Helping their spouse get to heaven is one of the main jobs of married couples said Bishop R. Walker Nickless at the marriage night held Oct. 28 at Stoney Creek Inn in Sioux City, Iowa.
The bishop was the guest speaker for the marriage gathering sponsored by the diocese’s Office of Religious Education and Family Life. About 30 couples from various parts of the diocese attended.
Welcoming the couples to the event, Sean Martin, director of religious education and family life, referred to Bishop Nickless’ pastoral letter in which the bishop called sacramental marriage the source of holiness for spouses, and through them, the children.
“I’m sure in the bishop’s address we will be reminded and learn some various ways of putting our faith into action in our personal lives, marriages and in the world all for the love of Christ Jesus,” Martin said.
Prior to the bishop’s talk, the couples enjoyed a meal and socializing with one another.
Through attending the gathering, Dana Koinzan, said it allowed her to see there are other people who are trying to walk in their married life with faith.
“It provides affirmation that you are on the right track,” Koinzan said, the parishioner of Cathedral of the Epiphany in Sioux City.
For Dan McCarty of Alton who attended the gathering with his wife Theresa, it provided a chance “to spend some time together and talk about our marriage and faith. What more fun can you have than that?”
He called bishop’s presentation thought-provoking.
Fred and Susanne Reding, parishioners of St. Michael of Whittemore, came to the gathering to hear the bishop speak about marriage. She wanted to learn more about how they can help the bishop and the church.
“Every chance we can get to see and be with the bishop is very worthwhile,” said Fred.
As Bishop Nickless began his presentation, he said some may be wondering what would “an old, celibate, Catholic bishop have to say about marriage?” 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.
Bishop Nickless gave them an overview of his pastoral letter “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda” (The Church is Always in Need of Renewal) that included his five pastoral priorities for the diocese: 1) Renewed reverence, love, adoration and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. 2) Strengthen catechesis on every level, beginning with and focusing on adults. 3) The first two priorities help with the third - fostering holy families that are the foundation of the church and society. 4) Fostering vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. 5) Embracing the missionary character of the faith.
Two of those priorities, he noted, tie in with their attendance at the marriage gathering: providing adult catechesis and fostering holy families.
Just as he came up with priorities for this diocese, Bishop Nickless noted that the U.S. bishops have also identified priorities. Marriage and family was among the priorities. As a result, the bishop said the committee on laity, marriage, family life and youth wrote a pastoral letter in 2010 called “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.”
“It’s no surprise that marriage and family life was chosen as a priority because when you think about what is happening in our society to marriage and family – in our country it is under attack in so many ways,” he said.
He cited some struggles: cohabitation, the lack of significance of the sacrament of marriage and marriage as a whole, same-sex marriage, contraception, sterilization, in-vitro fertilization and more.
Bishop Nickless said the church in recent years has worked very hard to help marriages and families such as providing better marriage preparation and resources for natural family planning.
He referred to the bishops’ document on marriage and reminded them that marriage had two purposes: the good of the spouse as well as procreation and education of children. He stressed that these two purposes are inseparable.
“Marriage is not merely a private institution – something just between you two but it is the foundation of the family where children learn values and virtues that make them good Christians as well as good citizens,” said the bishop, quoting from the document.
He told the couples that they symbolize life and love.
One attendee asked how they might help the bishop in his efforts. He told them to go to Mass and educate their children.
“I can’t tell you how much your example means to the church – to be faithful in your marriage commitments. You have your ups and downs, your problems and difficulties and so do I,” the bishop said. “You all have your own ways of dealing with things. It’s communication, talking and praying with one another.”
Individuals shared stories about couples who had provided great examples of married life. Many mentioned the example of their parents.
The bishop reminded them of the importance of having faith, hope and love in their marriages.
Printed with permission from The Catholic Globe, newspaper for the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa.