Encountering Christ: One couple’s journey in faith
As the fathers of the Second Vatican Council debated the chapter on marriage and the family for the constitution on “The Church in the Modern World,” one married couple listened in. José and Luz María Icaza, leaders of the Latin American branch of the Christian Family Movement, were among the 50 or so lay Catholics and Protestants invited to the council as auditors. When the word concupiscence was repeatedly used in discussions about married love, María decided to speak up. “Your Eminences and your Excellencies,” she is said to have interjected, “I’ll wager that if you asked your parents, they will tell you that you were not conceived in ‘concupiscence,’ but in conjugal love!” The subsequent document makes no reference to concupiscence, but instead speaks of “conjugal love,” thanks, at least in part to the intervention of María Icaza. Although supposedly only a “listener,” she, inspired by God’s Spirit, knew when to speak and what to say.
Now, half a century later, we, Martha and Rubén—together with thousands or even millions of married couples—can hardly wait for the Synod of Bishops on the Family. And we too want to make our voices heard, in the spirit of Pope Francis’ invitation to the whole church to provide input.
We are a senior couple, cradle Catholics married 56 years, with seven children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Rubén and I have extensive experience working with married couples and their families, with couples living together, with divorced-and-remarried couples as well as with divorced and celibate individuals. We hope that our insights—gained from age, experience and good mentors—may resonate with couples actively trying to live out their marriage sacrament.
Swept by the Spirit
Rubén and I met during our senior year of high school, and it was love at first sight. Our preparation for the sacrament of marriage began even before we met: it came from our wonderful Catholic families who supported our participation at Mass, holy days, yearly retreats and parish missions, as well as the example of all the married couples in our lives. On Christmas Eve 1957, we brought two people to witness our formal engagement in the church where we promised to marry each other for life. Afterward our favorite parish priest asked us questions to which we answered yes or no. He knew us so well that he checked off what he already knew. And that was it. We then had a beautiful High Mass for the wedding; it was all very pre-Vatican II.
Then the Spirit blew! Life was filled with love, but making a home and finding the right jobs were tough. We were left to figure out for ourselves how to live our married life with our children: work, home, finances, medical crises. The children were born one after another. Our fourth child, Karen, was our special challenge. In my first trimester I was diagnosed with rubella syndrome (German measles), which left our daughter with medical complications, including a non-verbal condition that many interpreted as severe mental retardation. As she developed and grew, the condition and diagnosis changed from severe to moderate mental retardation. People’s lack of understanding about our Karen pained us. We wondered whether we were being punished and asked ourselves, “Where did God go?”
By 1964, our anger toward God had provoked between him and us a growing distance. The cultural changes that swept across the United States and the world in the 1960s affected us too. This was a trying time for our marriage. Rubén’s job in Santa Barbara, 90 miles north of our home in Los Angeles, made things especially difficult. We had to live separately for almost a year while trying to sell our L.A. home in a buyers’ market. It was a wild time, and church and God no longer seemed so important. But we were not so far gone that we did not listen to the good Pope John XXIII, who exhorted all Catholics to pray for the Holy Spirit to come and fill the church with her wisdom in the early days of the Second Vatican Council. We did—and she did! Pope John had thrown open the windows of the church, and in the exciting, post-Vatican II years, we were swept up by the powerful winds of the Spirit.
Donald Hessler, a Detroit-born Maryknoll missionary priest and great apostle of family life, moved into our lives like a tornado. Father Hessler spent time in a Communist China prison camp during World War II and served for years in Mexico, always seeking to promote “inter-hemispheric solidarity.” One day in 1970 he rang our doorbell and began sharing with us a bewildering story about traveling up the coast from Mexico to California. He spoke of praying with different groups of people who were praising God by singing in tongues, laying hands on one another and being slain in the Spirit. It was our first encounter with the charismatic movement and we wondered: Is this man really a Catholic priest? We asked him to pray for one of our children who had been struggling in school, and he graciously laid hands and prayed. Then he went to our other children and did the same thing. Finally, he asked if he could pray for us. Of course we said yes, and he placed his hands on each of our heads, as a couple, and prayed, kissed us goodbye and left. We were dumbfounded! We didn’t sleep that night because we had to talk about what we had experienced.
