This will come as a surprise: The one single issue that most consumes the time of an average parish priest is ...marriage.
Granted, other matters take time as well. These matters can be many and daunting if the parish is large. But marriage is first on the list of regular, and often vexing, concerns that the average pastor must face.
It stands to reason. Look at the facts. The overwhelming number of parishioners anywhere are married, certainly if you are talking about adults. And young adults have marriage on their minds, whether it’s for the more distant future, or more immediately if they are interested in marrying someone to whom they are attached.
The picture becomes more apparent when one considers the fact that so many marriages are troubled. Usually, couples or individual spouses come to their pastors when things already have become pretty bad. Feelings are intense. Tensions are strong. Often others, such as children, are in the mix. On more occasions than we like to discuss, “other persons” also are in the equation.
So many failed or failing marriages have a sexual component. An elderly pastor once commented to me that the thing priests deny themselves by their commitment to chastity — namely , a sexual relationship with a wife in matrimony — seems to take up the majority of time.
At one time in U.S. Church history, couples simply approached their pastors and said they were engaged. There was little more to do other than to schedule a wedding.
But that was long ago. For several decades, the increasing number of divorces among Catholics, and all the problems created by divorce, has troubled bishops. Diocese after diocese have enacted policies requiring engaged couples to delay their weddings for months, often as many as nine months, and in the meantime participate in a educational program to learn what married life actually means and to see if they are suited to their prospective spouses.
Many dioceses have group processes in place to educate engaged couples in this regard. But no pastor is fully withdrawn from the process. Every pastor receiving news from a couple wishing to be married must instill in them the idea that preparation for marriage consists of much more than planning what songs will be sung at the wedding or determining whether the priest can make it to the rehearsal party.
It used to be unusual for a priest to have to talk with a couple who lived together and were sexually intimate without being married. Now it is fairly common. Preparing engaged couples who are faithful to the Gospel’s teaching regarding sexual activity may be time-consuming, but it has its rewards for priests. Catholics who are loyal to the Church always inspire priests. Conversations with the “living together” can be tedious at best.
Marriage, according to both the Church and civil law, ends with the death of one spouse. However, every pastor knows that when one spouse dies, often the marriage does not end — at least as far as the surviving spouse’s feelings and circumstances are concerned. Consoling widows and widowers is a major task for pastors.
Often, the pastor is the only person in whom a widow or widower, or a spouse in an unhappy marriage, will confide. Priests know this. They know their vocation is to bring Christ to people. Dealing with marriages or intended marriages is part of their territory.
The joke is that so many Catholics think that priests know little about marriage. But if the priest has been at it for a while, he likely has heard more about more marriages than anyone else on the block.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.