In July 2015 Pope Francis tweeted: “The most powerful witness to marriage is the exemplary lives of Christian spouses.” No doubt this is true. In fact, this conviction—that we have much to learn about both marriage and holiness from married couples themselves—motivated a colleague, Julie Donovan Massey, and me to embark on a recently completed research project that resulted in the book Project Holiness: Marriage as a Workshop for Everyday Saints. We wanted to hear from (extra)ordinary folks in the pews about how their faith influences their marriage and how their marriage affects their faith, believing these married couples to be rich and largely untapped theological resources. In other words, we wanted to gain wisdom from the “powerful witness” of their “exemplary lives” in order to pass that wisdom along to others.
We began with written surveys in 20 parishes and subsequently conducted face-to-face interviews with 50 couples who had been named as “models of holiness” in those surveys. Through the testimony of these couples who are faithfully living out the vocation of marriage (we call them everyday saints), we learned about the virtues, values and practices that contribute to a flourishing marriage and to the holiness of spouses.
These couples offer hope in a culture in which many despair about the state of marriage. We wring our hands that fewer young people are choosing to marry. Despite ebbs and flows, divorce rates continue to be surprisingly high decades after our country’s so-called divorce revolution in the 1960s. Further, we witness and lament distorted notions of marriage. For example, our culture’s overly romantic, overly gendered “soul mate” model of marriage dominates, beginning in the toddler years. (Thanks, Disney!) As a result, many view marriage as primarily about romance and self-fulfillment, a fragile model of marriage with little chance of enduring the inevitable challenges and hardships that beset even the strongest married relationships.
With so much bad news about marriage, we desperately need the good news offered by the couples in our study, who model friendship and fidelity over the long haul and who powerfully show that marriage is, indeed, a fruitful vocation that makes one holy and virtuous. Rooted in the testimony of the couples in our study, I suggest that—in order to flourish—married couples should foster friendship, practice mercy and fidelity and seek community.
The Demands of Authentic Friendship
The word friend is tossed around casually in our culture—befriending (or de-friending) a person is simply a click away on Facebook. In contrast, authentic friendship is lasting and morally demanding. It results in the development of character. Ultimately, our friends should make us better because they want what is best for us and they do what is best for us. A true friend helps us to live up to our potential as human beings and, from a Christian perspective, become closer to God. The married relationships we encountered reflect this deep kind of friendship.
The married friends in our study inspire one another to be better by modeling virtue. For example, Phil Rullo, married 52 years, praised the virtues of his wife, Jane. “I like very much her patience and her capacity for forgiveness.... She has always been very respectful of who I am and what I do. I appreciate her great capacity to love. She’s a very giving person, and I try to reciprocate that love because she is so generous with it.” Phil recognizes how his wife models particular virtues—in this case: patience, forgiveness, respect, love and generosity—that in turn, shape him and call him to be more virtuous. He noted, “Our marriage has made me a better person by helping me become a more patient person and an understanding person, and a great deal of that is a result of the kind of modeling that Jane does.”
Married friends also help one another to grow by consistently supporting and encouraging one another, naming and celebrating each other’s gifts and replenishing emotional reserves. Many times spouses are trusted conversation partners and cheerleaders, rightly reminding their partners of their many positive attributes. At other times spouses must do the dirtier work of intimacy, pointing out negative behavior and tendencies in their partner that rightly should change.
Jeff and Laura Rader—married 34 years, with three grown children and “lots of granddaughters”—illustrate the sometimes tough work of friendship. Jeff said, “She challenges me to grow and can be blunt with me sometimes—which is good.” Laura responded, “I prefer to call it caringly direct,” which was met with laughter. She added, “Jeff makes me a better person because he points out things to me as well. Not as bluntly, but...he challenges me to grow in the virtues. I can only change myself, so he can highlight those [areas of growth] for me. But I know at the end of the day, or the end of the conversation...he is going to love me through it, so I have a comfort foundation that even when I’m not perfect he loves me, and that’s good. That’s a blessing.” It is their unconditional love for each other that creates a safe space to point out certain weaknesses and opportunities for growth. The partners can offer and receive constructive criticism because they are confident that the other will “love [them] through it.”
Growth in Goodness
Rather than seeing marriage as primarily about self-fulfillment and romance, the couples in our study—like the Rullos and Raders—understand marriage as a joint lifelong project of growth in goodness. In short, they engage marriage as a holiness project. Commitment to this project is captured beautifully in a phrase that we heard repeatedly: “Our job is to get each other to heaven.” Over a lifetime, these couples work to deepen authentic friendship with one another and, simultaneously, friendship with God. Marriage is a project meant for the good of the married couple, but also for the good of the wider world, or the common good. Kelly Brown, who is raising three young children with her husband, Frank, told us, “We want to live our life in a way that matters. [Our marriage] is about us, but it has been about more than us. The ultimate end is to bring more God into the world.”
When married couples become friends with God, they become committed to God’s ways, committed to bringing more God into the world. For Christians, this means building up the kingdom of God as Jesus preached and enacted. Margaret and Matthew Murphy, parents of three grown children, offer excellent testimony in this regard. Margaret explains, “I always tell the kids that Jesus showed us how to live. It was his loving and being true to what he knew he had to do to bring justice, to bring peace, to bring love to the world. That’s what got him in trouble. But we’re called to do the same. The whole message of social justice: How do we bring that love and healing?”
