Sacrifice in Marriage: Essential, but Sometimes Irksome
by David Gibson
“Sacrifice is part and parcel of authentic love” and is connected intrinsically to married life as Christ intends it, Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Va., told participants in the diocese’s Oct. 24 annual Marriage Jubilee Mass. He said that while “sacrifice is certainly unpopular” and mention of the word is rare today, it is well-known to long-married couples.
Bishop Loverde connected sacrifice with commitment in marriage. He said:
“If a person really loves another, that is, really desires the total good of the other person, then such a person is committed by the very nature of love to give of himself or of herself for the sake, the good, of that other person. Giving of oneself involves sacrifice; it means that I make the other person a priority; it demands dying to self in order to live for the other.”
I discussed the relationship between sacrifice and commitment in a report last week on some of the latest work by Scott Stanley, a noted marriage researcher at the University of Denver. He thinks a not-yet-married man and woman who are dating and starting to think about marriage need to “decode” each other’s level of commitment to their relationship.
Stanley says there is a growing belief that these couples can identify one sign of commitment in each other’s willingness to make healthy sacrifices for their relationship. Treating the relationship as a high priority is among other signs singled out by Stanley that one partner may feel committed to the other.
In their fall 2009 national pastoral letter titled “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” the U.S. Catholic bishops talked about the important role sacrifice plays in marriage and family life – the “willingness to sacrifice oneself in everyday situations for one’s spouse and children.”
“There is no greater love within a marriage and a family than for the spouses and children to lay down their lives for one another. This is the heart of the vocation of marriage, the heart of the call to become holy,” the bishops said. They pointed out that this “call to love reaches beyond the home to the extended family, the neighborhood and the larger community.”
Bishop Loverde said that couples who participated in the Marriage Jubilee Mass in Arlington “have understood and have lived the reality of sacrifice – of sacrificial love given generously” over the course of 50 or 25 years. But these couples would “be quick to tell us that they did not do that always easily or well,” he added.
The reality is, however, that they did sacrifice, “sometimes in ways that were really difficult, nearly impossible, maybe even dramatic, but more often than not in ways that were just annoying, irksome and really inconvenient,” the bishop said.
Love is what enabled these large and small sacrifices, he commented – love that “was not a passing feeling or merely an emotion, however noble, but love that was a commitment, a decision ‘to be’ for the other.” It was life-giving love: love of a type described by St. Paul; love obtained through prayer; love transformed “like water into wine” by Christ.
That reminded me of something Father Chester Snyder said last June during a Mass for couples celebrating 50th anniversaries in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa. There is a boldness in marriage, according to Father Snyder. It is the boldness of “saying to the world that it is possible to live faithfully and to hang in there when adversity rears its challenging head, rather than become cynical and throw in the towel.”
Bishop Loverde recalled an instruction or exhortation once read to couples at every wedding in the church that accented the importance of sacrifice in marriage. “It is most fitting that you rest the security of your wedded life on the great principle of self-sacrifice,” the exhortation advised couples at one point. It said: “Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy.”
Bishop Loverde thanked jubilarian couples for the “sacrificial love” they’ve “given generously” and in ways that often were unseen by others. He noted that their witness encourages and strengthens others in their own vocations. Of course, he said, for these couples’ witness “we first thank God, apart from whom they could never have sacrificed” with such generous love.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.