, family is a big deal to God.

Family is where all good things begin and end. If you want to get the world right, get family right. If you want to get family right, get marriage right.”

Casey and Danielle Robinson were among the 63 Diocese of Knoxville couples attending the Call to Love Conference. The parishioners of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, who are in their early 30s, said Dr. Neal’s remarks on marriage and family resonated with them.

The couple, who have been married seven years, met while in college and recalled their first date over pizza. They still cherish going out and eating pizza together.

“Casey and I were both raised in homes where family was put on a pedestal, so to speak. Our parents taught us how to love, how to overcome stress, and how to take time for one another. Both sets of parents have been married for over 40 years, and although they have very different marriages, they have shown us over the years how to make a marriage work and how to keep God and family at the center of our lives always,” Mrs. Robinson said.

The couple realized they already do some of the things Dr. Neal suggested to keep marriages strong and couples close. One of those things is having regular date nights.

And while being parents of a 3-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy can make date nights challenging, the couple are committed.

“I think it is so very important to make time for yourselves, especially in the midst of raising young children. We regularly go on date nights, and it’s a really amazing time for us to reconnect. We also have weekly Sunday meetings where we discuss our schedules and our stresses, and this is a time to help one another and pray for one another’s stressful or joyful events of that week. Also, it’s important to put your spouse above everyone and make them a priority,” said Mrs. Robinson, who noted that attending the Call to Love Conference was one of the ways they regularly do a marriage-enrichment activity.

The couple agree faith has had a big influence on their marriage, and they continue to place their faith at the center of their marriage, something Dr. Neal, Mr. Paredes, Mrs. Martinez, and Father Cummins preached was key to a successful marriage and family.

“At first, [faith] was not a huge factor, but over time Casey and I both realized that we really wanted to raise our children with a strong faith foundation. It was important for the both of us to be on the same page with our faith when we were speaking to our children about the Lord. Casey went through the RCIA program in 2015-16, and it was an amazing transformation for the both of us,” Mrs. Robinson said.

“I did not attend church growing up, so Danielle had a large part in me wanting to learn more about the Catholic faith and deciding to become Catholic. I wanted to have a better relationship with God and wanted my children to have the same. I think our faith has strengthened us as a couple and as parents,” Mr. Robinson added.

It’s that attitude and approach that Bishop Stika would like to replicate throughout the diocese and the entire Catholic Church.

Bishop Stika celebrated Mass at the cathedral for the Call to Love conferees following the conference and applauded them for their dedication to marriage and family.

He began Mass by asking the congregation how they see God. Do they know what God is saying to them?

“For those of you who have been reflecting on your married life, what is God saying to you? He says to love your spouse, to challenge your spouse, to forgive your spouse, to be friends to your spouse. Jesus didn’t enter into anything without thinking what it was going to be and the repercussions. The very first miracle by Jesus was at a wedding,” Bishop Stika said.

“You who are in a married state are different than those taking part in other sacraments. You live the sacrament. The priest is only a witness. The world is only a witness. But daily, in your forgiveness, in your compassion, in your charity, in your friendship, in your selflessness, you live the sacrament that has brought you together by God. Work at it. Celebrate it. And for all of us ask yourself, have you made God so ordinary in life that you can take him or leave him? What is God saying to you?” the bishop asked.

As Mass concluded, Bishop Stika asked all those in the congregation who were married and were attending Mass with their spouse to hold hands and recommit themselves to each other. He then led them through a marriage rededication prayer they were say to each other:

  • “Do you recommit yourselves to each other”;
  • “I promise to love and respect you”;
  • “In those moments that I have hurt you, I ask your forgiveness”;
  • “In those moments that I have failed to respect you, I ask your forgiveness”;
  • “In those moments that I have ignored you or taken you for granted, I ask your forgiveness”;
  • “I know that I am not perfect. But with your help and your support, and your love, (I can be a better spouse)”;
  • “Please know that I love and care for you”;
  • “Please help me to be a better person and to know my failures”;
  • “I pray that God continues to bless us both. We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.”

During the conference, Father Cummins, pastor of St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport and former vocations director for the diocese, discussed the vocation of marriage.

“I do believe that family, that marriage, is a vocation. It is a calling from God. It’s a calling to holiness. I also think that so many vocations we are called to are nurtured in marriage, nurtured in family, nurtured in the witness of parents and siblings. It’s all connected. It shows how God works daily,” Father Cummins said.

Couples attending Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus following the Call to Love Conference on March 23 exchange vows during a marriage rededication prayer led by Bishop Richard F. Stika.

