Thursday, September 3, 2015

Choosing Wholeness, Abundant Life, and Enduring Happiness

Just in time for this month's World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Image Books has released a book-length interview of Bishop Jean Laffitte, the current secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family. It's the Council's task to organize the World Meeting of Families every three years. This year is the first time it will be held in the United States.

The book highlights the richness of family life well-lived, as hinted at by its title, The Choice of the Family: A Call to Wholeness, Abundant Life, and Enduring Happiness. In its format, it resembles previous best-selling full-length interviews of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, including Light of the World and others.

Although the interview was conducted in 2011, the issues of love, family, and sexuality are perennial ones. The lengthy opening remarks by Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, and Archbishop Charles Chaput, a popular conservative Catholic voice, increase the book's appeal to American Catholics today.

Bishop Laffitte touches on all the hot-button issues of cohabitation, sexuality, adultery, divorce and remarriage, and the right of the Church to make its voice heard in the public square. But he also offers advice, rich with years of experience, about fostering a love of God in individuals, engaged couples, families, and young children. The key to opening people's hearts is that "the priest must have an interest in their happiness," says Bishop Laffitte.

Marriage preparation has an essential role to play in forming strong families, and the bishop provides helpful insights to priests and anyone else involved in this ministry. Fully aware of the challenges, he is not a man with his head stuck in the clouds. "Many people demand the sacrament of marriage from the Church while totally misunderstanding what the sacrament signifies.  ...We need to be aware," he cautions. We must reawaken the desire and the hope for permanence and indissolubility that "is demanded by the nature of love," he adds. When we give love as a gift, we give it totally and forever. Anything less is merely a loan, unworthy of the name of love.

In marriage preparation, instructors can discover what the couple's expectations are of marriage and perhaps help them to see their future more realistically. It will not be all good or all bad. When the bad times come, spouses need to forgive each other, reconcile with each other, and realize that the suffering will pass -- what Bishop Laffitte calls "an ordinary practice of reconciliation."

Despite the importance of this type of common sense advice, marriage preparation operates on more than a psychological or social level -- it must be a spiritual event, according to the bishop. If a marriage minister does not "introduce the engaged couple into an experience of prayer, I do not know where they are headed! I find it insane that people are prepared over the course of months for the sacrament of marriage and ... nobody invites them to pray," he says.

Marriage itself is also a spiritual event. It is a privileged path to encounter divine love through the transforming power of human love. And God does not offer anyone a love that is second-best. Marriage ministers can communicate that beautiful truth to the couples they counsel while preparing them for the sacrament of Matrimony. As Bishop Laffitte states movingly, "The fianc├ęs must feel loved and be led to Christ. There is then an opening of the heart that takes place, and then there can be space for the grace of Christ. We have to believe it."

Monday, August 31, 2015

Parochial School Girl Meets Public School World

When our oldest daughter graduated with her 40-person class from eighth grade in parochial school, all the girls hugged each other and cried. She's entering public high school in a few days, and it's totally uncharted territory. None of her parochial school friends will be with her, she won't be wearing her trusty plaid uniform, and the sprawling high school building with its 1,000+ students seems as vast as the Museum of Natural History.

Even the routine high school paperwork foreshadowed ominous threats ahead. The technology policy advised repeatedly that sexting and pornography are not acceptable on school grounds. Neither is bullying, defined as acting or speaking in such a way to make another feel afraid of physical harm. Skimming the four pages of legalese, I summarized to my daughter: "No nudity, no bullying, no nudity, don't be mean." She raised a quizzical eyebrow, but let it go.

The permission slip for the 9th grade welcome barbecue was even scarier. The opening words of the "Freshman BBQ Contract" robustly proclaimed: "I understand that the Freshman BBQ is a school sponsored event and that the use or possession of alcohol and/or illegal drugs is strictly prohibited. I understand that this rule includes not arriving at the school under the influence of alcohol and/or illegal drugs." I slanted a glance at my daughter. "No alcohol and no illegal drugs," I repeated weakly.

