On March 4, Bob and Dolores Moellers renewed their commitment to each other before God at Christ the King Church in Little Rock, surrounded by more than 50 people their love had brought together — nine children, their spouses and grandchildren.
It was a moment to reflect on their wedding vows from March 2, 1957. But life is drastically different from their wedding day, as the two, Robert, 83, who has Parkinson’s disease, and his wife Dolores, 82, who suffered two strokes last year, live in a nursing home. They still pray together every morning and evening and the vows hold the same meaning even 60 years later.
“We took our vows very seriously on our wedding day. We understood God wanted us to uphold those vows,” Bob said, with Dolores adding, “We never questioned God would provide for us or our family. We never worried about it knowing that he was at the center of our lives.”
Weddings are one day out of a lifetime. Flowers wilt, decorations are taken down, relatives and friends return home and the couple is left to face the lifelong commitment they made to each other and what role God will play in their marriage.
“If you want to travel life together on your own without a power that is in control of the world, you’re not going to be as successful in my belief,” said Elizabeth Reha, who has served as director of the diocesan Family Life Office for 25 years. “… We know marriage has its ups and its downs and that you want to be happy knowing Christ loves you and there’s something beyond this world. But you also want to know you can survive and deal with the challenge of life with Christ by your side.”
There were 541 Catholic weddings in Arkansas in 2016. Each couple must go through marriage preparation through a local pastor, which needs to happen at least six months prior to a wedding day. (See sidebar at left)
Msgr. Francis Malone, pastor at Christ the King Church in Little Rock, said there are already 17 planned weddings at his parish this year. Although the wedding day is special, his focus is always on the marriage when meeting with engaged couples.
“I find that most couples have already undertaken a significant amount of preparation for a wedding ceremony when they come to see me, and I would say a high percentage of the couples that I prepare for marriage are not as focused on the spiritual dimension of entering into a Christian marriage,” Msgr. Malone said. “I try to emphasize to each couple I do not prepare people for civil marriages … my focus is not the wedding ceremony. My focus, my concern is ‘Where is this couple going to be in 50 years?’”
Christen McCann, 22, who is engaged to Juan Reyes, 23, was active in a Methodist church growing up. At first, she said it was hard to understand the Catholic faith that Juan had been raised in.
To learn more, McCann said they went to RCIA together in 2015 and she became more involved in Catholic Campus Ministry and Bible study at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway where the two were studying. She is joining the Church this Easter and the two will be married July 14 at St. Joseph Church in Conway, which they view as their “spiritual home.”
“We both grew up in extremely devout Christian families, but we were also faced with the massive challenge of deciding how to handle an interfaith relationship and how it would affect our future. We had to make it a priority to pray, read Scripture and attend Mass together as we tried to grow in the understanding of our faith. Doing these things together brought us so much closer to one another, and also strengthened our faith individually and as a couple,” McCann said. “Having a church to call our home and feeling truly part of a faith community as we enter into marriage is a wonderful blessing.”
Reyes said prayer and reading the Bible has been important in their relationship.
“We pray at every meal we have together. It’s some accountability we have for each other. We make sure we take time to thank God for his many blessings … and thank God for each other,” he said.
The key when teaching engaged couples is to make sure they understand that marriage is more than themselves, Reha said.
“We call it a vocation. We don’t just say it’s just a marriage. It’s a vocation to life. It’s a responsibility in this world and into the next,” Reha said.
After Vatican II, the Catholic Church has “opened up significantly” to Catholics marrying non-Catholics, said Deacon Matt Glover, diocesan chancellor for canonical affairs.
“Two to three generations ago, if a Catholic married a non-Catholic, they were probably getting married outside of the Church,” he said.
In 2016, 29 percent — or 156 — of the weddings in the Diocese of Little Rock were mixed or interfaith marriages.
Besides finances, Reha said the biggest concern she hears from engaged couples is how to blend a mixed marriage.
“I have found that a good number of the non-Catholic spouses are already attending church with their Catholic fiancé. You’re coming to the Catholic Church to get married, making certain commitments,” Msgr. Malone said. “So we’re here to prepare you for marriage in the Catholic Church. The purpose of this six months is not to twist the arm of the non-Catholic party to become Catholic, but if he or she wants to do that we will help with that.”