The next morning we immediately went to a Catholic bookstore and each of us bought a pocket edition of Good News for Modern Man. (We owned a coffee-table Bible with beautiful pictures, as did so many Catholics, but it lay mostly unread.) We also bought a variety of other titles in Catholic reading: The Life of St. Teresa of Avila; Ascent of Mount Carmel, by St. John of the Cross; the little paperback My Other Self, by Clarence Enzler; and The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton—a story that lit a fire within us. We devoured these books and felt filled with light as we read, realizing that we were growing in our faith in a way we could not fully explain. The readings left us hungry for more.
Another small whirlwind that blew through our lives was an old schoolmate (our co-author), Johnny, who had become a priest. One day in 1969, we saw his name in the newspaper where he was named as a supporter of the Berrigan brothers at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration. We reconnected, and in 1970 Father Johnny (known to others as Father Juan) introduced us to the Christian Family Movement, through which we met other Catholic couples who shared our hunger to learn more about our faith and vocation.
Once a week we attended C.F.M. gatherings, where the lead couple presented a theme on which we all reflected, prayed and shared our thoughts. Because Rubén and I speak both Spanish and English, we were asked by our lead couple, Dora and Jorge Antillon, to attend an Encuentro Matrimonial (Marriage Encounter) at a neighboring parish, presented by an ecclesial team from Mexico. It was a beautiful weekend, and we learned to listen better and share better with each other. Jorge and Dora then asked us to make another M.E. weekend, this one in English. Our task was to evaluate the Spanish and English offerings for married couples and to discern the strengths of each for the enrichment of the whole Christian Family Movement.
Our third Marriage Encounter brought us yet another beautiful gift from the Holy Spirit. Upon arriving for the weekend, we were greeted by a man with a huge smile on his face, who immediately grabbed our bags and welcomed us. When the program began, he introduced himself, still dressed in a red and white striped T-shirt, as Father Chuck Gallagher, S.J. Again we wondered: Is he really a Catholic priest? That weekend Father Chuck challenged us through his talks, pushing us to share more deeply than we had ever been asked to before. Afterwards, he asked us to consider becoming a Marriage Encounter team couple.
For the next three months, Rubén and I flew to and from New York for training and to deepen our understanding of our sacrament of matrimony. Our lives were turned upside down as we traveled across the country, working with ecclesial teams consisting of one priest and two other team couples, who had all been through this deepening encounter. At each weekend encounter we sought to bring the good news of the sacramental way of life to other couples, so that, we hoped, when they returned to their parishes, families and friends, their love for one another could be a sign of Christ’s love for his church.
Prepare the Way
It is said that Pope John Paul II once asked Mother Teresa, “Where are we to get holy priests?” Mother Theresa wisely replied, “Our holy priests are to come from our holy families.” To become and live as a holy family is our vocation as married couples, not simply to encourage religious vocations, but to encourage all people as they work to answer the Gospel call. Are we living this call? As married couples we are invited and challenged by the Holy Spirit to look at, listen to and embrace her fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, tolerance, temperance, faith, modesty, continence and chastity.
How do we, as the church, prepare committed couples to embrace these gifts and become holy families? Currently, there are several excellent marriage preparation programs. Pre-Cana is one very good program. Another is Engaged Encounter, which was developed by couples and priests involved with Marriage Encounter and uses similar principles to help couples learn how to listen to one another, work as partners and, most important, pray together. Making mutual decisions with prayer is a central part of welcoming our Lord Jesus Christ into our marriage.