Father Cummins said he shares at weddings where he presides that he has come to believe in his own journey of faith that there is providence, not coincidence.

“If we are truly reflecting on what we mean is the sacrament of marriage, it’s not a coincidence that two people are brought together. Somehow, God is involved in that. That is providence. Providence is at work. Somehow, God has brought these two people on their journeys together for their children and for the world,” Father Cummins said.

He tells the couple getting married and those attending their wedding that it is important to trust providence.

He also instructs the couple getting married to keep their wedding Mass readings close and keep returning to them during their marriage.

He noted that coincidence suggests God is absent when something happens, while providence means God is involved, has a plan, and is at work in our lives.

“God wants to be involved in our lives. God has a will for us. God has a call for us,” he said. “Vocation is so tied into that. Vocation is a calling. Someone is calling, and someone is being called. So a vocation is a calling from God, who is involved, who wants to be involved, and who wants us to be involved with Him to bring about His kingdom.”

He added, “If God is calling us to a certain vocation, then God knows that is where we are going to find the fullness of our life. If God is calling someone to marriage, then that is where that couple is going to find the fullness of life. That doesn’t mean there won’t be struggles. Struggles are part of the journey. Everyone has struggles in their vocation. But if God is calling us to something, then God knows that is where we are going to find our joy; that is where God knows we’re going to find our fulfillment in life and our own authenticity. We have to trust that God wants nothing but the best for us, and that God is going to work through our life and vocation to help others.”

He noted that when fear creeps in, whether when discerning marriage, the priesthood, or another vocation, God offers us joy as a guidepost. He cited a quote that joy is the surest witness of the presence of God.

“Where do you find joy? That is a way to help us discern,” Father Cummins said.

For Rafael and Michele Pubillones, their joy has been expressed in nearly 44 years of marriage. And like most marriages, the joys have been expressed through children (two sons) and a lifetime of memories. And also like most marriages, there were some struggles along the way.

Mrs. Pubillones explained that her husband was a career Air Force officer, and after that he worked for a government contractor. She worked full time until their children were born. There were times they were apart when his military duty required him to be away from home.

The couple, who are in their 60s and are parishioners of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Lenoir City, first met in 1970 and married in 1975. They agree that their faith is a key ingredient of their long marriage.

Call to Love Conference leaders Father Michael Cummins, Marian Christiana, and Dr. Tom Neal.

“Our faith influenced our marriage in several ways. We started out getting married in the Church. We didn’t have much preparation, and we fell away for some time. The birth of our older son brought us back, as we wanted to have him baptized. I couldn’t imagine asking a priest to baptize him and the priest wouldn’t know who we were. That was the start of us being ‘reverts,’” Mrs. Pubillones explained.

Mr. Pubillones said faith has influenced his marriage much more in the later years since he retired and the couple moved to Tennessee. As a youth, he went to public school and acknowledged having “little to no catechesis when I was growing up.

“Since I retired, however, there’s been a dramatic change. I attribute this dramatic change to a ‘self-catechesis’ that’s consisted of falling in love with the Bible, attending adult faith formation classes and seminars, reading almost exclusively on Catholicism, and putting all this learning in the service of the people of God in a variety of ministries that includes liturgical ministries such as sacristan, altar server, and extraordinary minister of holy Communion, and outreach such as prison ministry,” Mr. Pubillones said. “Most important, as a diaconate aspirant, I also have fallen in love with a more complete understanding of the Liturgy of the Hours. And last but not least, as James reminds us in his most beautiful letter, ‘faith apart from works is dead.’”

Mr. Pubillones attributed his wife’s strong faith for increasing his. She led by having a stronger catechesis, guiding them to be married in the Church, and raising their sons in the Church.

“I also appreciated Michele knowing the faith better than me, which had a positive impact in my wanting to know more. Finally, as I became ‘more Catholic,’ it was very good knowing I was sharing something else — and something especially wonderful — with my wife: my faith,” he said, adding that his parents did plant in him seeds of Catholicism by virtue of baptism and confirmation.

A shared faith between couples is a bedrock to a long and happy marriage and a solid family, the Call to Love Conference speakers agree. But in today’s culture, there are many pressures chipping away at that foundation.

Blanca Primm, director of Hispanic Ministry for the diocese, believes the Call to Love Conference was a success, and she hopes it will be held annually in Spanish and English to help continue the trend of lasting marriages and declining divorce rates.

She said presenters Jorge Paredes and Viviana Martinez eloquently explained the importance of the sacrament of marriage and family, and offered daily life examples of relationship and communication issues facing women and men in the Hispanic culture, which resonated with the Hispanic couples.

