Downward slide: Tending to the garden of the Sacraments

September 11, 2018

It makes me sad to pull up dead plants, once beautiful explosions of color, now just little brown sticks. Like tiny grave markers that proclaim to the world, “something once living here lies!” R-I-P Salvia.

Clearly, the root systems on these plants didn’t quite take when I planted them in the spring, which made them vulnerable to the heat. I go over in my mind what I did that could have given me these results. Maybe I didn’t plant deep enough? Maybe I didn’t prepare the soil properly? Maybe I didn’t feed or water enough? I’m not really sure, but I do have the evidence that something went wrong.

Reflecting on the status of the service vocations in the Catholic Church, entered into through the Sacraments of Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders, we can ask similar questions. The low numbers of Catholics getting married in the Church as well as those discerning the priesthood have been on a downward trend for 50-plus years.

So how did we get here? What have we done or not done to cultivate the marital garden from where vocations to Matrimony and Holy Orders come? For years I have kept an eye on national and local Catholic marriage trends, but recently, since these two vocations are so intimately tied to the Catholic family, I took a similar look at the priesthood.
According to the National Catholic Directory (2017) the total number of priests in the United States saw uninterrupted growth between the years 1901 to 1965.

As the Catholic population grew in this country, so did the number of total priests. The number of priests plateaud in the 1970s and has been on a downward trend since then. Interestingly, marriages in the Catholic Church were likewise growing as the Catholic population in the country grew until Catholic marriages hit a peak in 1970 and began a downward trend. Coincidence? There are too many factors to say for sure that one directly caused the other, but it makes sense that one would definitely impact the other. Something definitely poisoned the well in the late ’60s and ’70s.

Years ago, in one of my graduate school classes, our professor who is also a priest passed on a gem of wisdom that has stayed with me over the years. “Priests don’t come down from Heaven on parachutes!” he said. His comment came from the obvious reality that the two service vocations of Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders are tethered to each other in beautiful and mysterious ways.

While there are exceptions, most priests are the fruit of the Sacrament of Matrimony. Couples married in the Catholic Church can’t live out their marriage vows without the help of the priesthood of Jesus Christ and the Church. The statistics tell more than one story though. There was a time prior to 1970 when both vocations were climbing. Since we can’t or even want to turn the clock back to those days, perhaps we can stop the downward slide by acknowledging how much we need each other and tackle the problem together.

If the vocations of Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders are truly tethered, could one ever hope to rise while the other sinks?

Formation for Catholic Matrimony and family life

Formation to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a lifelong commitment and vocation, is about 7 years. Formation to receive the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, a lifelong commitment and vocation, is about six months or less if the couple is in a hurry. Tending to the marital garden in a way that creates marriages with strong roots firmly planted in the Church takes time and it requires us to rethink our approach.

St. John Paul II in “Familiaris Consortio” presented a rationale for formation for marriage and family life across the life cycle. He wrote about the different periods of time in which formation for marriage needs to occur. Remote preparation, he proposed, occurs during childhood. It is, for the most part, informal since it is the living witness of married parents, but also has a formal catechetical component.

roximate preparation occurs during adolescence and young adulthood and is, again, a team effort between married parents and faith formation efforts at the parish. Immediate preparation usually occurs in the year preceding a couple’s marriage ceremony in the Catholic Church and usually involves parish-based programs and retreats.

he concept of teaching about marriage throughout the life cycle works if there has indeed been formation during those times. There are some very well formed Catholics requesting marriage in the Church today (the St. John Paul II generation), but the vast majority of young adult or older adult Catholics marrying in the Church today do not have the benefit of a lifetime of learning about Christian marriage, either in an informal way from their parents or formally within religious education programs.

There is no question that our efforts to tend the marital garden need to start early and continue throughout a person’s life. However, we have to acknowledge that thanks to the sexual revolution and divorce, the formation cycle which is supposed to prepare children, adolescents and young adults for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and Catholic family life is broken. So what do we do?

For starters, we do what St. John Paul II recommended and create a learning arc where young people learn about Holy Matrimony throughout their formative years and into young adulthood. As a Church we can’t be shy about this. Pope Francis, in The Joy of Love #35, said, “As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer.”

Immediate formation for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony must revisit the initial proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Kerygma, it must include an overview of the principle tenets of the Catholic faith, it must include the theology of Marriage and it must include all of the practical elements that help marriages thrive.

It sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it? It takes work to tend a garden, but the fruits of our labor will make it all worth it. We need to help cultivate holy marriages that are on fire for God and can withstand the cultural heat. I pray for the day when the dreaded slide ends and the marital garden once again begins to bloom with a bounteous harvest of vocations to Holy Matrimony and vocations to Holy Orders, the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Who’s ready to get their hands dirty in the marital garden? I’ll bring my shovel! 

Teresita Johnson is an associate director with the Archdiocesan office of Family Life Ministry.