Faith Matters

St Valentine's Day thoughts on love and marriage

Marriage is a journey, not a destination, says Deirdre O'Rawe of Accord Catholic Marriage Care Service

Pope Francis leaves St Mary's Pro Cathedral in Dublin after meeting with recently-married couples and couples preparing for the Sacrament of Marriage during his visit to the World Meeting of Families. Picture by Aaron Chown/PA Wire

ON the Feast of St Valentine, celebrated today, I am reminded of the appeal of Pope Francis when he spoke to engaged and newly-married couples at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin last summer: "The welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church."

The Pope's words echo Accord's mission. We support couples at so many stages of life: meeting young people as part of our schools' programme, imparting values that will stand them for life; and when we meet young couples on a marriage preparation course, offering them insights and opportunities for personal development and self-awareness as they prepare for the Sacrament of Marriage.

And then, of course, meeting the individual or couple in the counselling room, in that sacred space where hurts can be aired, trust restored and healing begin.

All tender moments, all grace-filled moments.

For 56 years, Accord has been privileged to be the pastoral arm of the Church, reaching out to people at key moments in their relationship and in their lives.

The feast of St Valentine is always a busy time for Accord. The 54 Accord centres all over the island will be receiving calls from couples who have just become engaged and want to book a course.

Some will already know about the Accord course from siblings and friends who have attended.

Others will have been told by their priest to contact us. The questions we are regularly asked are to do with the length of the course, the cost, will they have to share their feelings or experiences with other couples... and why do they need to do this course? Why do they need to prepare for this Sacrament?

Pope Francis tells us that the three most important words are "please", "thank you" and "sorry". As parents we often remind our children of these words but do we always use them ourselves with our spouses?

In my experience, it is only when the couples have begun the course and started to work through the modules of communication, family of origin, commitment, resolving conflict and children, that they realise why taking time to focus on their marriage is so important.

Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage provides a unique opportunity for couples to focus on that popular and uplifting reading from St Paul, and ask: 'What will it mean for us to be patient and kind, loving and forgiving, hopeful and enduring, in the everyday concrete situations of our marriage and family life?'

None of us know when we stand before the altar, give our consent and say "I do" what life will hold; what hand we will be asked to play.

The patience Paul refers to is more than 'biting my lip' or 'putting up with the other'.

It is about having a deep compassion and accepting my spouse just as he or she is.

And this is more than an attitude; it is about giving and receiving, loving and serving. It is about wanting the best for my spouse, recognising that he or she has different gifts and a unique path in life.

This is possible when we really listen to what the other is saying and speak to each other with gentleness and tenderness.

Life can deal a difficult hand to play; the couple who long for a child but have been told that is unlikely to happen; the child who is sick or struggling at school or doesn't fit in; the fear of unemployment; and, of course, bereavement of a loved one.

St Paul talks about "bearing all things". This can seem impossible when there is enormous suffering.

Pope Francis tells us: "Marital love can be experienced even amid sorrow; it involves accepting that marriage is an inevitable mixture of enjoyment and struggles, tensions and repose, pain and relief, satisfactions and longings, annoyances and pleasures, but always on the path of friendship, which inspires couples to care for one another."

There are a number of stages in marriage, each with its challenges and joys.

The love of newly-weds can change when babies arrive and change again when the children are teenagers and then the nest is empty and it is just the two.

This is why we, in Accord, call our programme for the preparation for marriage, 'Marriage, a Journey, not a Destination'.

Pope Francis describes it thus: "Love is a single reality but with different dimensions."

The marriage bond finds new forms of expression and constantly seeks new ways to grow in strength.

The love of a married couple is a very special kind of love - a love that is life-giving, permanent and exclusive. When this relationship is in difficulty, it is a love that can wound like no other

The Pope advises that this takes daily effort and praying to the Holy Spirit for an outpouring of His grace, His supernatural strength and His spiritual fire, to confirm, direct and transform our love in every new situation.

In 2018 Accord also undertook 24,153 counselling sessions.

For couples seeking counselling, Accord specialises in the skill of 'couple counselling' which involves the counsellor supporting the relationship, as well as the individuals.

Issues that arise frequently in counselling sessions include communication and emotional intimacy issues, family conflict, concerns about separation, criticism and insults, use of digital technology, loss or grief, addiction, finances and problematic behaviours.

The Catholic Church is privileged, through Accord, to tenderly accompany individuals and couples in their marriage and family life.

One of our key pastoral challenges is to teach couples about the beauty of Christian marriage and to help them live in harmony together, to overcome selfishness and to reconcile differences.

For those who experience challenges in marriage, Accord exists to tenderly journey with them.

In the English language, we use the word "love" to cover a multitude of relationships but the love of a married couple is a very special kind of love - a love that is life-giving, permanent and exclusive.

When this is the case, husbands and wives feel accepted and cherished. On the other hand, when this relationship is in difficulty, it is a love that can wound like no other.

Forgiveness is important but not always easy. To be able to forgive comes from the experience of understanding and forgiving ourselves.

It may be that as children we picked up messages about ourselves that were unhelpful or even damaging.

Unlearning these messages is important so that each of us can become the person God wants us to be.

Issues that arise frequently in counselling sessions include communication and emotional intimacy issues, family conflict, concerns about separation, criticism and insults, use of digital technology, loss or grief, addiction, finances and problematic behaviours

Sometimes being distant, avoiding affection and being fearful in our closest relationships has to do with our not being able to accept ourselves, our limitations and even to forgive ourselves.

If we accept that God's love is unconditional then we will be able to show love and forgive others - even if they have wronged us.

As wives and husbands we are called to protect and nurture our marriages. Pope Francis tells us that the three most important words are "please", "thank you" and "sorry".

As parents we often remind our children of these words but do we always use them ourselves with our spouses, with that person we have chosen above all others?

The work of Accord volunteers is to accompany couples and families when they need us, and for as long as they need us.

Accord returns for 2018 show that more than 16,000 people attended our marriage preparation courses last year.

Interestingly, 87 per cent of couples attending found information and discussion on sacramental marriage, and commitment to each other, as the most beneficial elements of their course.

When a person is selected to train with Accord, we are told that this work is sacred work and to take off our shoes because we are on holy ground.

When Jesus left this world in His physical body, He passed the baton on to us, His Church.

We are to be His hands and feet, His eyes and ears. We do not hold all the answers but we can provide a safe space for couples to really hear each other and help to restore the love and hope they felt on their wedding day.

This kind of healing takes time and perseverance, but if a couple come to us wanting to change and willing to work at it, they can - regardless of what has happened between them - learn to love and trust again.

It takes courage to make that first call and we in Accord are privileged that couples entrust themselves to our care on this difficult and painful part of their journey.

Pope Francis meets a couple during his visit to St Mary's Pro Cathedral in Dublin last August. Picture by WMOF18/Maxwell Photography/PA Wire

Last summer Pope Francis reminded us of what is important in life; of all the love, care and tenderness that is shared in a family, in the everyday ups and downs of life.

The Pope notes that, "no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love".

It is for this reason that the Church advises couples planning to marry to undergo marriage preparation and that those experiencing difficulties seek our help.

Pope Francis says: "Our world needs a revolution of love. The tumult of our times is really one of selfishness, of personal interests... the world needs a revolution of love. Let that revolution begin with you and your families."

Deirdre O'Rawe, director of Accord NI

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