Prepare your heart for “the King who is to come” with this video examination of conscience, produced by St. Mary’s parish, Eugene (my pastoral year assignment!) in lieu of an Advent penance service this year.
S. Andreæ Apóstoli.
Lay your yoke upon me like the dewfall,
Gentle Lord, which does not bend the branches,
nor even crush the smallest of the small,
but of leaf and twig alike enhances
the dignity of being what You made,
adorned—not burdened—by the gracious weight
of life you give to never end nor fade!
Drop down, you heavens, dew!—O let it sate
at last this thirst You wrote into the heart
of man, O let it gild the wild woods
that strive for You from valleys far apart—
O clothe all in Your grace and call it good!
If man You made for life, O Father, then
pour out your life in us and make us men.
Dominica I Adventus.
Framed by the barren branches, winter-clad
in careless air and shadows, stands the queen
arrayed in gold. (What majesty she had!—
filled with a light, a life, a child unseen!)
Ripe fruit of sterile tree, thou Lady, born
to grey-haired hope made foolish by long years
of patient expectation, now adorned
with glory like the Sun, Who drew so near
to thee as to suffuse thy being all
with radiance of His light! Thou art the moon
and He the Sun; thou crowned among the halls
of Heaven, He their Maker!—yet but soon,
He whom all ages called “wholly other”
shall be born of thee, and call thee “Mother.”
Last month, I had the honor of assisting at two funeral liturgies only days apart. That in itself would not be so unusual; we have had many funerals since I arrived here in August. What makes this particular sequence of funerals stand out in my memory is the vastly different circumstances of the deceased. The first was a boy less than six months old whose parents awoke one morning to find him lying dead in his crib. The family were heartbroken, the parents inconsolable. Since no one in the family felt up to the task of reading during that liturgy, I proclaimed these words from the Wisdom of Solomon, which have remained in my heart:
The righteous one, though he die early, shall be at rest. For the age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years … The one who pleased God was loved, living among sinners, was transported—snatched away … Having become perfect in a short while, he reached the fullness of a long career; for his soul was pleasing to the LORD, therefore he sped him out of the midst of wickedness.1Wisdom 4:7-14
My pastor admitted during his homily that he did not have the words to take away their pain, when all they wanted was to hold their child in their arms again. All that he could give them was the assurance that God is greater than death. This he indeed proclaimed, and then fell silent. The last thing I remember is standing beside him for a long time in silence as the men and boys took turns, one by one, shoveling dirt into his open grave.
The second funeral was for a woman who had just surpassed her hundredth birthday. Our church was packed with her relatives, down to the fifth generation of great-great-grandchildren, and they all congregated afterwards in front of the church, the kids eating cookies and playing, the adults swapping stories amid hugs and tearful smiles.
It would be hard to imagine two more different funerals! Though the liturgy was substantially the same, the fundamental difference is that the family in the latter case had many years to spend with the deceased. They felt that she had lived a long life and a good one. In the former, they felt that their child’s life had been cut short almost before it had begun; they mourned not only for him but for the future they had hoped to see, the years and memories that would never be. What can soothe a grief as enormous as that? I am sure my pastor was right in admitting that words could never be enough. As he also told me as we left the cemetery, the family would probably not remember the words we had said at all. They would, however, remember that we were there, and that we stayed.
It is only natural that the funeral of a hundred year old mother of many generations would be celebrated with more festivity, with sorrow interpenetrated with joy and laughter, than the unexpected, inconceivable funeral of a little baby. Yet the wisdom of that first reading is profound. Though they may not have been capable of receiving it then, I hope that the family do remember those words, for there is consolation and power in them: “The age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years. Rather, understanding passes for gray hair, and an unsullied life is the attainment of old age” (Wis 4:8-9).
