During the month of October when I was running my 31 days series on Catholic teaching on sex and marriage, I got a ton of questions about mixed faith or faith/no faith couples, and what it might look like for marriages where one spouse doesn't practice the Faith, or maybe any faith at all.
Here's one answer to that question.
Sarah* has been generous and vulnerable enough to offer a reflection on what life looks like with 3 young kids and a husband who is supportive of - but not actively practicing - her Catholic faith.
I hope you enjoy.
A couple of months ago, my four-year-old son and I were having a conversation about the Mass. I was trying to explain the Eucharist to him when he cut in: “Oh, but dat’s just for girls.”
“No, Communion isn’t just for girls!” I protested. “Your daddy doesn’t take Communion, but lots of other daddies do. You’ll see – I’ll show you next time we go to church.”
I protested, I assured, I tried to tell myself that his was nothing but a silly little remark, but my heart sank. “Oh no,” I couldn’t help but think: “He’s already noticed.”
In my personal experience, believing is left to the women.
My father is not Catholic. Nor is he a religious person of any persuasion. I’ve only ever seen him go to church for the sake of someone he loves: He accompanies my mother to Mass on Christmas, Easter, and some random Sundays when it seems to matter to her; he attends family baptisms, first communions, and confirmations; he goes with my grandmother to her Methodist church on Mothers’ Day. He does it for our sake, not his own.
Of my mother’s large, Catholic family, few devoutly practice the faith. None of her (many) siblings are married to Catholics. Most have raised their children in the Church, but they’ve done so without the help of their husbands. My cousins (and many of my friends) attended Mass like I did – sitting in the pew every Sunday without our fathers.
As normal as this felt, it always bothered me.
It’s lonely to sit at Mass week in and week out with part of your family missing. It’s especially lonely on days when family blessings are given or on Father’s Day, when dads stand up for a blessing of their own. It’s hard to sit there, looking around at the men scattered throughout the congregation, biting your tongue to keep from shouting out, “I have a daddy too!”
So I resolved that when I grew up and had a family of my own, my children would have their father at Mass with them. I wanted to spare them that loneliness. And I wanted them (particularly any sons) to have the example of a father who attends church.
I did not, however, resolve to consider only devout Catholics for a husband – or indeed only Catholics at all. Because – my father. Ruling out non-Catholics felt too much like ruling out my own father. My wonderful, supportive, loving father – who is in almost every way, a beautiful example of what it means to be a husband.
Without a doubt, my parents have the best marriage I’ve ever witnessed. Growing up, I was just about the only child I knew who never, ever doubted that her parents loved each other and who never, ever feared that her parents might someday divorce.
My parents’ relationship just has that one, gaping hole: they don’t share a faith.
When I met my own husband after years of hoping and praying for “the one,” everything fell into place easily. So easily that I couldn’t help but see Providence’s hand in it. My husband is kind and gentle, hard-working, responsible, smart – all sorts of good things. Our values align. We work well together. We hold the same views on how to raise a family.
I was beyond relieved to learn that he was Catholic. But I was made a little nervous by how he said it: “I was raised Catholic.” Not I am Catholic. I was raised Catholic. Past tense.
Still, he harbored no ill will toward the Church (as too many, sadly, do) and he seemed to think it was valuable for children to be raised in a Faith. He attended Mass with me occasionally. He understood that I was serious about my Catholic Faith.
As our relationship progressed and we discussed marriage, he agreed that we would raise our children as Catholics and that he would attend Mass with us. He was happy to be married in the Church. He was fine with the prospect of not using contraception. And he never, ever pressured me to have pre-marital sex. (As far as ‘devout-Catholic-marrying-someone-who’s-not’ goes, I realize that my husband made it pretty easy on me. Many are not so fortunate.)
But though my husband was raised Catholic and though he (now) attends Mass regularly, I wouldn’t say that he and I share a Faith. That hole in our relationship may not gape as far as my parents’ does, but it’s still there.
I don’t know that he believes.
I don’t know that he doesn’t, either. We don’t talk about it.
Because to be honest, I’m afraid to hear his answer. Actually afraid: I’m afraid of the sadness it might bring me.
So, we go to Mass. We say Grace before meals. We give to the Church. We do a family prayer whenever I can make it seem as seasonally-required as possible (say, over an Advent wreath). We carry on with the motions of the Faith, me hoping that in the doing, my husband will one day come to believe.