"Mom, why do you think you have to tell me that?" she asked with a smile conveying that she would never EVER do anything as silly as drink alcohol or take illegal drugs. "I'm more worried that THEY think they have to tell you that - to tell any ninth grader that," I replied. "They probably use the same permission slip for all the grades," she reassured me, "because they're just being cautious." The corners of my mouth quivered upward in an attempted smile.

The path from parochial school to public school seems perilous indeed. From no chewing gum to no drugs and alcohol. From a dress code that prohibits ballerina flats (too much toe cleavage?) to one that prohibits all "vulgar, obscene, or libelous" clothing items.

On the day of freshman orientation, my daughter collected all the duly-signed paranoid-inducing paperwork and stuffed it in her oversized purse. She was ready to go. Except.

"Can you wear the other shorts?" I asked her. The "other shorts" were a tiny bit looser and a tiny bit longer, so they would represent a major victory in the modesty department. A spate of fashion-ese poured out of her: "The other shorts are the wrong color and the wrong pattern and the wrong style for this shirt. See, the tiny diamond pattern on the shirt is vertical and the tiny diamond pattern on those shorts is horizontal. Do you HATE my fashion sense? :pout:" Trying not to collapse in a gibbering heap, I bundled her into the car and drove off towards the high school.

She blended in perfectly with all the other girls milling around outside the high school building. They might as well have been wearing a uniform. Blousy shirt, long straight hair, shorts cut so close to the body that they would make my thighs scream if I tried to squeeze into anything similar. Although I later discovered that the dress code required all shorts to reach mid-thigh, clearly not a soul was interested in following or enforcing it. If my daughter had worn anything else, she would have looked as out of place as someone wearing a 1920s bathing suit on a modern beach.

I know that modesty takes its cues from the surrounding time and culture (CCC 2524). When my mother was growing up in the 1950s, my grandmother was horrified by the idea that my mother would ever wear black pants. Oh, the scandal! In Victorian times, an ankle was taboo. And in the future,we might all be wearing skintight spacesuits like the Star Trek: Next Generation crew. But I also know that if modesty exists along a sliding scale, I'd rather my daughter be on the more modest end of what's culturally acceptable.

Still, I have great sympathy for my daughter's feelings. I remember being a teenage girl, equally perplexed by my parents' complaint that certain outfits were inappropriate and my peers' conviction that I was dowdy. I didn't care about fashion -- there were too many crossword puzzles to be solved, languages to be learned, and cool philosophical concepts to be grasped. I just wanted to escape the emotional pummeling and the certainty that, no matter what, someone would always think I looked ugly.

I want to protect my daughter equally from self-doubt and from external harm (i.e., boys). She is both more valuable and more vulnerable as she steps over the threshold of womanhood. While I will probably never have children again, her body is now capable of generating them. She bears within her the future: future children, future career, making her mark on a future society.

As my daughter grows inevitably, inexorably towards adulthood, the next stage of my life is creeping up on me as well. At age 14, I may not have been fashion-forward, but I felt like I had enough drive and determination to conquer the world. At age 44, I wonder when I can sneak my next nap. And I envy my daughter a little. She is bright with innumerable possibilities, alight with potential. She has never truly been hurt.

It is time to let her meet the world. It is time for me to let go a little. It is time for me to pray harder.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Top 7 Online Resources for Divorced Catholics

In light of the upcoming World Meeting of Families and the Synod on the Family in Rome, the Catholic Church's teaching on divorce is taking center stage. Pope Francis has urged greater compassion and outreach towards those who have undergone divorce. Here are seven terrific online resources to help.

1. The USCCB web site

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops devotes several pages of its site to the topics of divorce and annulment. The Divorce FAQs and Annulment FAQs list several additional print and DVD resources, and also link to current blogposts on the subjects.

2. The Catholic's Divorce Survival Guide

One of the resources highlighted on the USCCB site is The Catholic's Divorce Survival Guide, a 12 DVD series with guide either for personal use or as a parish program. The series features Catholic authors Rose Sweet, Dr. Ray Guarendi, Christopher West, and Fr. Mitch Pacwa. The accompanying website offers helpful answers to common questions about anger, hurt, and healing. It also includes advice on helping kids through divorce, learning how to forgive, and even the best movies for cinema therapy.

