Celebrating some peoples’ blessings can make others feel their losses.
Sitting three rows ahead was a woman in her 30s with two boys about 8 or 10. We were standing at Mass last Sunday as the priest blessed married couples, and as the congregation applauded. Maybe half the people stood. Then he asked people to keep standing if they’d been married 25 years, 30 years, and so on, till he found two couples who’d been married the longest. They’d been married 61 years. Both got roses. The congregation applauded again.
It must be awkward to remain sitting, I thought. For many people, certainly, though some are perfectly happy being single. Throughout the congregation were women like the woman in front of us, women with children marking the fact that they aren’t married while the parish celebrates marriage. (I didn’t see any men by themselves with children.) Most of these women would be divorced, but some widowed. Some, knowing the community, would have been the stereotypical first wife, whose successful husband left her and their children for a younger woman.
They would not have been the only ones left out of the blessing. Some of the people sitting by themselves, especially among the elderly, would have lost a husband or wife. They’d been married and were now alone.
The couples standing, the laughing priest, the applauding congregation, all said to many among us, “You’re not married.” It’s a weird but inevitable thing about life in the Church: that celebrating some peoples’ blessings can make others feel their losses.
The Church the home
Churches celebrate marriage in a conscious, public way, but don’t do the same for single people, and single people feel it. I wrote about this in a first column for Aleteia, called Single and Catholic. Imagine how it feels to want to have a family when you don’t, or to feel lonely when everyone else applauds those who have built-in friends.
Married people would respond that marriage can be hard and painful. Divorced friends will share stories of horrifying suffering as their marriages broke down. Widows and widowers often had to watch their beloved decline and die over months or years of physical and mental pain. Some of those standing last Sunday may have been standing with a dying husband or wife, knowing they will be sitting by themselves next year. The parish’s celebration of marriage would be for them at best bittersweet.
It’s so easy to say my sufferings are worse than yours, my suffering is special. It’s also very easy to say that my blessings should be celebrated and to forget others not nearly so blessed as I. But the Church isn’t the arena for competitive suffering, or for competitive celebrating. It’s the home in which people should love one another as Christ loves them.
We don’t even know how much others suffer, or who’s suffering. Even storybook lives may secretly be horrorshows. We don’t always see how we’ve been blessed and how much we’ve been blessed. Everyone can point to times the Church failed them, and everyone has failed others. We can’t work out who should get how much of the Church’s attention with a formula.
I think that’s one reason St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn.” Why must we weep when others weep? Partly because sometimes our joys make others cry. Because we have what our brothers and sisters want or need. He says that to those of us standing last Sunday as everyone else applauded us.
Here’s the twist. St. Paul also tells us to feel joy with those who are blessed. He says that even to those who mourn. He says that to those sitting as everyone applauded the married couples.
A dance, a family, a game
Life in the Church should be a dance, in which one partner and then the other leads. It should be a family, in which each member feels what the others feel. It should be a game in which everyone wants the other team to win. Life in the Church should be a community of people each being Christ to everyone else.
We have to work at that. Life in the Church is partly that but not very well. I will admit to being as self-centered and self-pitying and self-celebrating as anyone else. I tend to feel my suffering should be prioritized and that my blessings are just my due. “Father, make me more like Your Son” will be a Lenten prayer.
In the same passage, St. Paul tells us how to be such people, people who weep and rejoice with each other: “Be affectionate towards each other, as the love of brothers demands, eager to give one another precedence. I would see you unwearied in activity, aglow with the Spirit, waiting like slaves upon the Lord; buoyed up by hope, patient in affliction, persevering in prayer; providing generously for the needs of the saints, giving the stranger a loving welcome.”