She was a nurse working in an elegant hospital on the Near North side of Chicago. The afternoon she came to see me at the Cathedral rectory, she was in a white uniform with a coat thrown over her shoulders. From her manner and tone of voice it was clear that she was not at all happy about the visit. "I am going to be married in a Catholic church in Michigan," she announced. "My fiance is Catholic, I am not, and I understand that the Catholic church requires me to have six lessons on Catholic teachings about marriage before we can have the wedding. Where does one take these lessons?" "I will be happy to give them to you whenever you like," I replied. "Have you any times in mind?" "My fiancÚ is coming to Chicago next week," she answered, "give me your telephone number. We will call you for the necessary appointments."
I handed her the number on a sheet of rectory stationery. She took it, turned on her heel, and strode out on to the street without so much as a "goodbye." The following week she telephoned to say that she would like to see me that evening. I told her that I was free and looked forward to our getting together again. At the appointed hour she appeared with her fiancÚ following unenthusiastically behind. "He is here," she observed with a meaningful, not to say menacing, edge to her voice, "because I don't want him to miss even a word." I forced a smile, and the three of us sat down around my desk. On the desk were several copies of a little blue handbook entitled Six Lessons in Preparation for a Mixed Marriage . I gave one to each of my guests. "When there is sufficient cause, such as when one or both parties are living at a distance," I noted, "Church law permits us to telescope the six lessons into three. Perhaps under the circumstances we could. . . ."
The nurse interrupted vigorously. "No telescoping!" she cried. "I don't want him to miss even a word." The fiancÚ kept his eyes fixed nervously on the ceiling. We agreed on five more appointments, and I launched into the first lesson. Lesson One had to do with the history of matrimony. I recounted the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden and the Lord's desire that he not be alone. I told of marriage in the Old Testament, emphasizing examples of virtuous married life especially in the Books of Tobias and Ruth. And I completed my presentation with a commentary on the most important statements of the Lord and Saint Paul on the dignity of marriage and the duties of husbands and wives. The nurse seemed a bit less antagonistic as she and her fiancÚ were putting on their coats to leave. "I knew all of that, sir", she remarked. "But it was interesting to hear how you would say it."
Lesson Two concerned the nature of matrimony as a fundamental human institution. I explained that the marriage bond is forged when a man and a woman agree to give to and to receive from each other an altogether unique right - the perpetual and exclusive right to acts which by their very nature lead to the procreation of children, acts whereby husband and wife can become co-creators with their God. "Co-creators!" the nurse exclaimed. "I have never heard that before. What a lovely idea! Co-creators with their God. Why, that's beautiful. Simply beautiful." The fiancÚ reported that he also found it beautiful. "One of the Brothers in my high school used to say that," he recalled. "He always told us that basically this is what makes marriage so wonderful and..." He hesitated for a moment. "And so holy too." The nurse shook my hand and smiled as she and her fiancÚ were leaving. The fiancÚ looked somewhat relaxed for the first time.
Lessons Three and Four were on the indissolubility of the marriage bond and the fidelity required of the married couple. Some of the nurse's original antipathy returned during my defense of indissolubility. She reminded me that "many good Christian people" approve of divorce and that, as far as she knew, serious opposition to it was coming almost exclusively from "the Roman Church." I reviewed all the relevant citations from Scripture to no avail. The nurse was sure that somehow they could not mean what they seemed to say. I was about to try another tack when the fiancÚ took her by the hand and looked squarely into her eyes. "Sweetheart," he said almost in a whisper, "who gets hurt by divorce?" She did not answer. "Well, I'll tell you," he went on. "Who gets hurt first and foremost are the wife and the children, the ones who are most vulnerable and most need to be cared for and protected. You know that. We both know it. And that's why the good God made marriage the way He did - forever." I was not sure how a professional theologian would react to his approach, but I watched it achieve its effect with remarkable speed. "That's right," the nurse proclaimed almost indignantly. "Of course, that's right." She was silent for a moment and then turned to me. "My fiancÚ," she declared, "is a wonderful, good man."
When we were together for the next session on fidelity, twice she reminded me of these qualities in her future husband; and with each reminder he smiled broadly. Toward the end of the lesson they had moved their chairs closer together and were leaning one against the other.
The fifth lesson focused on chastity in marriage. Here too I had expected a challenge at least about the matter of openness to children, but none was forthcoming. The couple had evidently read the relevant chapter in their handbooks and agreed on its message. It was the final lesson, however, the one on matrimony as a Sacrament that evoked the most emotional response. I read the passage from Chapter 5 of the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Ephesians, where marriage is described as an image of the loving union of the Savior with His Church. "Here is, above all else, what makes the marriage of the baptized sacred," I asserted. "It is a sign or, as we say, a `sacrament' that shows forth the relationship of limitless devotion between God's Son and God's People. What could be more beautiful? What could be more powerful? What could be more inspiring for a man and a woman preparing to be married?" The nurse responded in a voice so low that I could hardly hear it. "Nothing, Father," she said. "Nothing." This was the first time she had addressed me as "Father." I rose from my chair and simply announced the lessons were over.
A month or so later I met the nurse in the hospital while making my usual rounds. She told me that she had decided to become a Catholic and was enrolled in an inquiry class at the parish near her apartment. "What you taught us about Catholic doctrine on matrimony is what led me to the Church," she announced. "Please, Father, never `telescope' any of it." And after that I never did. Nor will I ever telescope the selfsame doctrine as it appears with extraordinary clarity in the closing pages of Part Two of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. There is so much beauty and inspiration there that I would not want anyone to "miss a word."
God the eternal Father
keep you in love with each other,
so that the peace of Christ
may stay with you and be always
in your home.
May the peace of Christ
live always in your hearts
and in your home.
May you have friends to stand by you,
both in joy and in sorrow.
May you be ready and willing to help
and comfort all who come to you in need.
And may the blessings promised
to the compassionate be yours in abundance.