Marriage is in trouble everywhere, especially in our country with over half of marriages ending in divorce. Our culture, so influenced by Hollywood and materialism, has set about creating a society which no longer values marriage and the family in favor of one which glorifies selfishness, greed, and offers false idols for us to worship instead of God. As an author and speaker I attempt to reach people with Christ-inspired work, which will help them lead authentic and integrated Catholic lives. Many of us are called to other roles in the world that require great courage and effort, but I suggest nothing will do more to strengthen marriage and the family than men having the courage to reject the surrounding culture and embrace their roles as loving husbands, faith-filled fathers, and leaders in our homes.
Is it possible that marriage and the family are losing their value in the eyes of the next generation because our young people don’t see positive examples of successful marriages and Christ-centered families? If we truly offered this alternative and fought to live it, defend it, and promote it, there could be a resurgence of successful marriages, more children being born, and parishes packed with faithful Catholic families. What will it take? Men must lead.
Brothers, we must reject the lies of the culture, let go of our idols, get rid of the obstacles between us and Christ, pray faithfully, and accept the call to holiness we received at our baptism. We are not here to indulge ourselves in a world of moral relativism and personal pleasure, but instead to create Christ-centered homes, raise our children to love God, and help each other to attain heaven.
Feeling overwhelmed? This is a tall order and this would be an understandable response. However, the alternative is further disintegration of marriage and the family; the next casualties could be our own if we neglect our responsibilities. Is there anyone who can help us? Look no further than our wives.
The first time I met my wife over twenty years ago, I knew she was the one for me. It was a strange feeling of excitement, nervousness, certainty and peace all mixed together. As the years have passed and we have faced the roller coaster ride of life together, I still experience that same feeling from time to time. I am blessed and I thank God for placing her in my life. We don’t have a perfect marriage, but we have a successful marriage and the fruit of it can be seen in our sons, in the fact that we love each other as much we did in our younger days and in the faith-filled home we have made together.
My wife and I are a team and we understand that our vocation as parents is to help each other and our children to attain heaven. We also understand our roles and know what each of us is responsible for in achieving goals for our family. My wife challenges me and helps me grow as a man, a husband, a father and, most certainly, in my spiritual life as a Catholic. She keeps my pride and ego in check, reminds me when I get off track and her quiet but passionate faith inspires me. In fact, it was my wife’s interest in the Catholic Church in 2005 that was a critical catalyst for our family joining the Church a year later.
What is so important about marriage? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that the Sacrament of Marriage is a “covenant,” a “partnership,” and “ordered toward the good of the spouses” (CCC ¶1601). We learn further that “‘the intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws. . . . God himself is the author of marriage’ [GS 48, no.1]. The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC ¶1603). We understand that “man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love [Cf. Gen 1:27; 1 Jn 4:8, 16]. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator’s eyes” (CCC ¶1604).
Most importantly, the Catechism states: “Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’ [Gen 2:18]. The woman, ‘flesh of his flesh,’ his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a ‘helpmate’; she thus represents God from whom comes our help [Gen 2:18–25]. ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh’ [Gen 2:24]. The Lord himself shows that this signifies an unbreakable union of their two lives by recalling what the plan of the Creator had been ‘in the beginning’: ‘So they are no longer two, but one flesh’” (CCC ¶1605).
What we can glean from that is very important. God has sent our wives to us and us to our wives to assist each other in our relationships with Him and our journey to heaven. Let us consider a few important questions:
- Do we truly see our wives in this light? Do we actively seek their help?
- If asked, would our wives describe themselves as our “partners” in life?
- What keeps us from seeking or accepting this help? Is it pride? Ego? Misunderstanding the role our wives play? The role we play?
- Do we love our wives and treat them as a gift from God?
- Do our children and friends look at us and see the example of a loving and faith-filled marriage centered in Christ?
As we ponder these convicting questions and our response, let us also consider practical ideas and actions for how we can best be the leaders we are called to be, honor our wives and have blessed marriages.
- Thankfulness to God, gratefulness to our wives. It can be easy to take our loves ones for granted, especially our wives. Do we thank our wives for all that they do and mean to us? Do our children know how much we love, honor, and appreciate our wives, and are we inspiring them to do the same one day in their own families? Do we thank God each day for giving us the gift of our wives? “Authentic conjugal love presupposes and requires that a man have a profound respect for the equal dignity of his wife: ‘You are not her master’ . . . ‘but her husband; she was not given you to be your slave, but your wife. . . . Reciprocate her attentiveness to you and be grateful to her for her love’” (Pope St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio).
