Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

If you are married — still married after some, maybe many years — do you remember your wedding day? Was it the highpoint of your married life so far, or only the beginning? I remember my mother saying that, as she looked back, her wedding day seemed like a fog. I never knew quite what to make of that remark, and I never quite had the courage to ask what she meant by it. I only know that my parents had their ups and downs throughout their married life and that they were married until the day my father died. That was just shy of 69 years. A long haul. 

I remember at their 50th wedding anniversary, when it came time for speeches — we held a thanksgiving-style family celebration in our parents’ home — my father said “I love this woman today more than I loved her on our wedding day, or any time since.” What a remarkable gift to his children and grandchildren, to hear this profession of love and commitment after all those years. Not that we ever doubted it. But, like my mother’s strange but candid recollection of her wedding day, it also kind of downplayed the centrality of that one day.

Neither of my parents, being Catholics who understood the taking of their solemn vows, would have minimized their importance. Clearly, their lives proved they meant what they said. For all their strife with separation from family, on one side, and perhaps too much family proximity on the other, they worked things out. Their lives were lived in that sort of trinity that Christian marriage aspires to: love for each other and love for their children. No sacrament so dramatically mirrors the image of the triune God as matrimony.

These thoughts come to mind again as I write this article in prayer, anticipation and thanksgiving for the five men whom I am so happy to ordain to the priesthood on Saturday, June 19. New ordinations inevitably invite reflection on a priest’s own ordination day, mine being in Rome, July 2, 1973. Perhaps the apple does not fall far from the tree, but that day, in my memory, is wrapped in some haze as well. Sure it seemed like the culmination of a long and winding path to priesthood and in the splendor of St. Peter’s at the altar of the chair — actually the chair of Charles the Bald as construction analysis and carbon samples have documented (but that’s another story) — somehow that day pales in the light of what has been an awesome, unpredictable and rich adventure since.

Much is invested in the wedding industry to make “that special day” so memorable. I begrudge no one the fun of that big party, which has grown increasingly costly and anxiety-prone each year, it seems. I have no doubt that my seminarians, in the lead-up to their day of ordination, are experiencing a host of thoughts, feelings and uncertainties that anyone imagining such a life-changing commitment can understand. I will be happy to help make this day as joyful and memorable as I possibly can by my prayer and presence, as all of those attending will as well.

But I am not particularly worried about how this day turns out. Whether it brings sun or rain, heat, humidity or breezes, all will be well. I am confident that the Lord who has called them to take this tremendous step will give them all the grace they need for a life full of joy and sorrow, passion and pain, wonder and discovery of how the cross they are taking up, united with the cross of Christ, will mark their lives and the lives of those they encounter and accompany along the way. They are in it for the long haul.

It may be impossible for them to explain to many of their peers and contemporaries why they even decided to heed this call. People will ask them why they did and at times they might even question themselves. I did. I have wondered along the way why I chose this road less traveled instead of others, but I have never doubted that, in retrospect, it was the right path. I have come to realize that it is a great way of loving, a gift from God, the way in which the Lord chose to save me, as much as about anything that may or may not have affected the lives of others through me.

I am more than grateful for all the kindnesses shown me along the way, as I approach 50 years of priesthood, the lessons learned, joys and sorrows shared, exaltation and humiliation that have happened over the years. God uses everything, even our colossal failures. Those who have weathered long years of marriage know this all too well. In many ways, orders and matrimony complement each other, marriage showing the depth of love and priesthood the breadth of love. They are different ways of loving, sacrificing and, let’s be honest, toiling in the Lord’s vineyard. L-O-V-E is W-O-R-K, a daily decision, far more than just a feeling, that demands constant prayer, trust and renewal of those promises made on the day of the wedding or the ordination. It’s all about the long haul, the journey, the perseverance.

The world looks at us who are married, and stay married, those of us who are ordained, and remain faithful to our orders, as strange perhaps. But there is also a certain fascination, an awe that any such thing is even still possible. I can say, without doubt or hesitation, that any strength, virtue, achievement in all my years as a priest are from God and God alone. My sins and failures are entirely my own, and all I can truly lay claim to. I am as mystified and awed by the reality of what my priesthood is and has been as I remain with the marriage my parents lived for so many years until my father’s death. 

I hope that nothing I have said here gives a false impression that the priesthood I know or the marriage my parents knew are something rosy, mystical or ideal in any way. I am only trying to be candid in saying that they are and remain undeniable testimony to the power of God’s love and grace, given to anyone who takes up these calls, these vocations that marriage and orders truly are. My deacon friends and their wives will also testify how the gift of their sacraments, the sacramental life lived together, has brought richness that they know far exceeds whatever they have personally invested in it. Our religious brothers and sisters would doubtless affirm the same.

God uses everything that we give up, to follow these divine callings. We lose nothing when we give our lives to a calling greater than ourselves or our own self-designated designs. These vocations are an opening up to a mystery that is beyond our understanding at any time or ability to pin down to or define by any one day or moment in time. 

Join me in wishing our new priests a life-long journey of love and discovery of the unpredictable, unimaginable ways that God will lead them on over the long haul, that they may know the awe and mystery and the truth that, trusting in God, nothing is impossible if God wills it to be.