In 1978, we were asked to coordinate all Pre-Cana programs in 17 parishes located in East Los Angeles. We invited couples from our Marriage Encounter teams to work with us in presenting the topics for the four-week program: finance and budgeting, health care and natural family planning and effective communication. On the fourth weekend a priest would talk with the engaged couples about planning for marriage not as a single event but as a lifelong journey of growing together through prayer and the sacraments. Marriage preparation programs such as these are good, but we could do better; we must shine a spotlight on them so that all Catholic couples may enter marriage aware of their vocation as a great sacramental sign of the relationship between Christ and his church.
One gap in the church’s support for Catholic couples is the lack of “couple-saints” who could serve as role models for married life. In the mid-70s, Rubén and I were invited to join other Spanish-speaking couples at the house of the Oblates of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That is where we met the founder of Marriage Encounter, the Rev. Gabriel Calvo, who is from Spain. Father Calvo told us that early on he had a dream that at least one contemporary married couple be canonized to give us a holy example for young people thinking about marriage.
At one point, his Spanish community—the Operarios (Workers in the Vineyard)—were meeting in Rome, and were to have a private audience with Pope Paul VI. Father Calvo was told by his superior that they were to kiss the pope’s ring but say nothing. However, as the pope neared, he felt the Holy Spirit bursting inside and then outside of him, and succinctly shared his dream. Pope Paul asked a cardinal walking with him to follow up on Father Calvo’s suggestion about a patron saint-couple for married people. A month later, the same cardinal, attending a dinner with Father Calvo, excitedly told him that maybe he had found the couple, a model Catholic family, living in the 19th century. Father Calvo listened courteously, but then energetically shook his head in the negative. He replied:
No. I visualize a contemporary couple of today that has a mortgage, goes to work, comes home and takes care of changing diapers. They may sometimes have disagreements, but follow that in reconciliation expressed by making love, and then continue to live their life in the love of the Lord. I’m not thinking of a couple that becomes widowed, and then the survivor founds a community, or the couple decides to separately live celibate lives while forming their own distinct communities. That is not conjugal love! We need a canonized couple or several of them who are married and love each other, whose children struggle with daily life as well, and all enjoy the delights of their married life.
Those present with Father Calvo at the meeting in San Antonio asked him, “How can we propose a couple for canonization?” He asked Rubén and me to show him our notebooks, where we write our love letters to each other, and then said, “There’s your proof, your documentation.” We were stunned at the thought of ourselves as married saints, yet, indeed, that is what we are called to be, to become!
There is a story told of the time that Giuseppe Sarto, the future St. Pius X, became a bishop. His mother could not attend the ceremony, so when he went to visit her; he proudly showed his new bishop’s ring to his mother. She looked at it, piously kissed it, and then pointing to the simple band on her left hand remarked, “Were it not for this ring, you would not have that one.” I can imagine the future pope-saint reverently and gratefully kissing his mother’s wedding ring.
As a child, I had thought of marriage as “second best” to either priesthood or becoming a sister. Rubén and I are now more deeply aware that matrimony is one of the seven sacraments, indeed that holy orders and matrimony are twin sacraments that serve the church in conjunction with, and nurtured by, the other five sacraments. We are important to our church. We are vital to the life of our church. We are in fact a “little church” part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic family of domestic churches (“Lumen Gentium,” No. 11). Priests need our sacrament of matrimony to bring new life to the church and to initiate each generation into the faith. We also need our priests to help our reconciliation with God and one another, to sustain our faith with the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for spiritual healing and for a final blessing on our way to meet the Lord at our heavenly home. Together with our priests, we—lay faithful, christifideles, in the church and world—are the people of God, the church.
We need and demand an adequate preparation and lifelong support for our contemporary couples who want to live a sacramental way of life. Who gives it to us? Christ the bridegroom! Through his apostle John, he has told us, “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 Jn 4:16)—in us, in our marriage and family, insofar as we are one with Christ.