‘Let’s Start Over’: How to Strengthen Marriage, Find New Love and Stop Being Lonely Together

Prefaced by Cardinal Sarah, Father Ricardo Reyes Castillo talks about his recent novel that explores a unique partnership between a woman and a priest, in the face of the harshness of a disenchanted world and our separation from God.

Father Reyes Castillo alongside his new book on marriage.
Father Reyes Castillo alongside his new book on marriage. (photo: Courtesy photos)

Father Ricardo Reyes Castillo has under his belt a long pastoral experience at the service of engaged and married couples. As he witnessed a growing difficulty to make commitments, and to stand the test of time and routine, he recently decided to provide as many people as possible with the crucial elements of reflection that he’s been gleaning in the field over the years of his ministry.

Published in Italian, Spanish and French, the book — prefaced by the former prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments, Cardinal Robert Sarah, and whose title could be translated as Let’s Start Over…Forever: Recovering Hope Within the Couple — takes the form of a fictional correspondence between the priest and a young housewife, who is shrouded in everyday dullness and seeks his help to overcome a period of deep crisis in her marriage. It’s an opportunity for the Panamanian priest to reaffirm, through countless biblical references and personal anecdotes, the meaning and strength of this sacrament. 

A priest of the diocese of Rome since 2003 and an official of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments, Father Reyes Castillo is the author of several popular books, notably about the centrality of Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  The Register met with him to discuss his vision of the challenges of marital relationship in the current society, and the ways to strengthen this bond every day.


Why did you decide to write this book now?

Because I see that we are truly lonely. The coronavirus has made us see that even more. It was a desire of mine, which I think the Lord put in my heart. I wanted to be a voice that accompanies people, thinking of so many couples I know who, even with the virus, have lived even more difficult moments. And I think the book can be a tool for them. Through writing, I have expressed my desire to love. I have written multiple books, and this one was the most translated and read. You can tell that people are thirsty for reflections like this one. 


Is this exchange entirely fictional? How did you develop the female character of your interlocutor? 

The first letter is actually real. And for the rest, I spoke to women all along, which allowed me to explore the female part more deeply. And it reflects a lot of past dialogues and stories that came to my mind as I was writing. 


Why did you choose to assign colors to chapter titles?

I wanted to show that married life, love in general, has so many shades, which are shades of light, because in the end, it’s a path that really leads to light. But in this path, there are so many different colors, emotions, feelings and I wanted to represent them in this way. Each letter reflects a particular emotion, symbolized by a color. 


If one looks at the history of the world, it appears obvious that for centuries, marriage was rather a matter of alliances and mutual interests between families, that often had little to do with love. Isn’t it a first in history that love is really at the basis of marriage? And in this case, does it not make its durability more difficult? 

From the many accounts we know of, it seems that often, there was no falling in love, in fact. But there certainly was love. Falling in love and love are two different things. Love is giving life. I am convinced that in the stories of our great-grandparents, there are men and women who loved deeply, even by making many sacrifices, as in times of war. We hear beautiful love stories, for example from the Trench warfare and before. Maybe they weren’t in love at first, but they learned to love. 


Indeed, we tend to speak about love a lot nowadays, which makes it a hackneyed concept. What is your feeling about this confusion in terms? 

Marriage is not a path that leads us to fall in love, it is the path that leads us to make such a strong choice to live with a person for the rest of our life. What needs to be cultivated, though, is growth in love. Even myself, as a priest, if I do not grow in love for Christ, if I think that I have already come to the end of my path, I can lose myself.  


Quoting St. Paul, you talk extensively about the relationship between love, fear, and freedom. Why this connection?

 St. Paul says that we didn’t received a spirit of slaves to fall back into fear, but that we received a spirit of sons that makes us cry out, “Abba (Father)!” It is the consciousness that we are children that makes us free. Otherwise, the human being is a slave to the fear of death, a slave to his fears, to his thoughts and he cannot give himself properly. He cannot even live the day. This is the greatest danger. But to live our life, to live in the moment means to love, in the broadest sense of the word, to love even in the smallest way, and to love oneself. The more I am convinced that Christ has conquered death, the more I can live today without the fear of tomorrow. The more I have the certainty of immortal life, the more I can give myself today. If I am convinced that Christ has defeated my enemies, then I can be completely centered on what I do today, without sparing myself. 


You also insist on the fact that because of each mortal being’s separation with God because of original sin, we always tend to see in the other the cause of our dissatisfaction....

 When, God went to Adam and pointed out to him that he was naked (Genesis 3), and that perhaps it was because he had eaten the fruit of the forbidden tree, Adam was unable to recognize his fault. The only thing he was able to tell God was that it was the fault of the “woman you gave me.” Our sin is always the other person’s fault. It’s a defense mechanism we all have. We always tend to think that feeling bad is due to someone else’s fault. But our pain, our unhappiness, very often, is very much related to the way we experience things. It is true that there are events greater than ourselves that cause us to suffer. But even there, the light that one has within and with which one reads the events of life also have a great influence. And this is reflected on couples.   


It also reminds us of the concept of “original solitude,” developed by St. John Paul II, about the fact that reciprocity in a couple can never be complete.

