Here I am as a Catholic priest, and I make girls cry.
Here is a situation which is typical- I hasten to add that this story is not based on a particular couple, but is a composite of various encounters with real people.
A young couple we’ll call Barbie and Ken come to see me. They’ve signed up at the parish, but I’ve never seen them at Mass.
Give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’re new.
I check it out and on the registration form they have different last names, but the same address.
OK. I guess they want to get married and are going to ask to be prepared.
Sure enough. They want to be married back in their home parish in Iowa, but they need a local priest to get them ready.
So remembering the Holy Father’s words about accepting everyone, love and mercy and forgiveness, I give them a warm welcome.
I listen to their story. Neither of them practice their Catholic faith. Barbie wants a church wedding. Ken doesn’t seem to care that much one way or the other.
I encourage the fact that they want to be married. I explain how this step is a chance to renew their commitment to their Catholic faith. Barbie nods in smiling agreement. Ken presents a blank stare.
I explain the process and chat for a time to get to know them better.
Then I pop the question:
“I see that you have put the same address on the registration form. Does that mean you are already living together?”
Barbie explains excitedly that they have bought a house.
I smile, “May I ask you a question?”
“I’m a Catholic priest. You have presented me with the fact that you are already living together. Now, do you think I would approve or disapprove?”
Ken finally speaks up, “Disapprove.”
I say, “That is the correct answer.”
Barbie demurs, “I thought because you are a married priest you would be more welcoming.”
Notice the word “welcome”. Where did she get that I wonder?
I reply, “Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m giving you a complete and unconditional welcome, but it is also my job to help you build a Catholic marriage not just a church wedding. I explain the difference. and why living together contradicts the whole idea of a Catholic marriage from the very start.”Then Barbie starts to cry.
I feel bad. Ken gives me a dirty look.
But why has Barbie started to cry?
Is it compunction for sin? Has she been given the gift of tears? Is she repentant? Does she wish to turn from her sin and seek God?
I see no sign of that.
Barbie is crying because someone has challenged her just a little–even in a very gentle way.
Barbie is crying because she has not got her own way exactly as she wants it.
What am I to do? It is all well and good the Holy Father telling me that I must be sympathetic and compassionate and loving and merciful and forgiving.
I believe I have done all that and even had all those emotions. I do want Barbie and Ken to have a fully Catholic marriage. I do have compassion for them caught up in decadent American society and brought up in a Catholic Church with poor catechesis, shoddy teaching, lazy ethics and slipshod morality. I do have love for them and wish to extend God’s mercy and forgiveness, but I can only do that if they are penitent. Otherwise all I am doing is condoning their choice, weakening marriage, undermining the Catholic faith and being a bad priest.
So go figure.
I don’t see any way around this problem. How do I, on the one hand, uphold Catholic marriage and on the other hand accept and welcome everyone?
Do I tell Barbie and Ken they need to first go to confession and then start living separately? I guess that’s the Catholic thing to do, but then all they would do is go through the motions. Go to confession? I expect they haven’t been to confession for years and wouldn’t know where to begin.
So I go on my way pondering how to square this circle. Perhaps we will have a new parish policy: we don’t do marriage prep for people living together because they have already decided by their actions that they do not wish to support or live Catholic marriage….
But that wouldn’t be welcoming and merciful. Would it?
Or maybe our mercy should be more like the Lord’s mercy–which is often a severe mercy.