The Unexpected Jubilee I Walked In On

I got off to a slow start last Sunday morning, but realized I could still make the 11:30 a.m. mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah’s Roman Catholic Mother Church. So I hurried off, parked, and quickly ducked inside, clueless about what awaited me.

Each weekend mass is well-attended, but I’d still never witnessed the church so packed! I walked past row after row searching for a seat, finally slipping into the middle of a right-hand pew near the front of the church. Had everyone else slept through earlier services too?

The organ sounded, and I was immediately on my feet again, struggling to slip my arms out of the sleeves of my coat and open my bulletin to the hymn all at the same time. All eyes swiveled to the center of the church. Bishop Hartmayer, Bishop Emeritus Boland, Father Schreck, Deacon Smith and other priests, bedecked in purple stoles, majestically proceeded down the aisle. What was I in the middle of, with hardly a seat to be found in this historic cathedral?

At the end of the hymn, Bishop Hartmayer welcomed the 100 couples from 35 parishes in attendance who were commemorating a total of “3,900 years of marriage.” Seems I’d walked in on something called World Marriage Day, an annual celebration of golden and silver wedding anniversaries across the diocese. That’s why I now spotted so many couples wearing corsages and boutonnieres.

And then right then and there my emotions tumbled out. I started to sob, straight through the Penitential Rites, both the Kyrie and the Gloria, followed by the Collect. During the first scripture reading, I frantically grabbed the single mangled tissue from my purse and alternated blowing my nose, weeping, and praying to God to stop the tears, even as they continued to drop. So overwhelmed by emotions and memories, I couldn’t think. But I needed a clearing to figure out what was happening inside me. I spied the disability elevator to my right, my escape route I decided if I couldn’t stop crying by the gospel reading.

My parents celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in 1978, followed by my grandparents’ 50th the next year when they all went off to Hawaii to celebrate. I remember those occasions like they were yesterday instead of four decades ago. Those two couples – and my aunt and her husband – had been the examples I turned to many times during the troubles in my own marriage. All I had to do was recall the hard times they’d endured, how they’d held fast to their love and commitment during all the stress and the sickness and the financial woes, and I’d press on in my own marriage, firm in the knowledge that like them, my husband and I too would eventually find our brighter days.

My husband and I had reached our 25th anniversary too before divorcing. Only we’d celebrated apart, he with his girlfriend, me traveling back to the church where we’d exchanged our vows. I strung out the divorce and tried to save my marriage, but my husband wasn’t interested. I mean it when I say his abandonment and betrayal destroyed me for a very long time.
What was I feeling in the Savannah cathedral all these many years later? Why the sudden rush of emotions? Although still single, I had healed, built a new life for myself, and long put to rest any thoughts of my ex-husband. I blew my nose again, willed the tears to slide back inside, and bowed my head to pray. I had to pull myself together.

As Bishop Hartmayer began his homily, my breath began to steady. He told a story about Rabbi Harold Kushner who had once been asked by a couple to modify the traditional wedding vows he administered. Instead of pledging their lives to each other until death, they intended to commit for only as long as their love lasted. Kushner respected their honesty, but declined to unite them. He knew that pledging anything less than full commitment insured their union had no chance of going the distance during the inevitable marital difficulties.
Love endures long after the romance hardens into reality, the Bishop said. But committed couples learn to find fulfillment even in diapers and mortgages and college tuition. I know I had, thinking back to those diaper days, the all-night vigils when the children spiked fevers, the worries about my husband when he lost his job and taking dictation as I typed his cover letters and resumes. I’d found every bit as much fulfillment in those times as I had our own frequent trips to Hawaii.

The Catholic faith views marriage as a covenant deeply rooted in God’s love for us and ours for him, Bishop Hartmayer continued.

“May we dare to love as God does without limit or condition,” he concluded, asking all 100 couples to rise. I watched in silence, biting back the last few tears as the couples turned to each other and renewed their vows.

“You may kiss the bride!” the Bishop said at the end. Thank goodness for his joke. Clarity had broken free during the moment of humor.

Divorce brought on so much unnecessary suffering for my family. Just as I continue mourning the loss of my mom and dad from time to time, it was natural to mourn the loss of the miraculous milestone of faith, endurance and love I’d just been witnessing, one I’d never had the chance to experience and never would.

But the energy I’d once expended in suffering, through grace, I’d harnessed to rebuild. And speaking up for marriage, as I do in my writing and efforts toward divorce reform, provide comfort that bitterness and sorrow have not overtaken me.