“This opportunity helps all couples realize the importance of a sacramental marriage. Culture was a very strong part of the presentation. And the feedback was very positive, very strong. They would like to see the presenters again in our diocese,” Mrs. Primm said. “They brought seven principles to our couples as a tool to improve relationships, communication, understanding, how to resolve conflict and problems, and how to get out of the gridlock in a marriage.

“This was to wake them up, to see your spouse and partner as your best friend, the person you love, the person who can influence you, and the person you are walking with toward a purpose in life on a faith journey,” she added.

Mrs. Primm especially liked the dialogue between the presenters and the couples and the exercises that prompted the couples to communicate between themselves the seven principles.

Mrs. Christiana worked with Bishop Stika and Mrs. Primm to launch the Call to Love Conference. She is grateful for the bishop’s support and Mrs. Primm’s cooperation and is hopeful it will be the first of many Call to Love conferences.

She is sure couples in the diocese can benefit from the marriage-enrichment experience.

Bishop Stika greets Call to Love Conference leaders Jorge Paredes, Vivian Martinez, and Blanca Primm.

“We try to stress that your wedding is your wedding day. Your marriage is every day after that. You live your sacrament daily. Every day you hit the floor you should say, ‘I do.’ For the most part, successful marriages are very intentional. Couples exchange ideas on interesting readings, go to marriage-enrichment events, and date each other. As Dr. Neal said, it’s important for couples to make their marriage a priority,” said Mrs. Christiana, who has been married 39 years and whose husband, Ralph, assisted her with the conference.

Dr. Neal, who is the director of intellectual formation and professor of spiritual theology at Notre Dame Catholic Seminary in New Orleans, incorporates stories into his talks to illustrate faith alive in people’s lives.

“Our secularized culture now has really removed faith from the space of daily life. To see how faith can shape daily life in very profound ways that are really beautiful, and you can see how beautiful a life changed by faith is, then it makes people get a sense again that bringing that back into the daily realities of life is the most hopeful thing you can do. It’s the thing that can give you the most sense of purpose in life and inspire you to do things that are genuinely great, that bring out the greatness that is in you,” Dr. Neal said.

He agreed that the trend line among young Catholics is a return to real relationships.

“I think among young people, the trend is clear that young people want to return to authenticity. The millennial refrain now is ‘we want authenticity again,’” Dr. Neal said. “So when they see authentic relationships, authentic love, marriages that are not only vibrant and alive but are lasting, that to them speaks of what they don’t see around them in a culture of impermanence and of broken commitments. When they see authenticity, which is what we call sanctity, then they want that. I think they see the attractiveness of it.”

He said in an age where there has been an abandonment of certain truths, such as widespread divorce and broken homes, and there are catastrophic results from that, the next generation that has seen that arrives at the conclusion that they don’t want that.

“I think that is what the younger generation is seeking now,” Dr. Neal pointed out, acknowledging that he was a child of divorce and a broken home who experienced the pain, loss, and absence. “For me, so much of my own vision of marriage and family life and parenting came out of that. What I learned from that pain, loss, and absence, and what I wanted to bring to my own children, to my own marriage, and into the future was to leave a legacy that wasn’t a rejection or condemnation of what my parents and others had done. It was to draw good out of whatever failure or brokenness there was. That is our job: to bring good out of evil, not to curse it. At least that’s what I wanted to do within my generation.”

Comments 1

  1. This is a good article, & these quotes are the truth, “I do believe that family, that marriage, is a vocation. It is a calling from God. It’s a calling to holiness. I also think that so many vocations we are called to are nurtured in marriage, nurtured in family, nurtured in the witness of parents and siblings. It’s all connected. It shows how God works daily,” Father Cummins said.
    “If we are truly reflecting on what we mean is the sacrament of marriage, it’s not a coincidence that two people are brought together. Somehow, God is involved in that. That is providence. Providence is at work. Somehow, God has brought these two people on their journeys together for their children and for the world,” Father Cummins said.
    But the church makes the annulment process a barrier to good Christian marriage. I waited 48 years to marry a man who is a strong Christian, but divorced more than a decade, an ex-wife that remarried, a non Catholic willing to go through the process for me. Yet I’m out of communion with the church because I know God put us together & marrying him was the right thing to do. He was denied an annulment, but I’m the one punished. And leadership wonders why people leave the church? This was marriage was not entered into lightly & we know God’s hand is in it despite what Tribunal decided.

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