How Many Wives do you Have?
A few weeks ago I was on a plane to Calcutta talking to the Muslim man sitting next to me. “How many wives do you have?” he asked me. A man of my age in Muslim countries would have typically taken on more than one wife over the years. I had to disappoint him: “Catholic priests are not allowed even one wife.” He was shocked. But my celibacy raises a question: what have priests to say about marriage? You may have heard that Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the current head of the Vatican office for marriage and family, recently told an Irish magazine that “priests are not the best people to train others for marriage…They have no credibility; they have never lived the experience.” I assume the good Cardinal means that priests need the help of married couples in family ministry, but if we take his words at face value, they are rash indeed. If priests have no credibility regarding marriage, the Cardinal himself should resign his position at the Vatican. Pope Francis’ 250-page exhortation on marriage Amoris laetitia would have no credibility, and for that matter neither would Jesus’ own teachings on marriage, for he too was a celibate priest.
But priests must offer their particular gifts to help support Christian families. After all, every priest grew to manhood within his own parents’ marriage. Priests spend years studying the biblical and theological distillation of 30 centuries of Judeo-Christian experience in the marriage business. Priests prepare and counsel hundreds of couples; they listen quietly as spouses pour out their hearts in the confessional. And most important of all, the sacrament of Holy Orders gives priests the grace to sanctify married. God gives married couples holy and wise priests to help them build better families, and God gives the priests holy and wise families to help them live their vocations faithfully.
A gathering in San Francisco larger than the city's entire population
In October 1961 (two months before I was born) Fr. Patrick Peyton held a rosary rally in San Francisco. The mayor of our city and the governor of our state joined over 500,000 others in the polo fields of Golden Gate Park to pray with their families to God. That crowd was larger than the city's entire population at the time. They came, as families, to pray the rosary together.
Have you heard of the “People Power Revolution” of 1986 in the Philippines? Ferdinand Marcos was ousted without a shot being fired. But it wasn’t the power of the people, in fact. It was the power of God—the power of the rosary. A Filipino friend of mine was there as a seminarian. They ran about the massive crowd in Luneta Park passing out rosaries as the tanks closed in on the crowd. Eventually the soldiers put down their weapons and began praying the rosary with the people. As St. John Paul writes in his 2003 letter on the rosary:
"The grave challenges confronting the world at the start of this new Millennium lead us to think that only an intervention from on high … can give reason to hope for a brighter future. The Rosary is by its nature a prayer for peace, since it consists in the contemplation of Christ, the Prince of Peace, the one who is "our peace." (RV 40).
As a prayer for peace, the Rosary is also, and always has been, a prayer of and for the family. At one time this prayer was particularly dear to Christian families, and it certainly brought them closer together. It is important not to lose this precious inheritance. The family rosary, prayed in the living room after the dishes are cleared, the homework completed, and the day’s work is done, is the essential family prayer. But it’s not the only way families pray together.
Three Kinds of Family Prayer
We see three kinds of prayer in the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. First, the liturgical public prayer of Passover and synagogue services as a family; second the personal interior prayer of Mary at the Annunciation, the 12-year-old Jesus staying behind in the Temple, and Joseph's silent obedience of the angel; and third the “domestic” family prayer of morning and evening prayers at home, including all the Jewish home blessings. For us Catholics, these three types of family prayer might look like this:
Personal Prayer individual holy hours before the Blessed Sacrament, quiet time with scripture and spiritual reading, annual retreats and evenings of recollection.
Domestic Prayer weekly Bible time with the kids, blessing and grace before meals, family trips to special churches, and above all the family rosary.
Liturgical Prayer Sunday Mass together, novenas and rosaries at the parish, processions, solemn liturgies at the cathedral and pilgrimages to shrines.
What Makes a Family?
St. John Paul II’s family life was not ideal and not even normal. His mother died when he was 8, his only sibling Edmund died when he was 17, and his father died when he was 20. “I was not at my mother's death,” he later wrote, “I was not at my brother's death, I was not at my father's death. At twenty, I had already lost all the people I loved.” Fr. Woytilya spent the rest of his life searching to fully understand God’s gift of the family. His foundational catechesis on family life, Familiaris consortio, was written in 1981 following the synod for families in Rome. His title for the document, however, is not familia but consortio (“familiaris” is the adjective in the title). The Latin noun consortio means literally ‘having been thrown together by lot’ or ‘put together by destiny.’ His use of that word is as if to say “You do not choose your spouse or your family; they are chosen for you.” Our essential task, in other words, is not to choose the “right” spouse or identify authentic feelings; the task given us in matrimony is to love the spouse and children God gives me. As they say in India, we do not marry the woman we love, but we love the woman we marry.
How does a man come to love the woman he marries? How does a woman come to love the man with whom she finds herself sharing a bed? The surest way to love a person is to pray with him or her, to share not only a bed but to share a prayer beside that bed.
John Paul points to simple, but consistent, family prayer: “Family prayer is … husband and wife together, parents and children together….The words with which the Lord Jesus promises His presence can be applied to the members of the Christian family in a special way: ‘… where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’”(FC 59).
A Field Hospital
With his unique gift of describing a deep spiritual reality with a simple concrete image, Pope Francis described the Church as a field hospital. “The family” he writes in Amoris laetitia, “has always been the nearest ‘hospital.’ So let us care for one another, guide and encourage one another, and experience this as a part of our family spirituality.” When a person is bleeding uncontrollably, he needs immediate and effective medical attention. In the spiritual realm, that means a family that prays with and for him. Let those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, those who cut themselves or act violently toward others, those who are suicidal or despairing—let them be brought into a family made strong through deep and consistent prayer. Let the family cover them with grace, and the sick person will be healed.
What can you take away from this little talk? I would be happy if you would make a resolution to plan your family prayer. Doubtless many of you have a plan, but our prayer lives need to be evaluated every year (usually during Lent). As Lent is still 6 months away, I propose we draw up a rough plan today and let it soak for a few months. Just before Lent (Ash Wednesday is March 6 this year) finalize your plan and implement. Of course, you don’t have to wait until March to make some obvious changes. A basic plan in the three areas of family prayer might look like this:
1)Personal Prayer: a daily rosary; a weekly holy hour; an annual retreat.
2)Family Prayer: a daily prayer before and after meals; a weekly family rosary; an annual family trip to some nearby shrine
3)Liturgical Prayer: a daily visit to the Blessed Sacrament or spiritual communion; a weekly Sunday Mass as a family; a monthly confession with the whole family.
I’ll conclude with a paragraph from St. John Paul’s Rosarium Virginis Marie (2002):
Scarcely two weeks after my election to the See of Peter, I frankly admitted: “The Rosary is my favorite prayer. A marvelous prayer! Marvelous in its simplicity and its depth.” … It has always been a prayer of and for the family. It is important not to lose this precious inheritance. We need to return to the practice of family prayer and prayer for families, continuing to use the Rosary.
In October 1961, the month of the Holy Rosary and two months before I was born, Fr. Patrick Peyton led a rosary with 500,000 people in San Francisco, more than the entire city. Let the rosary, “marvelous in its simplicity and in its depth,” be the foundation of our family prayer today, and maybe even our city, our nation, and our planet will enjoy a greater peaceful and holy order.