Better still, as I smiled and clapped in the sanctuary, I realized that the part of my heart that had been momentarily attuned to sadness and jealousy was small compared to the joy at my unexpected good fortune to have walked into this historic cathedral and witness 100 couples continuing to stand for marriage. How was very much still alive. May their example ripple throughout the diocese as the marriages in my family had once done in my own life, providing models of faith and courage for the next generation.  

Tags: anniversary · Cathedral of St. John the Baptist · Catholicism · divorce · marriage · National Marriage Week · sacrament of marriage · Savannah · World Marriage Day



8 responses so far:

  • JOHN FARRELL – Oct 10, 2019 at 10:36 PM

    Dear Beverly, Fr. Schreck is the Judicial Vicar of the marriage tribunal. He will tell you that separation/divorce have zero to do with natural law or he will say it is strictly a private matter. (Heresy). "If the Church were to declare a marriage no longer binding, while the couple still remained civilly bound to one another, it would create numerous problems with custody of children, financial disputes, and put the Church at odds with civil authorities." If divorce is purely a civil matter (as we're told) and the Church has zero jurisdiction over child custody and $, then there is zero to be at odds over. This statement proves kids and $ ARE governed by the ecclesiastical authorities! They abandon families to civil courts. https://diosav.org/tribunal/annulments/annulment-faq Also, if any of those couples hit the rocks and one spouse came to him for annulment - almost sure bet he would grant it because he un-canonically includes "good relationship" as essential to validity. Fr. Schreck heads up the culture of death at the tribunal. But glad you are Catholic.
  • Ann Vander Stoep – Feb 25, 2020 at 6:54 PM

    This is beautiful. I hope you will join the Catholic faith if you have not already. You have excellent writing skills and we could use more good writers plus so much more. The Holy Spirit was drawing you there for a reason.
  • Beverly Willett – Mar 11, 2020 at 3:32 PM

    Hi Ann, Thank you so much! So interesting what you said because I was confirmed in the Catholic faith in December of 2018! A few months ago I wrote my first article for a Catholic publication -- America. You can find the link on my "Articles" page. Kind regards, Beverly
  • Martin – Apr 7, 2020 at 9:48 PM

    I am figuring out how suffering and Grace work together now. I have been Catholic all my life. The past year after finding out about my wife's affair and the high probability of her asking for divorce after the kids are gone has turned into the best year of my life. Not because I am happy our marriage is such a wreck but because, through no working of my own, I turned away from my initial impulse for vengeance and eventually came to forgiveness. Two key readings/listenings about forgiveness that stuck with me: If you cannot forgive, do what Jesus did on the cross and ask God to forgive until you are able to offer it yourself. Not forgiving someone ties you to them and the action that hurt you. It holds you prisoner to all of that. Forgiving someone sets you free if nothing else and maybe it sets them free too. So glad to have you in the Church :)
  • Fyne – Apr 10, 2020 at 7:32 PM

    The pain, the betrayal....I'm not sure I can ever get over it. My best friend became a monster, our lives upside down, I'm miserable, kids, too. He looks like he was hit by a truck. It's impossible to understand how can people still be so nonchalant about divorce. It's hell on Earth.
  • Beverly Willett – Apr 16, 2020 at 1:36 PM

    Hi Martin, I still have much to learn about suffering and grace too. Sounds like it might be the best year of your life too because you've given up the anger. I know whenever I worked on developing patience it seemed to open up my perspective. When you don't live in the heat of the moment, space develops in which you can see things you couldn't see before, including different ways of being. Anger and a little smug satisfaction? Not enough satisfaction and it still leaves you stuck. I look forward to hearing how things go for you. Wishing you all the best. And thank you. So happy to be in the church!
  • Beverly Willett – Apr 16, 2020 at 1:41 PM

    Hi John, The sentence you quoted doesn't support your argument. It doesn't say divorce is purely a civil matter. The sentence does point out the potential problems if the reverse of what you say is true, which seems true. The Father you speak of is my rector who confirmed me. I'm filled with joy every time I hear one of his homilies. He's a learned, devout, special and caring man. Please do not speak of what you do not know and please do not speak irreverently about him.
  • Beverly Willett – Apr 16, 2020 at 1:44 PM

    Hi Fyne, I'm sorry you're going through. I felt everything you're describing. And for a long time. But I promise you can get through this. Maybe never completely over it, because it will leave scars. I'm still sad at times, of course, and it took a long time, but I am happy now and lead a full life. Believe that you will too, work for it, but also allow yourself to fully grieve . My thoughts are with you.


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" Ostensibly about the break-up of her marriage and loss of her dream house, a four-story Victorian brownstone in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens neighborhood, Beverly Willett's absorbing memoir is really about finding a home in one's own skin. A delight."

Courtney Hargrave, Author of Burden: A Preacher, A Klansman and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South, a major motion picture starring Forest Whitaker

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