Your Family Matters - The other vocation crisis

We don’t just need more priests and nuns — there’s also a shortage of holy marriages

Sarah Bartel

I’m at daily Mass with my girls, and we’re praying the prayers of the faithful. My pastor at St. Andrew’s, Father Jack Shrum, is offering my favorite intention: “Let us pray for holy vocations to the priesthood, religious life and holy matrimony.” As usual, I reverently refrain from cheering — but I always kind of want to.

Holy matrimony is indeed a vocation, a personal call from Jesus Christ to follow him, grow in holiness, and serve him and his church. And we have a matrimony vocation crisis in the church. We are rightly concerned about the lack of men being ordained to the priesthood at St. James Cathedral this June. We all need to do our part to support vocations to the priesthood. We need to pray for holy monks and nuns, brothers and sisters, to encourage young people to consider these vocations, and to support those preparing for consecrated and ordained life.

The fear of ‘forever’
But the number of wedding bells that will not be ringing at parishes throughout our archdiocese this June — and throughout the year — should cause us equal concern. Rates of Catholic weddings have steadily declined for decades. According to Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, in 1956, 36 weddings were celebrated for every thousand American Catholics. In 2009, that number was under 13. This has huge implications for the vitality of the Church on many levels. 

Matrimony is a gift to the church. We urgently need the witness to enduring and faithful love that Catholic husbands and wives live out in their sacrament. They are a living image of Christ’s nuptial covenant with his bride, the church, whom he loves passionately and eternally.

Is the matrimony vocation crisis really a crisis of confidence in this “forever” love? Pope Francis spoke to this fear when he met with 10,000 engaged couples from around the world at St. Peter’s Square this past St. Valentine’s Day. “Today so many people are afraid of making definitive decisions,” he said. “How, then, does one cure this fear of the ‘forever’? One cures it day by day, by entrusting oneself to the Lord Jesus in a life that becomes a daily spiritual journey, made in steps — little steps, steps of shared growth.”

He encouraged couples to pray, “‘Give us this day our daily love’ … Teach us to love one another, to will good to the other! The more you trust in him, the more your love will be ‘forever,’ able to be renewed, and it will conquer every difficulty.”

Bride is prayed over by wedding party
Kate Livingstone


Self-fulfillment or self-giving?
Pope Francis’ words point to the essential difference between secular marriage as a situation and sacramental Catholic matrimony as a vocation. Our culture sees marriage as the means of mutual emotional self-fulfillment. We enter into it to meet our emotional needs. The vocation to the sacrament of matrimony, however, calls husbands and wives to total mutual self-giving. It gives spouses the proactive mission to love each other into heaven and to give life to the church and the world.

St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio puts it eloquently, declaring that spouses’ belonging to each other “is the real representation … of the very real relationship of Christ with the church. Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the church of what happened on the cross.” We need more of these matrimonial “reminders” around us as robust and effective signs of Christ’s “forever” love!

So let’s work for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. But also consider telling a nephew, “You have what it takes to be a good husband. Have you thought about being a dad?” Or a teen in your parish, “You would make an amazing wife and mother!” Even more importantly, we married couples must give a joyful and attractive witness to the gift of our sacrament. 

Sarah Bartel, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, holds a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America, where she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics and bioethics. Her website is

Northwest Catholic - June 2014