“What does an old, celibate, Catholic bishop have to say about marriage?”

“What does an old, celibate, Catholic bishop have to say about marriage?” November 20, 2011

If anyone was wondering about that when they attended a recent talk by Bishop R. Walker Nickless in Sioux City, they may have gotten some surprising answers:

He provided several examples of his experiences dealing with marriage.

“I am one of 10 children. I watched my parents grow in their married love for 57 years,” said Bishop Nickless, whose mom died 10 days after his ordination as a bishop. Being the oldest, he noted that he saw both good and challenging things in his parents’ married life. He called them “a very normal couple with a normal family.”

After his mother died, Bishop Nickless said he experienced five years of watching his father miss his wife. “In some ways I think my dad died this past September of a broken heart,” he added.

Bishop Nickless mentioned that eight of his siblings are married and he witnessed seven of the marriages. In those relationships he has seen not only blessings but struggles, and despite challenges all remain married.

As a priest, the bishop noted, he had prepared hundreds of couples for marriage.

“I really loved to prepare couples for marriage and communication was at the center of everything we had to do,” he said. “They really needed to know each other and share things with one another.”

While the bishop didn’t shy away from talking to the couples about cohabitation, Bishop Nickless acknowledged that he wishes he would have spent more time educating them about contraception and natural family planning. He also wishes he would have stressed the importance of spending time in prayer as a couple.

“Those are some of the reasons why I have some knowledge about marriage, but there is another reason – I’m married,” he said. “I am married to the church, you are my beloved and I am called to lay down my life for you. Priests represent Christ and his bride is the church.”

Using a Scripture reference, the bishop said that in marriage a man and woman are united with each other and the two become one flesh.

“They love each other as they love themselves and cherish each other’s bodies as their own,” he said. “This union is an image of the relationship between Christ and his church.”

The bishop quoted St. Paul, “He who loves his wife, loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it even as Christ does the church because we are members of his body. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife and the two become one flesh. This is a great mystery but I speak in reverence to Christ and the church.”

Bishop Nickless pointed out that St. Paul used this image of marriage to help understand the relationship between Christ and his church.

“All of you who are in the sacrament of marriage, reflect that for us,” he said. “You are reflections of what Christ’s love for the church is all about. The way you lay down your lives for each other just as Christ did for us is a great example to the church and especially to us as priests.”

Priests, the bishop noted, have the advantage of seeing many, many married couples. They can experience the couple’s pains, sorrows and disappointments. But they can also see the many joys.

“It is wonderful to be in a happy marriage,” Bishop Nickless said. “I want to thank all of you who struggle everyday to make your marriages work. It is not only work, but it can become a real source of grace and holiness.”

He told them that God called them to the vocation of marriage so that they can help each other get to heaven.

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11 responses to ““What does an old, celibate, Catholic bishop have to say about marriage?””

  1. Overall, a nice reflection from the bishop — plenty of respect there for the vocation of marriage, and a fair amount of insight into it as well.

    I will confess that I’m one of those who usually gets a bit cynical when elderly cardinals, etc., speak in great detail about the intricacies of married life. (It would have been nice, for instance, if Pope Paul had listened more seriously to the married folks who served on the contraception study group (and who were at the very least ambivalent on strict restrictions against contraception) before he issued Humanae Vitae. After all — you don’t often see the reverse happen: the laity creating detailed pronouncements about the most essential parts of priests’ day-to-day lives, but elderly men who have been celibate all their lives usually do feel they have great wisdom to share on all intimate aspects of married life.

    Having said that — Bishop Nickless avoids the condescending tone with which the hierarchy too often writes about married life. And he’s right: marriage can a be a great source for grace, as well as a struggle and lots of other things.

  2. I think Pope Paul decided to listen to the Holy Spirit on contraception more than the “married folks” and other members of the commission.
    As for the laity not often making pronouncements of the lives of priests, I think I hear lay people rather often saying that priests should be able to get married, celibacy is not natural, women should be priests etc. etc. etc.

  3. The things people are saying about priests are things they should be allowed to do. The things priests are saying about people are things they shouldn’t be allowed to do.

  4. “The things priests are saying about people are things they shouldn’t be allowed to do.”

    A bizarre satement. That’s their job. They are supposed to do it.

  5. Not to get contentious but I was stating a fact, making a distinction in response to the previous comment. I did say anything about what anybody’s role is or isn’t.

  6. Generally speaking, I don’t mind priests speaking on marriage. What bothers me is when they approach marriage as though it were only a theology topic and not a living vocation. As though parroting the theology behind it somehow makes living it easier. The theology is certainly important but if you aren’t going to approach someone about their life with charity and compassion, everything you say will sound condescending and removed.

    Maybe it is just my experience but it would be much easier to hear priests speak about marriage if they used the language of a Father instead of a preacher.

  7. Pope John Paul II produced one of the best documents of all time with “Theology of the Body” which gives all who read it and take it to heart, mind, and soul a good look at what someone who is grounded in Catholic teaching can produce. I always have to laugh at those who worry about a priest teaching what the Catholic Church actually teaches because they are celebate. Since Catholic teaching on faith and morals that is in line with an infallible Pope gives us a better understanding than any other person could provide, married or not. I would trust our Creator with a better insight on these matters than anyone. That of course is what makes Humane Vitae so important for Catholics and why only fools would argue that the Pope after prayer decided against many others on matters such as birth control. It is comforting to trust infalliblity protected by God.

  8. “What does an old celibate catholic bishop have to say about marriage?”

    Likely less than if he had been married and experienced it first hand. There is a difference in perspective that comes with that experience. The theology may be the same, but the manner of speaking about it will be tempered by that experience. Also, the people hearing may well hear something different and more helpful – even if the words said are the same and with the same intonation. It’s not fair, but people identify more readily with those who have gone through the same experience. I intend no disrespect here for celibacy, the unmarried celibate clergy, or those in the church who continue to impose this “discipline” on the Latin Rite clergy. I trust those who impose it have good reasons because they are answerable to God for it, the same God who did not impose being an unmarried celibate on our first pope, the rock upon whom He built His Church.

  9. As much as this particular bishop thinks he knows about marriage, watching his parents and their lives as the oldest of 10 kids, it isn’t quite the same thing as being the human partner in a marriage. IMO the same holds true about being married to “the Church”, it being his “bride”. The church as bride is an institution—not quite the same thing, IMO, as a human being. Though his observations of his parents has helped him educated and advise engaged couples, not the same thing as experience, IMO.

  10. Doubtless, if the bishop had the experience of being married, it would give an added dimension to his view. It could also skew his view if he incorrectly universalized the particulars of his own marriage.

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