The Lord measures out a span of days for each one of us—“seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; most of them are toil and sorrow; they pass quickly, and we are gone” (Ps 90:10). When a life comes to an end, our human tendency is to judge it by its length, by their accomplishments, by the number of their descendants and the memories they made with those who survive them. We mourn the more bitterly for those who die early with none of these. But our prayer must be that of the Psalmist: “Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90:12). Counting our days aright means, in part, judging the real value of our human lives from God’s perspective, who is unimpressed by our accomplishments or length of days. The real value of a life is that the one who lived was a child of God, His beloved, who loved Him in return as best they could. Thus our Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook teaches that
Holy Mother Church, who … generates to a new and immortal life the children who are born to her in Baptism, and nourishes them by the sacraments during their earthly pilgrimage, accompanies each of them at his journey’s end, in order to surrender him ‘into the Father’s hands.’ She offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of his grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory.2
When we die, all that matters is that the one who came from God is returning to Him. We, the Church, pray that the holy angels speed them on their way, that the Father receives them with joy, and that, “even if final purifications are still necessary in order to be clothed with the nuptial garment of eternal joy and salvation,”3 they will soon partake in the wedding feast of the Lamb, where we hope to be reunited with them for all eternity.
As a priest, I hope to follow my pastor’s good example of keeping silent watch in moments of such extreme suffering and tribulation, being present with those who are in suffering and having the self-awareness to realize that many words will do more harm than good. At the same time, I hope to follow his example in simply and boldly announcing our faith that God is greater than death. And I hope to keep close to my heart and at the forefront of my mind—and to share it with those who grieve the loss of a loved one, when the time is right—that the value of each of our lives is determined not by our length of days or any of our accomplishments, but by the infinite love of God.
- New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 2010).
- Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 14.1.1.
- ALH, 14.1.2.
The following is the text of a letter I sent today to the Governor of Oregon about the effect of her recent executive order on the life of the Church in Oregon. I plan to send a similar letter each week until the restrictions are lifted. If you feel as I do, please feel free to adapt this letter and send a version of it to her yourself.
November 17, 2020
The Hon. Kate Brown
900 Court Street NE, Suite 254
Salem, OR 97301-4047
Dear Governor Brown,
I am a Roman Catholic seminarian in residence at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Eugene. In union with His Excellency, Archbishop Alexander Sample, and all the Catholic people of Eugene and throughout the State of Oregon, I am writing to express my frustration with your recent Executive Order 20-65, directing a “Temporary Freeze to Address Surge in COVID-19 Cases in Oregon.”
I understand well the need to contain this pandemic. However, any actions which are taken by the State to maintain and restore our public health must be carefully weighed in the balance against the spiritual (as well as mental, emotional and social) needs of Oregonians. I know that you are sensitive to some of these needs, since a report issued by OPB last Friday, November 13 indicated that “services such as hair salons, barber shops and massage services can all continue under their current operations. Brown said that’s because state experts haven’t seen clear ties between rising cases and those sorts of businesses if patrons and employees wear masks and social distance, and because many provide services that help Oregonians keep up their mental and physical health.”
For your Catholic constituents, attendance at Holy Mass and reception of the Sacraments is paramount to our spiritual, emotional and mental well-being, far more important than our ability to get a haircut or a massage. Furthermore, the parishes of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland have strictly abided by the social distancing, masks and sanitation requirements since reopening, and to my knowledge, there have been no COVID outbreaks linked to Mass attendance in the State of Oregon.
Given these facts, I ask that you hold us to the same standard as hair salons and barber shops, and allow us to continue operating as we have been. It is an injustice to your Catholic constituents to hold our churches to a stricter standard. It strikes us as arbitrary, heavy-handed religious discrimination. The Mass is an essential service for Catholics, and the absolute limit of 25 people in attendance at religious worship severely curtails the ability of our Catholic people to attend Mass and receive the sacraments of the Church.
In fact, I urge you to allow us to operate at 75% of the capacity of our churches, as the grocery stores and retail outlets are allowed. We can do so safely. This would be a gesture of good will and reassure us that you are in fact motivated by a concern for our well-being as Catholic citizens of the State of Oregon. Please, Governor Brown, free the Mass.
