This Father’s Day I had the privilege of renewing the wedding vows of a couple from the parish. They have been married 64 years. The husband takes care of his ailing wife, and so I went to their home to renew their vows. She looked beautiful in her new white dress. The whole family had gathered from afar to surround them. I made them all put away their cell phones and participate in the renewal of vows. It was very beautiful and fulfilling for me as a priest to see the commitment of marriage being lived right in front of me. The fruit of the love of this couple now surrounded them in prayer and support.
I have renewed the vows of many couples. They all inspire me. I think of the sacrifices they have made through the years for their family—sacrifices known only to the two of them. I have renewed the vows of couples in churches, hospitals, nursing homes and even at Cana in Galilee where Jesus performed His first miracle. There was Sal who was married to his wife for 75 years. He drove himself to visit her in the nursing home every day for years. They were married 75 years ago in my church by Father Helfrick, whose face I saw every day in the entrance to the church. So when I went over to the nursing home to renew their vows I brought Father Helfrick’s picture with me. He sat right there watching from his picture frame as they renewed their vows. The wife died later that week.
I remember often seeing a man who visited his wife every day in a nursing home in which I helped. She was unconscious and bed ridden. The husband would sit holding just her finger through the cold metal railings along the side of hospital beds. I remember him lamenting that all he could do was hold her finger. He wanted to hug her. I pushed the bed away from the wall, lowered the railing and told him to sit in the bed with her and hold her. He smiled and then cried. A month later I renewed their marriage vows in the nursing home and then buried her soon after that.
But there is the one marriage that still surprises me to this day. Many years ago I was a new priest on a sick call. The husband was dying. The faithful wife greeted me at the door and I ascended the steps to give him the Last Rites. Oftentimes when someone is dying the family pushes all the furniture to the perimeter of the room with the sickbed in the middle. It is emblematic of the reality that all of life gets “pushed to the side” and the sick person now becomes the center of our life. People are always embarrassed by this; I find it a sign of holiness. When I was leaving the wife thanked me for coming—her little grandson Philip (she called him “Philly”) was dancing around her impatiently. She told me God was good to them and gave them a home and a family and a little money to travel. But here’s the important part: she said she never loved her husband more than when she had to care for him and feed him. It was easy to love him when all was well, but the real test was “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer….” How easy it is to love when all is good, healthy and rich. The real test is when things are bad, sick and poor.
I’ve told that story at many Pre Cana sessions and weddings over the years. A few years ago at a reception I told some of these heroic stories of those who were faithful to their marriage vows unto death. I don’t remember where I was or why I was there, but it brought some to tears. In particular the waiter, which surprised me. He told me he was “Philly.”
– Father Gerard Gordon