One would think that, after being a priest for 30 years, you would have it all figured out. I always thought I would reach that happy point, and I presumed that things would be so much easier; what I did not consider is that it would also be much more dangerous.
There is always the possibility, as you have had the same experience over and over again, to just kind of go through the motions. Eventually you have the words memorized, and so they can start to lose their meaning.
It is something to be fought against as the years progress, and to somehow allow each sacramental encounter to be a gift. There is a sign that used to be in a number of sacristies that said, “Father, celebrate this Mass as if it was your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass.” It is good advice, but can be difficult to follow as the years pile up.
For the last few years, the hierarchy has been assisting in this effort by presenting to the Church revised rituals for the celebration of the Eucharist and marriage, and recently, baptism. While it has been a bit of a challenge to reorient myself to the new rituals after these years, I have discovered a happy benefit: I cannot just say the words from memory anymore.
This has given me the chance to practice a bit more, learn the meaning of the words, rediscover the rhythm of the poetry, to embrace again what is being taught in the words and the prayers and the actions. I have to learn how to celebrate a wedding all over again.
As I have spent this time learning the new prayers I have begun thinking about the couples I have been privileged to celebrate with; the couples I have helped prepare for this wonderful sacrament. In the years since my ordination, I have prepared many couples for marriage, spending time with them and talking with them, sharing my experiences and helping them build on their relationship.
As I have been learning again how to perform the matrimonial ceremony, I have given myself the opportunity to be amazed at how much I have learned from the couples I have walked with in preparation.
Most of them are still married, and many are not, relationships are complex and difficult, but almost all of them began in the same way. A couple, in love and desiring the grace of the sacrament sits in my office and we begin to get to know each other. They are usually so nervous to meet with me, scared that I will find fault or some reason to send them away, but I hope our time together eases up some of their concern.
As we meet and I go through the various aspects of the required preparation process, we get to know each other and, if things work as they should, they come away with a better understanding of the life they are called to, and I come away better and more human for having been with them.
Why? Because they are in love; that is it, that is the experience they share with me and with the world. None of us knows what their future may hold, but at this moment, we know they are in love, and how they live that can change me and everyone they encounter.
Their love has bid them make a thousand sacrifices before they come to the chairs in my office, and they make them joyfully, happily, because they are in love. I have gotten older, and it is important for me to be taught again the youthful truth of how love renews even the burdens and sacrifices of life.
As they make their way through the process, each couple is made aware of the struggles they will endure as the future unfolds, and in that moment, they have a sense that they are not alone, and they will face those struggles together; how easily I forget this. It is a gift to be reminded of the absolute necessity of community in order to live as a Christian; their commitment reminds me that Jesus was pretty clear on this fact.
On their wedding day, after many months of preparation with me and the hundred thousand details a wedding demands, I always smile as this couple I have gotten to know walks down the aisle, hand in hand, to begin their new life. I am reminded at that moment that the Church is made up of more wives and husbands than it is made up of clerics.
They have desired the gift of a sacramental union, and receiving this gift, they go forth to share it with the world. Their family and friends wish them well, and I wish them well; it will be a long, arduous and beautiful journey they begin.
I hope, as the doors fly open and they enter into the world that I have taught them something; I know they have taught me, and God has given them the best wedding present of all—each other and himself.