It was the end of a long day and the activity in the parish had been brisk. The western Pennsylvania parish I was assigned to consisted of more than 10,000 members, over 500 students were enrolled in the parish grade school, 120 students made up the parish high school and we were responsible for the pastoral ministry of the local 444-bed hospital.
As I reclined on the couch watching the news before going to bed, the phone rang. Of the three priests assigned to the parish, I was on call that week for the hospital.
“Hello, Immaculate Conception…” It was a hospital nurse calling to say there was a man dying in Room 495 and the family requested a priest to anoint him. The nurse informed me the elderly gentleman would not last the night. The anointing of the sick is a sacrament of forgiveness which, instituted by Christ, is a vehicle for God’s grace during a time of grave illness. (It has also been publicly referred to as ‘last rites’.)
As I arrived at Room 495, a dim light shone in the corner of the room and the elderly man was lying unconscious in his bed with his wife sitting on the edge of her seat holding his hand and looking tenderly at him. After introducing myself to her, I explained that I would be anointing her husband on the forehead and on the hands. We prayed through the sacrament — prayed for him, his family; prayed for the medical staff and for a sense of peace. After I concluded and as I was taking off the stole from around my neck I asked how she was doing and if I could get her anything. She looked at me and said, “Father, over 50 years ago my husband and I were married at Immaculate Conception Parish. It was then that we took our marriage vows to love each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. I can tell you, there have been a lot of good times and there have been some bad times. We have been blessed with three lovely children who are on their way here as we speak. I have been blessed by God with this wonderful man as my husband and let me tell you, I am going to sit right here and continue to celebrate this marriage of ours until death parts us.”
I was stunned by that expression of love. Without a doubt, what I experienced that night in Room 495 was a most romantic moment. I believe that Hollywood could not replicate a more powerful moment. Images of marital love serve as a great source of strength and inspiration — for individuals, for families and for our society.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, a time to reflect on love, marriage and its effects on society. It is great we have set aside a day to celebrate romance and love. And of course, love and marriage go together. In today’s society, the benefits of marriage are very clear and are very much needed. Unfortunately, marriage today is not upheld with the same level of importance as it was in past generations. The marriage rate continues to decline. The rate of cohabitation (sexual partners sharing a household) has skyrocketed in the past 40 years. From my perspective, the sacredness of love, romance and marriage is not as evident as it should be. At the same time, I find it important to speak out against any attempt to redefine marriage as anything other than a sacred union between a man and a woman as God established it and ordained it through natural law.
It is important that we recognize the challenges marriage faces in our society and do what we can to strengthen and support this vital social institution. Within our networks of family and friends we have it in our power to encourage the married couples we know to grow together in their marriages, to deepen their commitment to each other and to stay the course when confronted by difficulties and challenges. Married couples have it within their power to model virtuous behavior: sacrificial love, fidelity, honesty, commitment and respect and to encourage those virtues in others. As a state and society we have it within our power provide married couples the assistance they need to have strong marriages. This Valentine’s Day, be open to call on those responsible for our public policy, both on the state and national level, to craft laws and policies that strengthen marriage and family, the foundation and basis of our society.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.