Yours in Christ Crucified and risen,
Matthew Knight, Seminarian
Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon
Since the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has undergone a remarkable development in practice. Where once it was only given only to those members of “the faithful who … from infirmity or old age become in danger of death,”1 the Church, by means of this sacrament, now “commends to the suffering and glorified Lord the faithful who are dangerously ill [periculose aegrotantes] so that he may support and save them.”2 The specific reference to the danger of death in the 1917 Code is conspicuous by its absence from the 1983 Code. This change, in fact, as well as the change in the very name of the sacrament from Extreme Unction (or ‘final anointing’) to the Anointing of the Sick, was made “in an endeavour to make it clear that it ‘is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death,’”3 but for “any man sick among you” (Jas 5:14) whose illness is serious.
By extending the gift of this Sacrament to more of Christ’s faithful who are in suffering, including those with chronic illnesses and even mental illnesses which constitute a real share in the Cross, even though they may not place them in immediate danger of death, the Church implicitly acknowledges the dignity and the particular “vocation of the sick.”4 Indeed, “the sick, especially the chronically ill, share in the Church’s life and mission … United to Christ, the baptized and confirmed ‘sick person is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive passion.’”5 The Sacrament of Anointing is not only the means by which the Church intercedes for her suffering son or daughter to receive strength and healing, though it is certainly that; it also renews and deepens the sick person’s union with the suffering Christ, that they might “fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ” (Col 1:24 DRA) by their own bodily participation in His redemptive Passion. Therefore the Church consoles the sick that their “sickness has meaning and value for their own salvation and for the salvation of the world.”6
This affirmation of the dignity of the sick and of their participation in the Church’s mission precisely by means of their sickness is of critical importance in increasingly decadent, secular Western societies such as ours, which, through the habitual and legal practice of euthanasia, tacitly deny the value of suffering and degrade the dignity of the sick and aged. Often those who are chronically ill or disabled, particularly the elderly, can fall into depression and despair. They may feel that their life is as good as over, that they no longer have any role to play or any meaningful impact to make in the world. Against such diabolic lies, the Church insists with a mother’s solicitude that the sick may yet “contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the Passion and death of Christ,”7 in particular “to offer their sufferings for missionaries,” by which offering “the sick themselves become missionaries!”8 Rather than only marking the end of a Christian’s pilgrimage through life and sending him on his final journey to the heavenly homeland, the Anointing of the Sick now serves to fortify and exhort a Christian soul in suffering to do their part in the battle for the world’s salvation, a part which they are uniquely suited to play: “Some work of noble note may yet be done.”9
- “Fideles qui … ob infirmitatem vel senium in periculo mortis versetur.” Code of Canon Law/1917, c. 940, in Codex iuris canonici 1917, at Biblia Clerus, http://www.clerus.org. Translation mine.
- Code of Canon Law, c. 998, in Code of Canon Law Annotated (Woodridge: Midwest Theological Forum, 2004), 764.
- Code of Canon Law Annotated, 764. Inner quote is from Paul VI, Sacrosanctum concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy] (December 4, 1963), 73.
- Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 12.1.7.
- ALH, 12.1.6. Inner quote is from Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1521; cf. also CCC 1294, 1523.
- Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum, trans. and ed. International Commission on English in the Liturgy (Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1983), 1.
- ALH, 12.1.5.
- John Paul II, qtd. in S. de Boer, “The Collective Anointing of the Weak,” Questions liturgiques 76 (1995), 74.
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses,” 52, at poets.org.
This reflection was given at Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on Thursday of the Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time (Cycle II), November 5, 2020. The audio is available here.
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Friends, consider the scene at the beginning of today’s Gospel. The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Jesus because they wanted to listen to Him. Interesting group of people, isn’t it? Tax collectors and sinners. St. Luke manages to suggest in four neat words the great mass of unwashed deplorables, the hoi polloi of Israel and Judea, the kind of people Ted Hughes describes rather more colorfully in his translation of Bacchus and Pentheus:
“Children and their teachers, laborers, bankers,“Bacchus and Pentheus,” trans. Ted Hughes, in Tales from Ovid (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997), 68-75
Mothers and grandmothers, merchants, agents,
Prostitutes, politicians, police,
Scavengers and accountants, lawyers and burglars,
Builders, layabouts, tradesmen, con-men,
Scoundrels, tax-collectors, academicians,
Physicians, morticians, musicians, magicians,
The idle rich and the laughing mob!”
