Last week during mass at my Catholic parish, the priest mentioned that a couple in the congregation were celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary. He referred to this couple in his homily, pointing out that a relationship of 65 years involved commitment through the good times and the bad. He said that hope is an important factor that helps couples and individuals get through challenging periods.
While I think it might be admirable that a marriage lasts for 65 years, we were not given information about the quality of the relationship we were being invited to celebrate. We were just given a number, albeit a large number. Is the length of a marriage the best criteria for an occasion of celebration? I ask this question because I too can get caught up in the numbers game.
Many years ago, during my studies at the Toronto School of Theology, I spent a summer working as a hospital chaplain as part of a clinical pastoral education program. One of my assignments was on the geriatric ward and I helped out with the weekly sing-a-long ably led by the hospital’s head chaplain. It was amazing to see patients who were almost always silent, break into song when the pianist began to play a familiar tune. One such patient was Jerry – a large man with advanced Parkinson’s. Jerry’s wife Beth came to visit him every day and spent countless silent hours by his bedside. I still remember the big glasses that dominated the delicate features of her small face. One day I learned that Jerry and Beth’s 50th wedding anniversary was approaching. I initiated the organization of an anniversary celebration on the ward – I ordered a cake and the staff agreed to help decorate the sing-a-long space. About a week prior to the celebration, I took part in a meeting involving the health care professionals on the ward. The ward’s social worker mentioned that she was concerned about Beth because she hadn’t seen for a couple of days. She explained to us that Beth lived on income assistance and ate all of her meals at the hospital. She then spoke about the cruel irony of Beth, who had endured a lifetime of domestic violence, now continued to rely on her abuser for her daily sustenance. That information hit me like a ton of bricks. I had organized a golden wedding anniversary celebration for a couple with a history of domestic violence! I felt terrible yet I didn’t cancel the event. I didn’t have the courage or the creativity to use the occasion to increase awareness about the problem. I learned that big numbers can be a marker of incredible suffering and that it is important to talk about the quality of marital relationships.
It is estimated that between 1 out 3 women in any religious congregation is a victim of some form of domestic violence, be it emotional, physical, sexual, financial or spiritual abuse. Therefore, I know that I wasn’t the only person wondering about the quality of the 65 years of marriage we were being invited to celebrate at mass last Sunday. Clergy who struggle with figuring out how to talk about the reality of domestic violence in the context of worship can find examples of sermons addressing this problem on the RAVE Project website. I look forward to the day when the qualities of healthy relationships, such as kindness, caring, compassion, mutuality, negotiation, and respect are the substance of my church’s messages about getting through the good times and the bad that are part of every marriage.
Catherine Holtmann, 11 September 2017