A Catholic who is married to a non-Catholic bears a heavy burden. In fact, it is precisely for this reason that the Church strongly urges the faithful to avoid entering into a mixed marriage to begin with.
A Catholic seeking to marry a non-Catholic must obtain “the express permission of ecclesiastical authority” and must further agree to “preserve his or her own faith and [ensure] the baptism and education of the children in the Catholic Church” (Catechism, No. 1635).
Yet, mixed marriages do happen, of course, often with the Church's approval.
Catholics striving to answer the call to holiness in mixed marriages can find encouragement in the example of St. Monica, whose feast the Church celebrates Aug. 27.
Mother of St. Augustine and patron of wives and mothers, Monica was married to a belligerent non-Christian. She remained steadfast in her own Catholic faith and, eventually, through persistent prayer, she helped bring about the conversions of her pagan husband, her mother-in-law — and, of course, her famously wayward son.
By imitating St. Monica's patience and perseverance, modern-day Catholics can help bring about conversions in their own families as well.
When Jennifer Stuckey of Fort Scott, Kan., first dated Steve, the man who would become her husband, she made certain he understood that she was Catholic and that her faith was important to her. Although he was not a believer himself, Steve did not object. When they decided to get married, although Steve showed no sign of sharing his wife's faith, he remained supportive of her Catholic faith.
“He said he respected my faith and that it was important to him that I be able to continue practicing my faith,” recalls Jennifer. “He had some friends who were less understanding, so for him to be so open for my faith to continue was a real blessing.”
As it turned out, that one small “real blessing” was all the encouragement this wife needed to storm heaven on her husband's behalf — and all the room the Holy Spirit needed to work in his heart.
“I always wished that Steve would convert, and I desired that for him very much, but I did not push it,” she says. “I prayed for his conversion constantly but I knew that it had to be something he wanted for himself.”
When the couple were expecting their third child, Steve decided he wanted to know more about the faith in which his kids were being raised. Jennifer saw an opportunity in this new interest, and she took it.
“I pointed out that our parish was offering an inquiry class that summer and offered to attend with him,” she says. “He was very interested in the classes and he seemed to really enjoy and agree with a lot of the things we were learning.”
Then, after the death of his father the following December, Steve finally made the decision to join the Church.
“It was very exciting for me,” Jennifer explains. “My prayers were being answered. The best advice I can offer [to someone in similar circumstances] is to use St. Monica as a role model. Pray constantly and be patient — God's time is not our time. And prayer is our most powerful tool.”
When Denise Mantei of Apple Valley, Calif., met her husband Steve, he was not attending any church at all. His parents were former Catholics who had converted to a non-denominational church while he was still a child. Though not ready to embrace it yet himself, Steve was open to Denise's Catholic faith. In fact, even before they were married, he occasionally attended Mass with her.
“The first time we went to Mass together was for Easter Vigil,” says Denise. “Now that I think about it, it was rather appropriate on account of all the ‘newbies’ coming into the Church. I was so glad he called me back even after how long the Mass was.”
The priest at the parish where Denise and Steve were married was helpful in making Steve feel comfortable about the Catholic Church.
“I am so glad Father Ed was so intuitive. He made Steve so comfortable,” says Denise. “I know Father had a lot to do with Steve coming back to the Church and staying. Over the years it has amazed me how Catholic Steve stayed while his family was at the other church. His views are so very Catholic.”
It took 10 years of marriage and his wife's continual prayer before he finally felt comfortable enough to be confirmed.
“I told him that it was totally his decision to make,” says Denise. “That was one of the most joyful Masses of my life. He was so happy walking back to his pew with the chrism dripping off his nose after being confirmed.”
Cathy Freitas's husband Wade was a non-believer when they were first married. Cathy, a cradle Catholic, has taken her obligation to their three children in the faith very seriously throughout their 14-year marriage. She always took the children to Mass alone and made sure they received Catholic instruction and the sacraments.
“He quietly let us do our thing, while never really participating,” explains Cathy. “I had been bombarding heaven with prayers for so long and then last year, my prayers were answered.”
It was when the couple's marriage was going through a “rough patch” that Wade finally turned to God for help.
“He has been on fire for God ever since,” she says. “You cannot imagine the thrill of sitting next to your husband in church while he prays if you had never experienced it, and had been praying for it for years.”
While he is not yet ready to fully embrace the Catholic faith, Wade is unquestionably a Christian believer now and is eager to learn more about the Church.
“We pray together and we discuss things together that I had always before just kept to myself,” says Cathy. “I didn't realize how much I was missing by not being able to share that most important aspect of my life with my husband.”
And does this patient wife think 14 years has been too long to wait for an answer to her fervent prayers?
“I trust God's timing. And I am still bombarding heaven with prayers,” she says.
“I know St. Monica must be smiling,” she adds, “because she knows what it's like to pray for years for the conversion of someone you love. It's like we have a whole new relationship now, and I'm loving it.”
Danielle Bean writes from Belknap, New Hampshire.