Your faithful correspondent has recently celebrated his tenth anniversary of ordination to the church’s clergy as a deacon. It has been one of the greatest gifts God could have given to me. And I can truthfully say, no one would have believed this was possible some fifteen or twenty years ago.
The joys of serving as a deacon are too many to begin listing. I will say that I have particularly enjoyed diaconal participation in an average of nine holy Masses each week. I’ve done baptismal prep work with parents and godparents. I’ve also done an enjoyable amount of ministry work for pre-married couples. And I’ve married several. In both situations, I’ve helped these couples to prepare for reception of the sacraments implied from their state in life.
These two sacraments represent the most trying and the most delicate of circumstances that a priest or deacon gets to deal with. In both cases, couples from all walks and beliefs come to the Church seeking a sacrament. Sacraments are not social activities in the faith walk of Catholics. The seven sacraments are outward signs, instituted by Christ to give grace. They are ‘managed’ by the authority of Scripture through the Church.
People who have not been faithfully practicing the minimum requirements of active Catholicism are usually (carefully said, usually) not in a state of readiness to receive ‘more grace.’
And so, in our first meeting, we begin the process of questions and answers -- dialogue which can soon begin to sound uncomfortable and, for some, unwelcoming. “Have you been attending Mass?” “Which parish?” “How often do you attend?” “Why do you want to do this sacrament?” “What does it mean to you?” Answers that reflect little or no faith, or succumbing to parental or grandparent pressure raise flags.
“Were you married in the Church?” “Has your marriage been blessed?” I’ve been amazed at the number of people I’ve been involved in in ministry who are in need of an annulment.
Nullity work has taught me that most Catholics -- and certainly the highest percentage of Christians simply do not understand what Christian marriage is all about. Sometimes including a percentage of priests and deacons.
By way of refresher, what is it that is required and expected when a couple is prepared to enter into marriage? They must (MUST) intend to meet the following requirements. They are to be:
Free to marry = no impediments such as former marriage, age, parental duress, pressure from current situation such as pregnancy, etc.
Open to Life = meaning that there is no intention to use any artificial means of contraception, which would inhibit the gift of children. Natural family planning is acceptable and training can be provided in a diocese or parish setting. Total gift of self.
Permanency = intending a permanent, for all of life marriage. Pre-nuptial agreements are an indication of preparation for exit from marriage.
Truthfully, I have been somewhat defensive of the Church about these sort of requirements for marriage. I also have been somewhat ‘heavy’ about expecting parents to practice the faith before extending the sacrament to their child. A Protestant theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about ‘cheap’ grace, and I’ve never believed in the principle of extending cheap grace. It does nothing to inspire the value of the faith we profess. (IMHO) But there is ‘heavy’ pressure in the Church these days not to refuse the sacrament to an innocent child. My own personal response to this is to strongly suggest that the parents begin or return to the practice of the faith, stay with it and let’s revisit the situation in three to six months. A simple delay.
Pope Francis has been a refreshing model of love and welcome to everyone. Welcome in love, lead in teaching to truth. And so we see the duality of these issues when confronting them in real life.
Hockey has rules and regulations. Baseball does, as well. Couldn’t play football without four quarters and no roughing the passer. Why anyone would expect the Church to operate with completely wide open arms and without ‘practices’ is a struggle for me.
I once did pre-marriage work with two (somewhat) professional musicians. They were both Catholic. They both wanted to be married in the Church. And... and, they both wanted to construct their own wedding ceremony and create their own reading texts and such. We had some rather frank moments in our planning. But we made it. We read Scripture from the RSV Bible. I preached a traditional homily about the sacraments and the gift of self in marriage. They picked the music. It was lovely, if not all completely Catholic or Christian. But lovely.
Welcome to the Catholic Church. No, really. Welcome. We have some rules and regulations we’d like you to come to understand so your sacrament will be meaningful. And truly grace-giving.
Copyright 2014 Deacon Tom Fox
About the Author
Deacon Tom Fox and his wife Dee are co-hosts of the CATHOLIC VITAMINS Podcast for over 6 1/2 years. Tom has also been a member of the Catholic Mom columnists team for eight years, and was a regular contributor to the Catholic Moments Podcast for three years. Most recently, Deacon Tom has been leading a project to bring Catholic radio to the north central Arizona community where he and Dee reside. Blessings!