 Original solitude is also a fundamental point of catechesis. God saw that the fact that man is alone is not a good thing, and he created woman. It is beautiful when Adam wakes up, sees Eve, and he says that she is flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. This statement is so profound. It is the first time he is truly amazed, because he understands that he is standing before the one who can help him address his only problem: loneliness. But of course, it is not that the woman solves a problem. When he says “flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone,” he means that he has found a companion with whom he can find an answer to loneliness. The other is never the solution to our problem, it is the one who can accompany us in the search for a solution: it is a journey that one does with the other, in order to meet Christ. 


 In his preface to your book, Cardinal Sarah explains how the man-woman relationship is always, however, an image of the Trinitarian relationship. How do you interpret that thought? 

A relation is always a three-way journey. I, as a man, always have shortcomings. A woman, even the most perfect woman in the world, has her shortcomings. And a man, with his shortcomings, can never really fill a woman’s shortcomings. We always need a third party, who can bring fullness. In our relationship with God, we can find answers to our shortcomings.  


In your book, you call on the woman you accompany, Daniela, not to be a mirror of her husband. What is your reading of the issue of complementarity, when one belief that is typical of our time is that we are all the same?

 I always say that if God had wanted to create us similar, because there would have been fewer problems, then he would have done so. Being fully male or female takes nothing away from the other. The woman must use what is rightfully hers, her femininity, her beauty, her way of living the faith. Her relationship with God is unique. It is not by chance that the people who are around Christ at the moment of his death are practically all women. Woman is able to give what a male cannot give. She can feel so many things that a man cannot feel. I, too, obviously feel and observe, but from my pastoral experience, I always see that the woman has a special eye, a special look at things. But for a man, this feminine perspective is often difficult to understand. In the book, I give the amusing example of my nephew who, if he wants an ice cream, will ask me very directly, while my niece, for the same result, will make many turns of phrase, asking me for example if I like ice cream.


What are the biggest and most common issues you’ve been witnessing in the couples you’ve followed?

 The big problem couples have is the little time they spend getting to know each other first. In today’s relationships, they live a sex life before marriage, they focus on travelling, on many immediate pleasures, but in reality, getting to know each other, talking to each other, takes up very little space. Many times, you get to the wedding and you are faced with a person who has very little to do with the person you thought you had married. And I often find myself asking these couples what they did during their time of engagement. This shows us how shallow our knowledge of the other is sometimes. 

Cultures and families of origin can often be a source of great problems. You find that you have different habits, or different views on life, economic issues, or child rearing, for example. Often, we start talking about education only when the children arrive, and not during the engagement. These are often very simple issues, such as whether to let a child sleep a certain way, whether to let them cry or not. This can lead to major divisions and hard feelings when you could have addressed these issues with a deeper premarital dialogue. 

If you want to make a plan to live as two, you have to deal with the uncomfortable things, without which we can get to separations, divorces, that could be avoidable.  


 The famous concept of “disenchantment of the world,” theorized by sociologist Max Weber in the 20th century to describe the future of the world under the effect of modernity and secularization, seems to have reached its peak in the west. What impact does this generalized society phenomenon have on marriages?

 Disenchantment is very real in today’s world. Disenchantment is the fact that we are no longer in love, even with life itself. It’s a danger we all run, including myself as a priest, or someone else in one’s work or in one’s love life, in everything. And to protect ourselves from this danger, we need to know ourselves, to know who we are in order to always put ourselves in the position to fall in love again. That’s why I called my book “let’s start over...forever,” because we start over from the promises of our lives. If I didn’t take time to always fall in love again with Christ, with my vocation, I would be content to survive, to live a flat life, and to be good. We are always called to love, which is something else, even if we make mistakes.


You opened up a lot personally in your fictional correspondence. Is it something you usually do when accompanying couples? 

 I always need to be very honest. In a way, I also talk about my marriage, my being married to the Church. Laying myself bare allows the person I accompany to not put oneself in a defensive position and experience a more serene journey. 


What do you say to those who claim that a priest cannot understand the life of a married couple and therefore is not in a position to accompany and advise them? 

Before being a priest, I am a person. I position myself as a man in search of the truth. A man who can also suffer, even if it is true that I have not personally experienced certain pains that one experiences in a marriage relationship. But I know what pain and suffering are. I know the mechanisms that we raise to defend ourselves in these cases. I do not act as a teacher, but as a companion of the person, with tact and delicacy, keeping in mind that there are some things that I cannot understand. I do this as a friend who is trying to give some lights, to turn on some “light bulbs” so that this person can continue to one’s path. And above all to help her find the strength and resources within oneself. A spiritual father does not have to know and experience everything, but he is the one who accompanies. 

 To understand how an unmarried priest can counsel married couples, we need to understand what is celibacy. For those who have faith, it is a donation of love. It is a choice that one makes freely because he wants to give one’s life, he wants to love. Marriage is nothing more than this. It is a life choice to love a person. Sexual married life is lived fully when it is a donation. When one gives oneself to the other, thinks of the other, looks at the other’s pain. Celibacy is not a castration. One lives one’s sexuality with a complete giving of oneself.