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Spirit moved layman’s push for sacred vows
By Valerie Schmalz

.- St. Thomas More Parish in San Francisco is hosting a wedding for as many as 20 couples — one parish’s response to a decline of almost 50 percent in weddings among Catholics in the past two decades.

“We’ll be doing a real shebang. A real wedding,” said Joe Espinueva, a parishioner and organizer of “Operation I Do,” a totally free wedding and reception for couples who were civilly but not sacramentally married or have been in a common law marriage.

“There will be cutting of cake. There will be dancing. We will want these people to feel they are getting a real marriage from the church,” said Espinueva.

Parishioners are volunteering to cook dishes, bake cakes, and offering to donate bouquets. Many of the marrying couples’ children will serve as flower girls and ring bearers.

Marriage preparation according to church norms is under way, said Espinueva. “We are not trying to do a microwave wedding or a shortcut wedding,” said Espinueva, who said he was sacramentally married at St. Thomas More four years ago, years after entering a civil marriage. The parish will engage in follow up with the couples after the wedding to keep them engaged spiritually with the church, Espinueva said.

“We started in our church a campaign to say for those married civilly — let us help you to marry in the church,” said pastor Msgr. Labib Kobti. “All that I want to do is to bring you back to the church and make from your wedding a sacrament. This we called ‘Operation I Do.’”

The parish expects numerous priests concelebrating and at least 500 wedding guests. It will host the reception at the large church hall on St. Thomas More school grounds, said Espinueva. “Msgr. Labib said we will be putting tents outside if that’s not enough space.”Among those who will wed are couples who have been married civilly for 28, 17, 11years, Msgr. Kobti said.

Espinueva said the Holy Spirit inspired the idea after he saw an article May 27 in Catholic San Francisco describing an archdiocesan decline in Catholic weddings that mirrors national trends. In the Archdiocese of San Francisco, marriage declined 47percent from 1990 to 2010 while during the same period the number of Catholics in the archdiocese grew from 395,000 to 444,008. Archbishop George Niederauer has formed a task force to study the issue.

“There are so many couples in our local church who could benefit from this kind of outreach,” said Msgr. James Tarantino, archdiocesan vicar for administration and moderator of the curia.

Three St. Thomas More parishioners who are in their third year of training for the diaconate have been interviewing couples and helping them fill out paperwork to marry. The men are Romeo Cruz, Arthur Sanchez, and Marcos Cobillas. Those couples who may need help with a previous marriage and a divorce are getting assistance in working with the archdiocesan marriage tribunal, Espinueva said.

The owner of a music store in Serramonte Mall, Espinueva said he has been asking his customers if they know any Catholics married civilly but not in the church. He is also handing out fliers. That effort, as well as couples who want to become involved with Couples for Christ or the Filipino-couples group “Opening your heart to the Lord” or Bukas Loob SaDiyes, have been the source of most of the couples who will marry, he said. Both groups require couples to have been sacramentally married to participate.

The effort to help couples marry in the church is also an initiative of the Family Ministry in the Latino community of the archdiocese, said Father Francisco Gamez. Twenty-five couples will wed at St. Mary’s Cathedral in a ceremony presided over by Bishop William Justice on Saturday Aug 13.Several other parishes have similar events, archdiocesan officials said.

Couples have not married in the church for many reasons, Espinueva said. Obtaining baptismal certificates, or divorce certifications from other countries or jurisdictions is difficult. The marriage preparation process is unwieldy for some.“ Another reason they have been telling me, they are embarrassed because they have been living together for quite some time and have not received the sacrament of matrimony,” he said.

An actual wedding date is not yet set as the parish races to complete all the paperwork, Espinueva said. Espinueva is a co-chairman of Catholics for the Common Good which is battling efforts to legalize same-sex marriage as well as promoting sacramental marriage in the church.“I would like to put it in the context of this saint who was killed by protecting marriage, St. Thomas More,” Msgr. Kobti said. “Harry the 8thI wanted to get married and he wanted to divorce his wife and this, our saint, said, no, you cannot divorce.” St. Thomas More was beheaded July 6, 1535, and King Henry VIII defied the pope leading to the formation of the Church of England. “He died protecting marriage,” Msgr. Kobti said.

Referring to the years when he could not receive holy Communion because he was not in a blessed marriage, Espinueva said, “The feeling of being able to receive the holy Eucharist without any conscience is so beautiful. Most of these people are not receiving holy Communion because they know they cannot and they are so eager to be married so they eventually can receive Jesus Christ.”

“This is not my project, this is the Holy Spirit’s project,” said Espinueva. “I think the Holy Spirit planned everything. We just opened all our hearts. We are doing all this out of love. It’s just a four-letter word, but it takes a lot of time to practice.”

For more information, contact Joe Espinueva at [email protected].

Printed with permission from Catholic San Francisco.


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