- Get our priorities in order. Christ first, family second, work third. If Christ is not first in our lives then we are lost. One of the reasons for the breakdown of the family is that we spend too much time competing with Him for control. I lived that life for over twenty years and it wasn’t until I put my pride aside and surrendered to Christ in 2005 that I began to understand that I couldn’t fully love my wife and children in the way they deserved until I acknowledged Christ as first in my life. “Today we can no longer be Christians as a simple consequence of the fact that we live in a society that has Christian roots: even those born to a Christian family and formed in the faith must, each and every day, renew the choice to be a Christian, to give God first place, before the temptations continuously suggested by a secularized culture, before the criticism of many of our contemporaries” (Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Audience, February 13, 2013).
- View marriage as an apostolate and a blessed mission. “Christian couples should be aware that they are called to sanctity themselves and to sanctify others, that they are called to be apostles and that their first apostolate is in the home. They should understand that founding a family, educating their children, and exercising a Christian influence in society, are supernatural tasks. The effectiveness and the success of their life—their happiness—depends to a great extent on their awareness of their specific mission” (St. Josemaría Escrivá, Conversations with St. Josemaría Escrivá, Scepter Publishers, 2008, 91).
- Be the spiritual leader in our homes. This is not a competition. Men too often sit on the sidelines and wives take on this role while we remain detached and disengaged. We should again thank God for our wives, but we are called to be spiritual leaders and not narrowly view our roles as only the financial providers. I recall the words of a friend, Fr. Dan Ketter, “Scripture is clear that men in general, and husbands and fathers in particular, are to be the spiritual leaders. And spiritual leadership as Jesus defined it is not a leadership of dominance, power, or control, but leadership of sacrificial service.” The positive impact on our marriages and the faith lives of our children is beyond measure.
Just like evangelizing to others can only be accomplished by a sincere, joy-filled sharing of the Good News and setting a good example, making marriage more attractive will only be accomplished by the world seeing more men and women committed to love, selflessness, humility, sacrifice, courage, and devotion to Christ. It seems to me that one of the most important and enduring legacies my wife and I can give to our children and the rest of the world is a successful example of a Christ-centered marriage. One such Catholic couple who have long held my admiration and respect is Joel and Lisa Schmidt. I was keen on interviewing Joel because of the example he sets for other Catholic men and the great advice he and his wife share on their website, ThePracticingCatholic.com.
Joel, thank you for allowing me to interview you. For readers who are not familiar with you, can you share a brief bio?
“Absolutely. Lisa and I have been married for nine years and have three children, so far: Lucy, five; Jude, almost two; and Lydia, one month. We are in the final year of diaconate formation, with me scheduled to be ordained in August 2014. We are also developing a ministry in conjunction with our local diocese to provide support to couples who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss. In addition, we write for various Catholic websites including our own, ThePracticingCatholic.com, which is our personal blog about attempting to live a joy-filled Catholic life. Finally, we speak to Catholic groups, primarily about marital and family spirituality. Professionally, I have a PhD in biochemistry and work as a research scientist.”
Joel, I have long respected the way you and your wife Lisa live your lives, and your marriage is a great example to us all. What is the key to a happy Catholic marriage?
“Permanence. ‘Will you love and honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?’ In the wedding rite, you actually have to promise to do that. You don’t get to enter into marriage with conditions. Our sponsor couple did a good job of driving that point home during our marriage preparation. They told us that the primary thing that will keep a couple together and ultimately make a marriage successful is not love; it’s commitment. There will be days when you don’t feel very loving toward each other, which is natural; feelings come and go. Other friends once told us, ‘No matter what’s going on, whatever we might be fighting about, the marriage is never on the line. That’s just understood.’
“The meaning of ‘for better or worse’ is difficult to truly grasp without understanding marriage as a sacrament. It really makes no sense to stick two selfish, wounded, sinful people together and expect them to stay together forever, so there has to be something else at work. God’s grace poured out through the Sacrament of Marriage can transform those two people from self-serving to self-sacrificing. Husband and wife both have to be willing to empty themselves for the good of the other. It takes real courage to be vulnerable enough to hold nothing back for yourself, which is only possible if you know the other person is not heading for the exit at the first sign of trouble. You have to know you’ll still be loved when you make mistakes.”
Are there difficult days in the Schmidt house? How do you and Lisa cope with the inevitable challenges of marriage and raising children?
“Nope. Well okay, maybe a few. It’s a common cliché to say that marriage should be a 50-50 partnership, but that’s simply wrong. It has to be 100-100, with both husband and wife at any given time being willing to invest everything they have, holding nothing back. When things get tense, you have to come together rather than apart. Lisa and I are at our worst whenever we begin to turn on each other. When arguments ensue, returning fire is not justified just because the other person shot first. Instead of retreating and becoming selfish, you have to give more in understanding and charity.
“Another excellent piece of advice we got from our sponsor couple is never to argue about the details of what was said that led to a conflict. Both of you will be convinced you’re right (‘I know what I said,’ or ‘I know what I heard’), so there’s no possible resolution. Agree to disagree and figure out how to move forward together. This keeps the focus on unified problem solving rather than finger-pointing and blaming.”
