Called to Be Good Stewards
Several weeks ago, during the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, I attempted to use my Sunday homily to address the crisis of marriage and the family facing the Church.
It was the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, and the Gospel reading was the Parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:33-43). I explained that the landowner in the parable was God the Father and that the vineyard was the Church. We, the members of the Church, are the tenants.
What is crucial to note is that the vineyard does not belong to the tenants; they are simply leasing the land. So, as Catholics, we must realize that the Church does not belong to us, and as a result, we do not dictate the rules of how the vineyard should operate; instead, we receive them from God, who is the proprietor.
I went on to say that, in regard to the Catholic teachings on sexuality, marriage and the family, we must be open and obedient to these teachings as a manifestation of God’s plan from “the beginning.” However, there are many Catholics today who, like the tenants in the parable, disobey the Church’s teaching and are openly rebellious against the pastors who teach and preach the truth.
As Catholics, blind obedience is not demanded of us, but we must realize that we are called to be good stewards of what God has given to us and to humbly open ourselves to his will, especially today, in regards to his design for marriage and the family.
After Mass, someone approached me and asked, “Father, what about those who are not rebellious and who desire to be obedient to the Church, yet find themselves outside of the vineyard or at least feel they are not welcome in the vineyard? These are the broken families, divorced and abandoned spouses, those divorced and remarried outside of the Church, those whose petition for annulment has been denied, etc. What about these people?”
I realized that he had a point — and that, in a certain sense, we might be able to imagine another dimension to the parable: the people on the other side of the hedge who want desperately to be in full communion with the Church, but, as a result of the irregular situations in their marriages, find themselves feeling alienated and kept out of the vineyard. As a pastor, what was my responsibility to these people?
Like the Parable of the Lost Sheep, I am to go out and find those who have wandered from the flock (Luke 15). Keeping in line with the Parable of the Tenants, the tower is there to give the pastors the needed perspective to search for those outside of the vineyard who want to come in.
During my 14 years as a priest, ministering to these people has been a pastoral priority. Every year, I try to give a homily on marriage and annulments and invite those who believe they have a case for an annulment to make an appointment to speak to me or one of the deacons in the parish.
We have worked to set up in the diocese a ministry to those who are divorced and single, so that they can find the support they need and feel they are a part of the life of the Church. And some of my best experiences as a priest have been journeying with couples married outside of the Church who agree to live like brother and sister until their annulment is granted — and when the annulment is granted, to witness the convalidation of their marriage.
Fortunately, most priests I know are solicitous of those who find themselves outside of the vineyard and are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to bring them over the hedge, all the while staying faithful to the teachings on marriage and the family.
But the most important work I (and other faithful priests) do in the area of marriage is preventive: doing what we can to prevent the tenants from wandering outside of the confines of the vineyard.
When it comes to marriage, the most important aspect of this is providing solid marriage preparation. I am blessed to be the pastor and chaplain of a fully functioning parish located on the campus of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Most of our ministry is to college students, so we are forming and preparing them to discern their vocations in life. A vast majority of them will be called to marriage, and we provide an intensive marriage-preparation program that the engaged couples are eager to be involved in. It is composed of meetings with the priest, taking and discussing the pre-marriage inventory test, six meetings with a mentor couple for in-home marriage preparation, natural family planning classes, different recorded talks to which they can listen and liturgical preparation.
We also provide a rich and varied marriage-enrichment program that provides the support and formation for couples in the parish and beyond. Throughout the year, the parish hosts dinners for couples, where they can enjoy a meal and hear the testimony of another couple. We host a yearly marriage retreat, which attracts numerous couples throughout the diocese.
Each summer, we offer an educational series for married couples, which helps them to grow in fellowship with each other and have a deeper understanding of their vocation. We hope that these efforts will help to build healthier and more stable marriages and enable the couples to be more dynamic witnesses to the love Christ has for the Church.
As Pope St. John Paul II said, “The future of the world and of the Church passes through the family” (Familiaris Consortio, 75). Faithful priests today realize the truth of this statement and are working tirelessly in the Lord’s vineyard to form faithful married Catholics — and to reach out to those in irregular situations, in order to bring them back into full communion with the Church.
We realize that our future depends on it.
Father Bryce Sibley is the pastor of Our Lady of Wisdom Church in Lafayette, Louisiana,
and is chaplain of the Catholic Student Center, serving
the community at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.
- Nov. 16-29, 2014