3. Lisa Duffy on Catholic Match Institute

Lisa Duffy has nearly 600 posts on Catholic Match Institute, the blog of the online dating service. Many of those posts focus on bringing healing to those who are separated or divorced. Lisa has been working in Catholic divorce ministry for decades. Her Journey of Hope program is now being used in more than 50 parishes in the United States and several parishes in Canada as well. She is a co-author of the 2007 book Divorced. Catholic. Now What? and the author of the 2015 book The Catholic Guide to Dating after Divorce. Her personal website includes podcasts and free downloads, and a special page for readers to send in their prayer requests.


Vince Frese, who co-authored Divorced. Catholic. Now What? with Lisa Duffy, has a helpful website called Through the website, people can order home study kits, sign up for online programs and subscribe to daily inspirational emails.

5. Catholic Divorce Ministry

The Catholic Divorce Ministry has been active since 1974. The organization "works with family-life ministries in various dioceses to help parishes reach people in the pews with workshops, programs and retreats," according to an article in the National Catholic Register.  The site has resources for catechists and leaders of peer ministries for the divorced and separated. One of its most useful features is a listing of dates and times for many different upcoming events available throughout the country.


This site is a blog started by two women, Carina and Manya. Their blogposts cover important issues like sharing the holidays, taking children's wishes into account when splitting up household items, and seeking spiritual support through mental prayer, novenas, and the intercession of the saints.

7. Mary's Advocates

The website of Mary's Advocates contains a detailed critique of the current annulment system, based on an exhaustive analysis of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and canon law. The organization's founder, Bai Macfarlane, will be speaking at a Human Life International symposium in Rome, and her written presentation will be distributed to the bishop delegates at the October Synod on the Family. The organization's book, The Gift of Self, is meant to provide spiritual support for separated or divorced spouses who intend to stay faithful to their marriages.

If you are aware of any additional resources, please let us know in the comments below!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Top Tips for a Joy-Filled Marriage

My husband Manny and I had an awesome time last weekend giving a presentation to around 40 couples in the Archdiocese of Newark on how to live God's Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage. This great pre-Cana program covers the topics of sacramentality and sexuality, and it's chock full of quotes from Pope St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body and his book Love and Responsibility. I gave the talk on the Wedding at Cana (understandably one of my favorite Bible stories), and Manny gave the talk on the Church's definition of marriage, annulments and impediments to marriage.

As is true in any large group, there was a wide range of knowledge and interest. Not everyone had heard the story of the Wedding at Cana, and some people were more familiar with the fictitious marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalen than the mystical marriage between Jesus and the Church. It was truly a privilege to be the first ones to introduce some of these people to the beautiful theology of Catholic marriage.

The Joy-Filled Marriage program is given several times a year, and attendees are always given the opportunity to place anonymous questions in a question box. Here are some of the most common issues and our top tips for dealing with them.

1.  The "Inter-Faith" Question

My fiance and are are of different faiths.  What problems might we encounter, and how do we have a successful inter-faith marriage?

  • The biggest problems that many inter-faith couples face are celebrating holidays and passing their faith on to their children.
  • Religious holidays can be celebrated at home as well as in church (or at temple). Customize your at-home celebrations to reflect aspects of both faith traditions.
  • When couples get married in the Church, the Catholic spouse needs to promise to raise the children in the Catholic faith. Discuss before the wedding how that promise affects church attendance, school attendance, and participation in religious milestones like First Communion or Confirmation. Don't sweep the issue under the rug.

2.  The "Communication" Question

What are the best ways to improve our communication?

  • Don't roll your eyes or slam doors.
  • If you can't talk about it calmly, write it down instead.
  • Never let the sun go down on your anger. Give your spouse a hug or kiss of forgiveness before bedtime, and tomorrow begin again!

3. The "First Year" Question

What was the toughest part of the first year of marriage?