Seth and Alex Baldwin, who were married at St. Mary Church in Altus this past New Year’s Eve, said it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. Though Seth, 31, grew up Presbyterian, he attends church with Alex, 23, and said the Catholic Church is “fulfilling to me.”
“We communicate a lot. We have a lot of philosophical and theological discussions that helps me evolve in my faith,” Alex said, with Seth agreeing, adding they stay strong in the faith by “attending church together, praying together, setting aside time to discuss our daily lives, where we succeed and places we could try harder to be better people for ourselves, in the community and for people around us.”
The Baldwins said it’s important for all engaged couples to take marriage preparation seriously.
“Rather than seeing it as something you have to do, see it as something you get to do,” Alex Baldwin said. “… Discussions need to occur. Honestly you can discover things you didn’t know and you might discover that’s not the relationship you need to be in.”
Reha said couples that go to the Pre-Cana retreat take a 19-question survey that scores each person on a grid, that includes four faith concepts. She said the chart helps couples understand where their partner is in their faith life and how they can grow closer in what they agree upon.
“Saying grace over meals, that’s common ground. Saying the Our Father, that’s a common prayer. Taking the time to share with each other what feeds them, whether it’s Scripture-based or Eucharist-based. So it’s really a conversation about what brings them closer. There’s going to be different levels of growth,” she said.
Andrew and Aly Sprick, who recently moved to McKinney, Texas, said focusing on common beliefs helped their relationship and marriage. Aly, 25, is Jewish and Andrew, 26, is Catholic and grew up attending Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock. The couple married on Oct. 15, 2016, with a ceremony with a rabbi and priest. The couple had multiple readings from the Old Testament, with the rabbi reciting the traditional seven blessings in Hebrew, and praying the Our Father.
Andrew said the big key is communication and compromise. Aly said that before meals, Andrew says a Catholic prayer and that he soon will be attending his first Passover Seder meal.
“There’s a lot of overlap there too about Judaism and Christianity. We try not to focus on differences,” he said. But Aly admits at the beginning of their relationship, “we didn’t know what a future would look like. I remember one time being in tears thinking how is this going to work?”
The couple said it’s important for interfaith couples to not ignore the differences.
“Decide what your core values are and what you can compromise on and what you can’t and see if those line up,” she said.
In marriage preparation, Msgr. Malone said he emphasizes two main points to sustain a faith-filled marriage: their worship life and prayer life. He said it’s vital couples go to Mass every week and hopefully at the same Mass to develop a routine.
“All those things that are really strong in their marriage and not so strong in marriage, take those to church each week in thanksgiving to God for what they have and petition to God to strengthen their marriage,” Msgr. Malone said. “
Since 1990, Msgr. Malone has had each engaged couple develop a wedding prayer that they can pray every day of their engagement and marriage.
“If couples stay true to that wedding prayer and stay true to going to church every Sunday it’s almost guaranteed their marriage will not experience divorce,” he said. “Problems, yes, crises yes … but these are the tools to deal with it.”
Jake and Andrea Whisenhunt, who attend St. Mary Church in Hot Springs, said their marriage has improved since their convalidation ceremony on Sept. 24, 2016. The couple were married at the courthouse in August 2012. At the time, Andrea was not Catholic and did not feel comfortable in the Church, she said. After meeting with Father George Sanders, pastor at St. Mary who also came from a Protestant background, Andrea, 32, said she began to learn more about her husband’s Catholic faith. She joined the Church in 2016 and their 3-year-old daughter Emma was baptized.
“I think our marriage has gotten stronger since we joined the Catholic Church. Before we fought and argued all the time about where we were going to church so we just quit going,” she said. “… We pray as a family at dinner time, at bedtime and we try to read the Scriptures.”
Jake, 34, said while he did not want to “force” his wife to become Catholic or attend Mass, being on the same page has been a blessing.
“It made me feel really good she was joining me on that path, and we could have something to share with each other,” he said.
Reha said that learning how to be a best friend to your spouse, working on a relationship and being there for one another parallels the journey people walk with God. And seeing God in a spouse is the ultimate respect.
“You’re looking at Christ, you’re looking at Jesus. That brings a different kind of respect to your partner as opposed to just looking at them as a thing,” Reha said. “… The marriage is going to be enhanced with Christ at the center. Not only enhanced, but survived and in happiness.”
Please read our Comments Policy before posting.Article comments powered by Disqus