These came to hear the Gospel, the word of life from the lips of the one that some in the crowd whispered excitedly was the “Christ,” the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. But the scribes and Pharisees, the religious élite, draw back. They stand apart from the crowds. These are not their kind of people, after all. And they whisper to one another something altogether different than the crowds, something they mean to be a condemnation of the whole phenomenon of the prophet from Nazareth: “This man, this Jesus, welcomes these sinners!”
If he were a prophet, if he were from God, he would reject them. If he were truly the Son of God, he would be with us. Are we not the teachers of the people? Are we not righteous? Do we not keep the law, fast, tithe, purify our hands? By the very fact that he welcomes them, he rejects us. And if he rejects us, then he rejects the covenant, the temple, the law—he places himself against God!
The seeds of their condemnation of Jesus before Pilate are already planted here in whispers.
For the Pharisees and scribes, after all, the line was clear. Those who do what the law commands are righteous and worthy of reward. Those who do not are wicked and deserving of punishment.
What the Pharisees and the scribes fail to see is that the line was not drawn between these worthy people of God and those tax collectors and sinners. The line is drawn down the center of every human heart. And here is the fundamental difference between the hearts of the Pharisees and the sinners from whom they draw back: the Pharisees are confident in their flesh, that is, in their Jewish bloodline, in the mark of the circumcision which made them members of the people of God, in their tribe, in their status, in righteousness based on the law.
Who could accuse them of any sin? In the reading we heard from his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul says that according to the law, “I was blameless,” and we have no reason to doubt that the Pharisees could say the same. What reason do they have to repent and believe in the Gospel of this preacher from Nazareth? They can stand tall before God and man on the strength of their own conduct.
Not so these sinners. The tax collectors were considered sell-outs and traitors to their own people, more Romans than Jews. These people coming to hear Jesus have no status. They have no dignity. But they see more clearly than the Pharisees, whose deadly pride and self-righteousness has made them blind: this man is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
The Pharisees have confidence in themselves. The sinners can only have confidence in Him.
Dear Christian people, what the scribes and Pharisees whispered with horror and resentment, we proclaim with boundless joy. This man, Jesus, true God and true Man, welcomes sinners!
He does not welcome sin. He cannot, any more than light can welcome darkness: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). But He is that “light from light, true God from true God,” who goes forth into the world in search of sinners to call us to repentance and bring us back to life. Like the woman in the parable who lights a lamp and overturns the house to find her one lost coin, Jesus is that light who comes forth from God and moves heaven and earth to find one lost soul, that Good Shepherd who will leave the ninety-nine in search of the one whom he has lost. Unlike the Pharisees, this God never writes anyone off as a lost cause: He goes after the lost one until he finds it. And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy.
Imagine the look on the Pharisees’ faces when Jesus turns to them and says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety- nine ‘righteous people’ who have no need of repentance!”
They know he means them. They know he is saying that one of these poor sinners, if he only repents and believes in the Gospel, if he puts his trust in Jesus, the very “face of the Father’s mercy” (Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, §1) and “goes and sins no more,” is a greater joy to God and all His angels and saints than ninety-nine stiff-necked, self-righteous Pharisees. And they hate him for it. One day, they will kill him for it.
But dear friends, we love him for it. Because we are among that crowd of sinners, you and I. We “do not put our confidence in the flesh”; we know we are not blameless; we cannot come to God proud of our own merits. We are the poor and broken ones who come before Him often uncertainly, with our eyes lowered. We have been wounded before. We have been rejected. We know our faults all too well. We worry that we are not good enough for God—or at least that He would prefer to spend His time with holier, better, more perfect people than the likes of us.