  • Sometimes couples with the best relationships encounter severe crises in the first year (we faced fears of infertility, death of a close family member, and the diagnosis of Manny's first brain tumor). Don't let it get you down.
  • Friends might complain that you spend less time with them than before. Make it clear that your top priority is your spouse.
  • You might be tempted to spend less time at work. Give in!

4.  The "Sexual Frustration" Question

If we choose to save sex for marriage, how do we deal with the unmet physical desire?

  • Amp up the romance. Channel the frustration into loving, non-physical demonstrations of affection.
  • Stay far away from temptation -- don't play with fire!
  • If you give in, go to confession. If you give in again, go to confession again. 

5.  The "In-Law" Question

My fiance has family that get into our personal business and I feel like they influence him/her more than I do sometimes.  Am I wrong to be upset?  What can be done?

  • Let your fiance know how much this bothers you. Agree to set firm but loving boundaries between you and both of  your families.
  • You and your fiance can listen respectfully and thank family members for their advice, while making it clear that the final decision is between the two of you as a couple.
  • Realize that what your in-laws really want in most cases is for you and your fiance to be happy.

God bless you and your marriages! If you have more questions like these, ask them in the comments or send us a private email at

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Your Marriage is a Pearl of Great Price

I never understood the parable of the pearl of great price until just recently. Why would a merchant sell all that he had in order to buy a single pearl, no matter how valuable? It contradicts the cardinal rule of investing: diversify your holdings. It conflicts with the commonsense rule of life: don't put all your eggs in one basket. It doesn't make rational sense.

Then one day, my whole perspective changed as a result of a casual encounter on the beach. I was introduced to Marian, an extended family member. As Marian and I stood on the sand exchanging pleasantries, a ray of sunlight glinted off the necklace I was wearing. "Oh," exclaimed Marian, "a pearl!" I explained that my husband had given me the pendant as an anniversary present, celebrating many years and many children together. Grinning, she remarked, "Your marriage is a pearl of great price."

Her words made the incomprehensible parable comprehensible. When I married my husband and promised to forsake all others, I gave away all that I was and all that I had. When I vowed to stay true for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, I (metaphorically) placed my eggs in one basket. I risked everything, and I made the right choice -- an irreversible one.

Marriage has no back-up plan, no escape hatch, no termination clause. Marriage is permanent, and the commitment to love our spouse is everlasting. We risk everything in the hopes of gaining everything. We sell everything in order to buy a pearl of great price.

This element of risk may make marriage vows seem rash. But every vow, every promise of future behavior, is dangerously uncertain. As G.K. Chesterton wrote:
The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place. The danger of it is that himself should not keep the appointment. And in modern times this terror of one's self, of the weakness and mutability of one's self, has perilously increased and is the real basis of the objection to vows of any kind. ... It is exactly this backdoor, this sense of having a retreat behind us, that is, to our minds, the sterilizing spirit of modern pleasure.
What makes a vow sane, according to Chesterton, is the "transfiguring self-discipline" that leads a man to promise great things and never give up fighting to achieve them. But a vow is not only risky because of our own weakness and mutability. It's also risky in light of any weakness in the other person. Can we trust our partner to keep his or her own vow? What if the "pearl" turns out to be flawed or, worse yet, counterfeit?

Let's return to the parable. In Jesus' allegorical story, the pearl of great price represents the kingdom of heaven. As people of faith, we can be certain that heaven is never counterfeit and that God's perfect love is real and eternal. On a human level, marriage does not have the same degree of certainty. All human beings have flaws, some big and some small. One of those flaws is the tendency to overemphasize other's imperfections while minimizing our own. We suspect, when sorrow comes, that we've somehow been cheated out of our just due.

But sacramental marriage is more than a merely human endeavor. A sacramental marriage has God in the midst of it. It is a path to heaven, a way of achieving holiness in the world, a vocation of service to which we are called by God. By entering into a sacramental marriage, we don't just risk everything we have for the sake of another human being -- we risk everything for God. And, when all is said and done, that's always a good bet.