Sunday, February 20, 2005

Love, Marriage, and the Teachings of St. Josemaria Escriva by Mary Brennan

No one would deny that the environment in which young people today fall in love and feel called to commit themselves to each other in marriage is a very difficult one indeed. Young people today have grown up in the wake of the sexual revolution that has wreaked havoc on individuals and families — on each of them as individuals and on their own families. Many of them have experienced the divorce of their parents. The great majority of them have been “sexually active” from a very young age, encouraged by a culture that worships free sexual expression, and doctors and schools that casually distribute contraceptives to keep them “safe.” For many this has meant that their heart has been broken numerous times as these immature, uncommitted relationships have ultimately come to an end. Many have chosen to live together before marriage, believing that they are unready for the commitment of marriage, and unsure about their ability to live up to the responsibilities that marriage entails. Many fear that their future marriage will end in misery and divorce, as they have seen so many other marriages end.

It is precisely this landscape that silently cries out for some good news. Young people today yearn to learn the truth about themselves, those they love, and even God. They are open to learning about commitment, faithfulness, sacrifice, and purity. They long for the hope that their love for each other can last a lifetime. My husband and I have been privileged to serve these couples as they come to the Church for marriage preparation. It is a blessing for us to share with them that their love for each other is holy — that God loves their love for one another. We are honored to be able to share with them that their bodies also are holy, and that they are deserving of the very best, no matter what their background or their past.

Married for twenty years now, my husband David and I have been involved in marriage preparation programs since we were newlyweds. (The priest who witnessed our marriage wisely saw that if we were active in the Church, we would be more likely to continue to grow in our faith, and would have a stronger marriage.) All couples who come to the Catholic Church for marriage are required to take a marriage preparation course, an approach that acknowledges the difficulties that couples face, and seeks to help them discern if the decision to marry this person is a good one, and give them the skills and knowledge that will help them navigate the inevitable daily tensions, stresses, and even crises.

About five years ago now, David and I volunteered to direct the marriage preparation program at our parish, St. Mary’s in Franklin, Massachusetts. We have had the pleasure of designing a program and getting others involved in it, great married couples and priests who have been incredibly generous and hard working. Our program consists of three sessions, and we offer it twice a year. Over the past five years, we have had the joy of spending time with about 150 engaged couples, couples who typically exude love and expectation. We have put time into this work because we believe that it makes a difference for the engaged couples, but it has immeasurably enriched our own relationship as well, as twice a year we immerse ourselves in how best to cultivate and strengthen married love.

The program we have designed is based on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. “There are in the end three things that last: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.” ( St. Paul ) An important part of the program is spent teaching the couples, as most have not been practicing their faith, what the Church teaches on marriage, the sacraments, and the purpose and meaning of human sexuality. We have talks on making good use of the engagement period, human virtues, communication, finances, intimacy, children, extended family, and natural family planning. Though the engaged couples come to us nervous and anxious as to what to expect, the overwhelming majority tell us that the experience has been rewarding and worthwhile.

The engaged couples are interested in learning about their faith, something most of them have not thought about for a while. They enjoy hearing from the married couples who share their experiences, and appreciate learning healthy ways to communicate. We emphasize practicing human virtues, because as my husband says, “Before marriage it’s all about choosing the right person. After marriage, it’s all about being the right person.” The session on human sexuality seeks to challenge them in a nonjudgmental way, and the vast majority are open to hearing what the Church has to say about living purity before and during marriage, the true meaning of the sexual act, and the gift of children, as well as premarital sex, living together before marriage, and contraception and sterilization. They are open because, as Pope John Paul II says in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope: “After all, young people are always searching for the beauty in love. They want their love to be beautiful. If they give in to weakness…in the depth of their hearts they still desire a beautiful and pure love.”

To be truthful, there have been moments when facing a group of blank faces when we might have been afraid — afraid of negative reactions, afraid of opposing the status quo — but we have been strengthened, enriched, and even spurred on, by the beautiful teachings of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. My husband and I were introduced to the writings of this saint, and the spirit of Opus Dei, when we met a woman who is now a good friend of ours. At the time we had been married not quite ten years, and had the usual difficulties, mostly arising out of our fears. Fears regarding finances, our stubborn faults, and fears of what troubles the future might bring. What this new friend and her lively family — who are devoted to St. Josemaria and live his spirit — what they introduced us to was family life lived with joy, not fear. A family where each new child is welcomed and cherished, not feared and avoided. A cheerful, warm, and bright home. A husband and wife unreservedly devoted to each other and to their children. Witnessing their happiness had a profound effect on us.

As we learned more about Opus Dei, we saw how the spirit of Opus Dei had shaped their lives. St. Josemaria always encouraged spouses to be cheerful and affectionate with one another. He spoke about how we can keep our love young by doing the small things of everyday life with hearts full of love for each other. St. Josemaria taught that we should not be afraid to sacrifice for the good of the other, that children are a gift from God, and that to be generous in accepting children is always a blessing. He talked about making our homes bright, cheerful, happy places, and to be cheerful for others, even when we don’t feel so cheerful inside. St. Josemaria encouraged all people to have what he called a “sporting spirit,” to face difficulties with energy and enthusiasm. He emphasized that we all need to “begin again” whenever we find that we have fallen into old bad habits — to just pick ourselves up and begin again, as a little child would do, without looking back. He taught that we are all called to be saints, and that by struggling against our faults and uniting ourselves to God we can sanctify ourselves, our families, and the world around us.

This spirit, which has brought so much joy and peace to our family, animates our work with young couples. About helping others to integrate their faith more deeply into their everyday lives, St. Josemaria said: “be assured that it is a matter of making people happy, very happy.” My husband and I are convinced that the truths about man and woman and God, about their holy love for one another, and the beautiful spirit of Opus Dei, can help couples to be happy — very, very, happy. It is my hope that everyone will see the need to share the good news of Christ’s transforming love with all young people today, because they are deserving of the very best that we have to offer. As St. Josemaria wrote in his book The Way: “Don’t let your life by sterile. Be useful. Blaze a trail. Shine forth with the light of your faith and of your love.” The blessings that we each have received should beckon us to give generously of ourselves in the service of fair, beautiful, and lasting love.

Mary and her husband David live in Franklin , Massachusetts with their six children. They are members of the Archdiocesan Office of Marriage Ministries Advisory Board.