In this connection, she described the sacramental nature of her marriage: “Our marriage as sacrament...means very strongly that it cannot be, like the light under the bushel, an insular thing, a Matthew and me [thing], kind of like a me-and-Jesus kind of thinking, like it’s all about me and Jesus.” Rather, Margaret argues that the love and compassion experienced within her marriage and family must move ever outward. She explained: “Somehow that love, that compassion, it would be selfish for us just to keep it in our family and say, ‘Okay, we’re all happy. Everybody’s good.’ We always, we talk about this. That’s our challenge. ‘Are we doing enough? Are we giving enough?’ You know what I mean? It shouldn’t be this big heavy guilt thing, but it should be a bit of a challenge and nudge that, ‘Yeah, we’re blessed, so what are we doing to extend that?’ Our marriage should be a mirror of love to other people.”
The couples in our study truly inspired us by the many ways they serve as mirrors of God’s love, extending mercy to their neighbors. Couples provide hospitality to folks in need: a brother with significant disabilities; a child from the foster care system; a young, single and pregnant niece; the friend of a son who had been kicked out of his dysfunctional home, and the list goes on. Sometimes, a stay that was expected to be temporary turned into a lifetime commitment. Always, hospitality demanded adjustment and sacrifice.
Couples engage in forms of organized service—working at local food pantries, building homes for persons who are homeless and participating in mission trips here and abroad. Couples also care for neighbors in less formal but no less meaningful ways—by grocery shopping or shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor, making rejected L.G.B.T. youth feel welcome in their home or feeding neighborhood kids who seem to regularly arrive at mealtime. Couples were frank when admitting that practicing mercy over an extended period of time can feel inconvenient, even burdensome, and therefore it must be linked to faith and fidelity.
What Faithfulness Looks Like
Although not biological parents themselves, Bob and Jeanne Mitchell have mentored many young people over the course of their marriage. In particular, one young man they have worked with “pretty steadily over the last 10 years” came out of the foster system and has been in and out of prison. Because of the demands of this relationship and the difficulty of maintaining it, Jeanne said, “It sometimes feels like we do that because of what we think faithfulness looks like.” Bob added, “Yeah, without a doubt. We’re motivated by a calling, to family in a sense; I mean he doesn’t have any family. In a sense he doesn’t have anybody. And if it weren’t for our faith and the way we understand that to be, we would not, I would not, be involved with him. Because he wouldn’t be my first choice. But having said that, I said to somebody once: ‘I think my salvation, or my redemption, is tied to him.’ I don’t know what I mean by that exactly, but it made sense to me when I said it.”
Bob’s conviction that his redemption is somehow tied to the mercy and hospitality he shows this man makes sense in light of the parable of the Last Judgment. Bob is living out the Gospel demand to welcome the stranger, which is how one inherits the kingdom. The young man he mentors is a stranger in the strictest sense of the word—disenfranchised and devoid of community. Despite the challenges of this relationship, which are many, Bob and Jeanne continue to practice hospitality and show fidelity because they believe God calls them to do so.
In a culture that too often sees relationships as temporary and as a matter of convenience, these couples practice fidelity both to Gospel values and to one another. We heard often from couples that, for them, “divorce is not an option.” Married 29 years, Jim Donlan said, “When did it become an option that you could just leave? Never. I mean, we all stood up on that altar in front of our friends and God and everybody. Those vows are not multiple choice. It isn’t ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer: yes, no, yes, no.’ It is yes to all of it. So it isn’t an option.”
Having acknowledged the importance of fidelity, however, these couples readily acknowledge that fidelity “until death” is demanding. For example, Mike and Sophia Vanderbusch have faced many challenges in their 16 years of marriage: the loss of a child; frequent separation due to Mike’s travel for work (that involves emotional hardship but also the difficulty of managing care for their three children while Sophia also maintains a career); and the death of Mike’s mother, aunt and beloved sister within a matter of months. Mike explained, “[Marriage] is work. You make a marriage work to keep it strong...you have to want to make it work, and you have to put in time as well as negotiate; it’s a give and take. Between living with somebody, being married to them, then the complications of bringing children into the world, everybody has to change their ways and work at it. [Since] both of us [had] a strong family and faith base growing up, it’s just sort of natural that that’s what you do. You’re not always going to get along, but in the end you do whatever you need to do to make it work.”
Indeed, the couples in our project are consciously making it work by being other-centered; learning to communicate effectively, especially by developing healthy ways to express disagreement and anger; forgiving, again and again; maintaining faith and hope and supporting one another when facing suffering and hardship; and in myriad other ways. Fidelity takes effort, but it provides security and deep joy and pride within a marriage. As one woman said, “The longer you are together, the more you are proud of that stick-to-it-iveness. And I think that’s what fidelity is, even when it’s not all easy and fun.”
As noted above, our research took place in Catholic parishes. Perhaps it is not surprising that couples often emphasized the value of active participation in a church community as they pursue married friendship. They described the regular celebration of Mass as a kind of “compass-setting” that reminds them of what is important, and as a joyful gathering of church “family” that provides modeling and support as they try to practice the Christian way of life. In their churches, they find support in suffering as well as opportunities to reach out and care for neighbors.
It is telling that couples talked about the ways that everyday, married people in parishes minister to each other. One woman said, “You sit in church and you see the love and affection.... You know, the young couples, the middle-aged couples, the old couples—everybody in between. You can sit in church and you can see the love, the admiration, the respect, the affection that these people still have for each other. You see a husband and wife look at each other and smile or something. It’s—we minister to each other in our marriages, and I think our marriage is stronger because of what surrounds us.”
The meetings of the Synod of Bishops on the family and the World Meeting of Families are now over, but we must continue to find ways to honor, celebrate and learn from the everyday, married saints among us. Their profound holiness is good news, indeed.