But this God of ours does not demand that we be perfect to approach Him. He waits for us with patience. If we are lost, he comes in search of us. And when we draw near at last to listen to Him, He says to us again: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
This week, I was approached by a woman at the RCIA who wanted to go to confession right away. Although she did not specify the reason (and of course I did not ask), I surmised that she had felt convicted by what we had been studying in the course of the lesson, and the gentle action of the Holy Spirit had moved her heart to repent and seek reconciliation with God and the Church. When she learned that I was unable to hear her confession right then and there, she asked me to help her make an appointment with the pastor at the earliest available time.
The urgency of her desire to repent and be reconciled to God made an impression on me. In fact, just the day before, I had been in a similar position, feeling convicted by my conscience of a grave sin and in need of repentance and absolution. Because I am a seminarian and have personal connections with various priests in the vicariate, I was able to text a priest friend, drive out to his parish, go to confession that same hour, and stay for dinner. This woman felt the same compunction of heart, but did not have the luxury I did of such easy access to the sacrament of the Lord’s forgiveness. Although I could have passed her off to the parish office to make an appointment through the usual channels, I went to some extra effort as an intermediary working on her behalf to get her on the pastor’s schedule as soon as possible, following the pastor’s own advice: “Being pastoral means ‘more work for me.’”
This encounter highlighted for me the profound connection between the Sacrament of Penance and the overall process of conversion for candidates, such as this woman, who have previously been baptized in a non-Catholic ecclesial community. To be sure, the guidelines of the Archdiocese of Portland state that “in preparation for reception and completion of sacramental Initiation, and at a time prior to and distinct from the Rite of Reception, [such] candidates, according to their own consciences, should receive the Sacrament of Penance,” since this sacrament “provides grace and help to continuing conversion.”1 The same guidelines indicate that “it is fitting that such candidates celebrate the Sacrament of Penance in a communal setting with other members of the Catholic community, especially during Lent,” which is in fact a normal and scheduled part of RCIA every year in our parish, although “it is also possible to arrange a communal celebration specifically for the candidates, or to allow them to approach the sacrament privately.”2
To my mind, it seems pastorally desirable to make the latter option as freely available as possible to such candidates. This woman had the courage to approach me and make an appointment, but there may be others who are afraid to do so, or are perhaps unaware that they can even go to confession before they are formally received into the Church. Therefore, as a priest, I would like to let the candidates for RCIA know from day one that if they are baptized, they are invited to approach the Sacrament of Penance at any time. They are free to come to the regularly scheduled confession times of the parish or to approach me any time they see me and ask for a “quick confession.” I would make it my promise to them (and the parish as a whole) that, unless I am directly on my way to a sick call or a meeting, etc., I will always honor those requests. Furthermore, I would make it my goal to be present at the RCIA nights as often as I can, every week if possible, precisely to be available for such requests. (My pastor has been good at being present, but he was not there that night; if he had been, I’m sure he would have heard this woman’s confession on the spot!) It may be more work for me, but it will mean a lot to them.
- Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 6.36.4. Cf. Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (1988),482; National Statues for the Catechumenate (Washington, DC: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1986), no. 36; Code of Canon Law, cann. 844 §4, 959.
- ALH, 6.36.5.
This reflection was given after Holy Mass at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the feast of St. John Paul II, October 22, 2020. The audio is available here.
The Rule of Saint Benedict begins with this question. “‘Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?’ If you hear this and your answer is ‘I do,’ God then directs these words to you: ‘If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; seek and strive after peace.”
Yet Our Lord in today’s Gospel asks us a very different question: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?” And before we can answer, “yes, Lord, of course!”—”No, I tell you, but rather division.”
These are difficult, challenging words.
What we must understand first is that where there is truth, there is always division. Truth is the light which shines through the fog and the darkness of the world, exposing the shadows of error and deception and revealing the shape of things as they really are. But as St. John says, “the hearts of men preferred darkness to light.” So wherever the truth is proclaimed, it is a sword which separates not only what is from what is not, but those who believe it and live by it from those who prefer to live by useful, comfortable, familiar lies. It is, in fact, a bright line drawn down the middle of our households, our families, our society, our nation, our Church, and even (if we are honest) our own hearts.
