HILTON HEAD ISLAND — More than 300 couples committed to the sacrament of a lifetime, once again, at the sixth annual Marriage Anniversary Celebration held Feb. 12 at St. Francis by the Sea Church.
“I enjoy this annual gathering that illustrates that marriage is a sacrament, not just a day but a lifetime,” said Bishop Robert J. Baker, who celebrated the Mass. “We rely on the witness of couples like you to support the married life.”
To help them in their witness, the bishop presided over the renewal of their vows. The celebration was a testimony to enduring love, with 223 couples attending who had been married for 40 years or more.
The gift bearers for the Mass were the two couples who had been married the longest and shortest time. Dominic and Adeline Russo from St. Francis celebrate 73 years of marriage this year, and Joe and Ivy Monahan from St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken began their journey together 14 months ago.
Benedictine Father Matthew Habiger, a moral theologian who speaks nationally on marriage and spousal love, was the guest homilist. He is one of three priests who work with Family Planning Outreach, to give information about the benefits and moral principles behind Natural Family Planning.
His homily was a challenge for the couples to read two new documents for Catholics on love: Bishop Baker’s pastoral letter, “The Redemption of Our Bodies,” and Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (“God is Love”).
“Each disciple of Christ has the task, and the privilege, of strengthening marriages and encouraging healthy families,” Father Habiger told the congregation. “As parents and grandparents, this is what you want most for your children and grandchildren. Because you have weathered the storms of life successfully, and because your marriages are thriving and rewarding, you are credible experts on how to cope with the normal challenges of marriage.”
The priest told them that their calling was to bring the values of the Gospel to married couples and their families, and that the bishop’s letter could help them articulate the message.
Father Habiger used the bishop’s term, “self-donative love,” to describe how Christians and especially married couples are called to a love that “far exceeds simply having the warm emotion of love and good intentions for our neighbor.”
Sister Kathleen Kane, a Sister of St. Mary Namur and pastoral associate at St. Francis, coordinated the event. She said she was asked to fill the church — and approximately 900 people attended.
“By the grace of God and with the cooperation from our pastor and parishioners and from people at all levels around the diocese, that’s just what we did [fill the church], and the end result was one of the most festive and joyous celebrations I have ever experienced,” she said.
She thanked participants, the clergy and others for all the help she received on the local level, from the choir to the Lowcountry Deanery Council of Catholic Women, who coordinated the reception under the leadership of Phyllis Atkins.
The renewal of marriage vows was a moving experience. Several couples who attended for the first time commented on how surprised they were by the overwhelming emotions.
“My husband and I felt closer that day,” said Joan Kane from St. Francis. She recommended the event to all married couples.
Dominic and Adeline Russo had some words of wisdom on how they have weathered 73 years together.
“It’s all about give and take,” said Dominic.
“Sometimes he is right and sometimes you are right, but you need to know when to let it go,” Adeline said.
During the reception, the Russos and the Monahans cut the cake. Joe Monahan, who was once a professional entertainer, sang a love song to Ivy.
“No matter how long you are married, whether it is 14 months or 73 years, when God is in a marriage you will experience joy and love,” he said.