Clearly, you and Lisa honor the Sacrament of Marriage. What is your advice to other Catholic men out there on how to do the same?
“Speak well of each other, always. After all, you married each other. Guys, if your wife is such a shrew, what does that say about you? If you constantly complain about your wife, it just makes you look stupid and small. When people around you are degrading their wives by talking them down, don’t participate. These opportunities to practice the virtues of prudence and charity will eventually begin to permeate your interactions with your wife. You might be surprised what it does for your attitude toward her and your marriage overall.
“You don’t have to pretend that everything is always sunshine and rainbows, but there’s no need to air your martial struggles in public either. The need to ‘let off steam’ is a myth; remember that steam burns whoever comes into contact with it. Note, this is not the same as discussing a genuine problem with a trusted confidant. ‘Venting’ may relieve the pressure for a while, but it does nothing to change the conditions giving rise to it. If something in your marriage is causing such a negative, heated reaction inside you, you owe it to your wife to take it to prayer to discern why and then work it out privately with her.”
Do you think men struggle with “honoring” their wives? Is there a pride issue or a fear of giving up control that men find difficult to overcome?
“It has been said that ‘idle hands are the devil’s workshop,’ but overly busy hands can be dangerous, too. One of the devil’s cleverest devices is keeping people, men in particular, busy. This is often under the guise of doing good, like providing for his wife and family. There is tremendous societal and peer pressure to do this. The man who provides material abundance for his family is almost universally revered without considering what his family really needs. Perhaps they need less stuff and more of him. They may need him to ‘do’ less and ‘be’ more.
“Honoring our wives, which not surprisingly is also one of the best things we can do for our children, requires us to slow down, pay attention, listen, and be truly present. In a sense this requires us to give up control because we have to respond rather than always initiating. Success is neither predictable nor objectively measurable, and the return on investment is seldom immediate. However, the best way for a man to honor his wife is to earnestly strive to be the man she deserves, the man God is calling him to be. Men struggle with this because it is inherently just that, a struggle.”
Joel, what impact does a vibrant prayer life and actively practicing our Catholic faith have on a marriage? What has been your own experience?
“Actively practicing the Catholic faith keeps Christ at the center of our marriage. This may sound trite, but it is a deep, rich truth that permeates every aspect of our relationship. It reminds us that our marriage is an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the Church. Every man should read Ephesians 5 and pay special attention to the husband’s responsibilities. ‘Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.’ If you want to know exactly what that means, look long and hard at a crucifix, because that’s the level of sacrifice and service to which you’re being called. That’s why you need to spend a lot of time on your knees begging Jesus to pour out the grace of the sacrament in your heart.
“Most men have no trouble stating unequivocally that they would take a bullet for their wives. However, that’s easy, because most of us will never have to do that. The sacrifices actually required of us are usually smaller and more subtle but no less important. Can you skip watching that football game to go shopping for the kids’ outfits for family pictures next week? Can you paint an entire room coral just because she needs to see it, knowing full well you’ll be painting over it later? Can you give up the regular poker game with your college buddies with whom you now have nothing in common in lieu of a regular date night? Can you take the kids as soon as you walk in the door at the end of a long work day, because she’s been home with them all day and needs a break? Can you love her heroically every day? You’ve got to beg Jesus for the grace to do it.”
My brothers, we have a special and distinct role as Christian men, fathers, husbands, and leaders in the family, in the Church, and in society at large. If we don’t step up, we run the risk of seeing our families overrun and absorbed by the surrounding culture. This is not acceptable. Start with prayer. Be faithful, be consistent, have courage, show humility, and remember . . . we are made for a heavenly home and not this world.
Questions for Reflection
- The author challenges us to be the spiritual leaders in our homes. Am I leading or following, or apathetically sitting on the sidelines when it comes to spiritual leadership?
- Do I do a good job of thanking my wife for all that she does for me and my family? Do I thank God for my wife? If not, what is holding me back?
- Joel Schmidt shared that the “best way for a man to honor his wife is to earnestly strive to be the man she deserves, the man God is calling him to be.” Am I trying to be the man God is calling me to be?
- Joel also stated the old cliché of marriage being a 50-50 partnership is wrong, and that it should be 100-100 with “both husband and wife at any given time being willing to invest everything they have, holding nothing back.” Do I understand and believe in the 100-100 concept that I must give everything I have to my marriage, as must my wife? Do I actually live this way?
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Randy Hain’s popular fifth book, Journey to Heaven: A Road Map for Catholic Men (Emmaus Road Publishing), with permission of the author and Emmaus Road Publishing. The book is available through Amazon.com, EmmausRoad.org or found in your local Catholic bookstores.
Would you like to learn more about Randy Hain’s newest book? His seventh book, Special Children, Blessed Fathers: Encouragement for Fathers of Children with Special Needs (Foreword by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput), is available from Amazon in both hardcover and paperback.