Of course, truth is more than just a set of propositions to be believed. Truth is, in fact, a person. “Ego sum via, veritas et vita,” says the Lord: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” And as our Holy Father of happy memory, St. John Paul the Great, whose feast we celebrate today, taught us in his encyclical entitled The Splendor of Truth: “Called to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, ‘the true light that enlightens everyone’ (Jn 1:9), [we] become ‘light in the Lord’ and ‘children of light’ (Eph 5:8), and are made holy by ‘obedience to the truth’ (1 Pet 1:22).”
Ah, but now at once we see what it means that the Lord came not “to establish peace … but rather division.” The truth which Jesus Is and was sent to reveal—the truth, for example, that we are made in God’s image, male and female; that we belong to Him; that we are not autonomous and self-sufficient, masters of our own little lives and destinies, but creatures made by the hand of a great Creator, sinners in need of redemption and sheep in urgent danger from the wolves; that God who loves us wills to save us; that we are faced with a grave and urgent choice, whether we are for Him or against Him!— that truth not only divides; it crucifies. “For the hearts of men preferred darkness to light.”
And so St. Simeon, holding the Christ child in his arms, prophesied to Mary that this baby God was “a sign which shall be contradicted” (Lk 2:34), spoken against.
Now, the disciple is not greater than the master. If we follow the truth, the narrow way which is Christ, we too shall be contradicted. We must expect to be mocked, misunderstood, rejected and abused, to suffer separation even from loved ones, to face slanderous and vile insults and worse from a world which hates us because it hated Him first (cf. Jn 15:18).
Very well: fiat. Let it be done! But if we leave it at that, it looks like a bleak and lonely road indeed. “This is a hard saying; who can accept it?” So listen again now to the Lord’s words at the beginning of today’s Gospel: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
That urgent fire in the heart of Jesus which he longed to set loose upon the world is the Holy Spirit, that Spirit Who so inflamed the apostles at Pentecost that they went fearlessly to the ends of the earth and gladly accepted martyrdom for the splendor of the truth they proclaimed. That’s why Saint Paul prays that “the Father … may grant you, in accord with the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power through his Spirit.” We need the Holy Spirit, not only to make us strong enough to proclaim the truth and live by the truth, not even just to reveal the truth to us, “the length and breadth and height and depth,” but to transform us into the truth of who we are.
We are indeed made for peace, but that peace comes only from living in the truth of who God is and who we are, and becoming through obedience who we are meant to be.
To seek and strive after that peace means to seek and strive after and live by the whole truth of Christ. We must “live not by lies”: not by the lies of the world, not by the lies of the Devil, not even by the lies which make up our false selves. We must renounce all such lies, be divided from them, to live in the truth. And only obedience to the truth, in the end, will set us free to live the life of God.
Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Thou spirit of truth. Come and teach us all things. Come, transform us. Come, unite us to yourself.
When I told my pastor last week that we were doing a module on matrimony, he shared with me about a delicate issue which often comes up in his work preparing couples for marriage. Cohabitation is not only extremely widespread in our day and age, among Catholics as well as non-believers; it is commonly understood in the secular culture to be the “responsible choice,” a prudent way to test your compatibility with your partner in the close quarters of common life, a kind of trial run before “tying the knot.” Most young people of my own generation would not dream of getting married without first having lived together as a couple. Father Nelson remarked that he often struggles to know exactly what to say to these couples, who come in good faith asking to be married in the Church, yet who have sometimes already been living together for months or years. The pastoral judgment required is whether to insist that the couple separate, at the risk of driving them away, or allow them to continue living together (emphasizing the need for them to live as brother and sister in perfect continence) and risk their falling into grave sin, as well as jeopardizing the future health and longevity of their marriage.
Although cohabitation per se is not a sin, Father Nelson mentioned that couples who live together before their wedding day may be less free in giving their consent to the marriage as a result of their cohabitation. Even if they live together chastely, the lives of a couple cohabiting before marriage necessarily become more “entangled.” They have the same residence; they share common possessions, and perhaps finances and debts. There may be a concern on the part of one or the other party of where they will live or how they will get by financially if the relationship should fail. It is, moreover, a matter of fact that most cohabiting couples are also fornicating couples (the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults actually defines cohabitation as “involv[ing] the serious sin of fornication”1) and that “many children are born to these relationships, which are not founded on a permanent commitment.”2 All these factors and more can weigh on the minds and hearts of the cohabiting couple and tip the scales of their discernment toward marriage, such that one or both may no longer find themselves entering into the matrimonial covenant in utter freedom.
