After a rough divorce, last week I stumbled into a World Marriage Day celebration. . .

By Beverly Willett

I got off to a slow start last Sunday morning, but realized I could still make the 11:30 a.m. mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah’s Roman Catholic Mother Church. So I hurried off, parked, and quickly ducked inside, clueless about what awaited me.

Each weekend mass is well-attended, but I’d still never witnessed the church so packed! I walked past row after row searching for a seat, finally slipping into the middle of a right-hand pew near the front of the church. Had everyone else slept through earlier services too?

The organ sounded, and I was immediately on my feet again, struggling to slip my arms out of the sleeves of my coat and open my bulletin to the hymn all at the same time. All eyes swiveled to the center of the church. Bishop Hartmayer, Bishop Emeritus Boland, Father Schreck, Deacon Smith and other priests, bedecked in purple stoles, majestically proceeded down the aisle. What was I in the middle of, with hardly a seat to be found in this historic cathedral?

At the end of the hymn, Bishop Hartmayer welcomed the 100 couples from 35 parishes in attendance who were commemorating a total of “3,900 years of marriage.” Seems I’d walked in on something called World Marriage Day, an annual celebration of golden and silver wedding anniversaries across the diocese. That’s why I now spotted so many couples wearing corsages and boutonnieres.

And then right then and there my emotions tumbled out. I started to sob, straight through the Penitential Rites, both the Kyrie and the Gloria, followed by the Collect. During the first scripture reading, I frantically grabbed the single mangled tissue from my purse and alternated blowing my nose, weeping, and praying to God to stop the tears, even as they continued to drop. So overwhelmed by emotions and memories, I couldn’t think. But I needed a clearing to figure out what was happening inside me. I spied the disability elevator to my right, my escape route I decided if I couldn’t stop crying by the gospel reading.

My parents celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in 1978, followed by my grandparents’ 50th the next year when they all went off to Hawaii to celebrate. I remember those occasions like they were yesterday instead of four decades ago. Those two couples – and my aunt and her husband – had been the examples I turned to many times during the troubles in my own marriage. All I had to do was recall the hard times they’d endured, how they’d held fast to their love and commitment during all the stress and the sickness and the financial woes, and I’d press on in my own marriage, firm in the knowledge that like them, my husband and I too would eventually find our brighter days.

My husband and I had reached our 25th anniversary too before divorcing. Only we’d celebrated apart, he with his girlfriend, me traveling back to the church where we’d exchanged our vows. I strung out the divorce and tried to save my marriage, but my husband wasn’t interested. I mean it when I say his abandonment and betrayal destroyed me for a very long time.

What was I feeling in the Savannah cathedral all these many years later? Why the sudden rush of emotions? Although still single, I had healed, built a new life for myself, and long put to rest any thoughts of my ex-husband. I blew my nose again, willed the tears to slide back inside, and bowed my head to pray. I had to pull myself together.

As Bishop Hartmayer began his homily, my breath began to steady. He told a story about Rabbi Harold Kushner who had once been asked by a couple to modify the traditional wedding vows he administered. Instead of pledging their lives to each other until death, they intended to commit for only as long as their love lasted. Kushner respected their honesty, but declined to unite them. He knew that pledging anything less than full commitment insured their union had no chance of going the distance during the inevitable marital difficulties.

Love endures long after the romance hardens into reality, the Bishop said. But committed couples learn to find fulfillment even in diapers and mortgages and college tuition. I know I had, thinking back to those diaper days, the all-night vigils when the children spiked fevers, the worries about my husband when he lost his job and taking dictation as I typed his cover letters and resumes. I’d found every bit as much fulfillment in those times as I had our own frequent trips to Hawaii.

The Catholic faith views marriage as a covenant deeply rooted in God’s love for us and ours for him, Bishop Hartmayer continued.

“May we dare to love as God does without limit or condition,” he concluded, asking all 100 couples to rise. I watched in silence, biting back the last few tears as the couples turned to each other and renewed their vows.

“You may kiss the bride!” the Bishop said at the end. Thank goodness for his joke. Clarity had broken free during the moment of humor.

Divorce brought on so much unnecessary suffering for my family. Just as I continue mourning the loss of my mom and dad from time to time, it was natural to mourn the loss of the miraculous milestone of faith, endurance and love I’d just been witnessing, one I’d never had the chance to experience and never would.

But the energy I’d once expended in suffering, through grace, I’d harnessed to rebuild. And speaking up for marriage, as I do in my writing and efforts toward divorce reform, provide comfort that bitterness and sorrow have not overtaken me.

Better still, as I smiled and clapped in the sanctuary, I realized that the part of my heart that had been momentarily attuned to sadness and jealousy was small compared to the joy at my unexpected good fortune to have walked into this historic cathedral and witness 100 couples continuing to stand for marriage. How was very much still alive. May their example ripple throughout the diocese as the marriages in my family had once done in my own life, providing models of faith and courage for the next generation.  

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