Married Saints: There’s Hope for Us Yet!
As Catholics, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the REALLY holy people are only religious celibates. Afterall, most of the canonized saints were priests or religious sisters and brothers. Think past popes and the founders of religious orders… not many married people among those saints.
Being a mere married couple, occupied by the ordinary activities of raising a family, we can easily assume sainthood is for a different league of Catholic.
Yet, there are a surprising number of married pair saints – that is, where both husband and wife are canonized as opposed to just one of the spouses (still a noble accomplishment of course).
One of the most interesting is Saints Priscilla and Aquila. These first century Jews worked closely with St Paul in Corinth and then in Ephesus. Their extended time with the apostle has led to speculation that his famous instruction to husbands and wives (Ephesians 5:21-33), may have been informed by this holy couple.
You know the one: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. …Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
We can already hear the protests! How sexist! How misogynistic! Such reactions, though common, are a misreading of the text.
Paul instructs them both to give way to the other – he just names two different ways of doing so… wives through respect and deference, husbands through cherishment and sacrifice. Neither are easy, and it’s worth noting that St Paul breaks it down into the details for the blokes who get six verses of instruction compared to only three for wives.
As Marriage Goes, So Goes the Church
Perhaps Priscilla or Aquila had written to Paul complaining about the other? Or perhaps they reported on the disharmony between others in the community in their annual feedback survey.
In any case, Paul writes with a strong instruction for couples to lift their game. Pre-empting the excuses and raising the stakes, he points out that the relationship between husband and wife illuminates the nature of Christ’s love for the Church.
“’For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.” (Eph 5:31-32)
In other words, a marriage is not just about individual couples. It’s about the mission of the Church.
When our marital relationships are dysfunctional or just ‘bland’, they undermine the ability of the community to witness to Christ.
Whether it’s our complaining or blaming each other, while excusing our own poor conduct, our communities are full of the less-than-vibrant marriages to which we aspire. We think this is just ‘our’ problem, and we forget the impact it has on the effectiveness of our faith community to witness to the Gospel.
St Paul’s call to generous self-donation as an act of worship is just as relevant today as it was then. As husband and wife, we are called to be a spectacular example of mutual love, acceptance, and intimacy… and through that, a tangible witness to what, as Church, we can be together.
Living like this is not easy, especially during times of unequal input between us. At such times, Christian marriage is a kind of martyrdom – a choice to remain faithful to our vows, even when we are unhappy in our relationship.
So, perhaps there’s hope for us yet in the sainthood stakes. It won’t be like the public holiness of our big-name saints, but a private martyrdom; one that freely, and joyfully, seeks to honor God through the simple act of loving our spouse.