Their prior living situation would also appear to shift the meaning of the sacrament from the beginning of a new life together as husband and wife to the mere “ratification” or “blessing” of an existing de facto union. Our Holy Father of happy memory, Saint John Paul II, stressed the following “basic principle: in order to be real and free conjugal love, love must be transformed into one that is due in justice through the free act of marital consent.”3 Apart from the risk of diminished freedom, which can put the validity of the marriage itself in doubt down the line, another subjective danger to the cohabiting couple is that the habits of mind they will have undoubtedly formed during their time cohabiting before marriage will then carry over into their married life as husband and wife, blurring “the essential difference between a mere de facto union—even though it claims to be based on love—and marriage, in which love is expressed in a commitment that is not only moral but rigorously juridical.”4 An unmarried couple living together are free to separate at any time if the relationship becomes difficult or inconvenient (albeit to the great psychological harm of the abandoned spouse and any children of the union5). Human nature being what it is, the couple who have become habituated during their period of cohabitation to thinking “in the back of their minds that if things become really difficult, they can always go their separate ways”6 are naturally more likely to divorce.7
If a cohabiting couple came to me as a priest for marriage preparation, I would apply the official pastoral guidelines of the Archdiocese of Portland: “Absent children, [cohabiting] couples should ready themselves for marriage by a time of domestic separation. Where a cohabiting couple already has children, the good of the young may require the couple to remain living together, but in chastity and continence.”8 If there are other special circumstances which make separation difficult or impossible in a particular case, I would allow them to continue living together (as brother and sister) as they prepare for marriage, but this would be exceptional. In general, I would require them to separate. I would take special care to impress upon all such couples (1) the need to be able to give their utterly free consent to the marriage and (2) the reality that, once married, their relationship will be permanently and essentially different. To this end, I would lead them through an examination of conscience to help them see if anything about their living situation is placing undue pressure on one or both of them to marry. I would also tell them unequivocally that cohabitation is by no means a kind of “trial marriage,” but a poor facsimile of married life which, far from preparing them well for their future as a couple, tends to set a couple up for future failure. I would tell them the best thing they can do for their marriage is to separate and “practice chastity until they are sacramentally or canonically married. They will find this challenging, but again, with the help of grace, mastering the self is possible — and this fasting from sexual intimacy is a strong element of spiritual preparation for an enduring life together.”9
- United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006), 410, at https://www.usccb.org/sites/default/files/flipbooks/uscca/files/assets/basic-html/page-438.html.
- Archbishop Alexander K. Sample, “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia in the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon” (May 4, 2017), 6, at https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/14211/documents/2017/5/050417%20AL%20Guidelines%20with%20Letter.pdf.
- Pontifical Council for the Family, “Family, Marriage, and ‘De Facto’ Unions” (July 26, 2000), §22, at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/family/documents/rc_pc_family_doc_20001109_de-facto-unions_en.html.
- John Paul II, “Discourse to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota” (January 2, 1999), qtd. in “Family, Marriage, and ‘De Facto’ Unions,” §22.
- Cf. Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D., “The pope seems to be missing the real dangers of cohabitation. It’s time for the Church to get serious” (November 18, 2016) at LifeSiteNews, https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/cohabitation-unions-a-risk-to-marriage-adults-and-children.
- Kansas Catholic Conference, “A Better Way: A Pastoral Letter to the People of God in the Province of Kansas Addressing Cohabitation before Marriage” (June 4, 1998), ed. Damian Lenshek, 8, at https://www.kofc.org/un/en/resources/cis/cis308.pdf.
- According to a study reported in American Family Association Journal, July 1993, couples who cohabited before marriage had a 50 percent higher chance of divorce than couples who did not cohabitate.
- Sample, “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia,” 7.