I also pray for him. I’m afraid to say, however, that I don’t do an awfully good job of it. I don’t have an awfully good prayer life, period. I pray in fits and spurts through the day, tossing prayers heavenward as I drive or do dishes or lie in bed. It’s one of the many parts of my life that I continuously try, and fail, to improve upon.
It’s easy to blame any number of things for my failure to pray as I should, but the hardest to swallow is the thought that if I had a devout, prayerful husband, he might encourage me in that effort. I hear (or read) from Catholic friends and bloggers this idea that a husband and wife’s primary goal in life should be to help each other get to heaven. And I’m … left short.
What an idea.
I’m sad to admit how foreign it is to me. In my mind, I visualize this space – say, a square – which represents all that a marriage is supposed to contain: things like love, patience, kindness, hard work, compromise, consideration, generosity, appreciation, etc. And I think, “We’re doing pretty well. We check those boxes. We must have a pretty decent marriage.”
But then I read one of my favorite Catholic blogs, where I learn of spouses praying together as they work to come to an important decision, or a husband engaged in a ministry at church, or a father praying over his children – and I start to see a space beyond that square. I see that there can – and should – be so much more to a marriage, to a family.
I see freedom.
I see the freedom to own one of the most elemental parts of who I am – a believer. I see the freedom to be open about my beliefs, my questions, my doubts – and to know that my husband will reciprocate. I see the freedom to accept our weaknesses, to say them out loud and to – together – ask for God’s help in overcoming them. I see the freedom to lean on my husband, to trust him in this part of my life, just as I do in others.
I also see grace.
What grace must come to a husband and wife who pray together. What grace must come to their marriage, their family, even their friends and the community to which they belong.
I wish I had that.
But I don’t. At least for now, I don’t. So I’m left to work on this (very important) part of life by myself. And I wonder: How can I be more open about my faith, so as to expose my family to it and help them to see it as normal and important? How can I provide them with examples of men who believe? How can I encourage my boys to consider a priestly vocation? How can I attract my husband to the Faith without hitting him over the head with my evangelism?
How can I help to open my husband’s heart and mind to God?
A couple of weeks ago at Mass, I found myself standing in the vestibule, looking through the glass at my husband. He was sitting in a pew a few rows from the back, mostly by himself. The baby sat quietly on his lap; there were no squirming, climbing boys to distract him from the Liturgy of the Word. (Our older boys were attending the Children’s Liturgy of the Word – big mistake – and I was standing at the ready in case they caused a ruckus.)
As I watched my husband, I prayed for him. I prayed that those quiet moments, those sacred words, might have some effect on him. I prayed that he would – bit by bit, Sunday by Sunday – someday come to believe. And that he would someday express that belief to our boys.
While I stood there, our three-year-old ran up to me. “I haffa tell you somedin’!” he said with some urgency. “I find Jesus up dayer!” He was pointing at the large crucifix above the altar. My boy was breathless; his eyes were wide. He saw Jesus.
I knelt down next to him, followed his pointing finger to the crucifix, and expressed some of the excitement he was giving off. I smiled and hugged him and said a few words about Jesus.
But the short, sweet moment was soon tempered by worries I’m only now starting to recognize:
“How long will this last? How long do I have before he grows tired of church, of thinking on Jesus?
How can I help this all sink into his little mind before he chooses others’ influence over my own?” And the most worrisome question of all: “When they’re grown, will my boys believe?”
I have to admit, when I think on the situation much, I’m left feeling quite anxious. But one thought soothes me no matter how grim things seem:
“Every time I go to Mass, I love my husband more.”
I realized this when we were first married and it’s held true ever since. Whether we go together or I’m alone, whether we’re happy or in the middle of a disagreement, I leave every single Mass loving my husband more than I did when I walked in. I can only attribute this to God and the graces he bestows on us through the sacraments.
Though my husband may not believe (or if he believes, may not care much), he and I both received the sacrament of Marriage. Though he hasn’t received the Eucharist since our wedding day, I have received it countless times.
These sacraments matter. They matter, and I believe we continue to receive blessings because of them.
So I hope.
I hope that after witnessing the Consecration for the 942nd time, my husband will feel moved to receive the Eucharist himself. I hope that my boys will notice the good, believing men of our parish as they line up every Sunday to receive Communion. I hope that I will receive the graces I need to nurture my own belief and to be a convincing witness to my family.
I hope that someday, we will all feel the freedom and experience the graces that come from sharing a Faith.
*Not her real name.