June may be the month for weddings, but October was the month to reaffirm those vows as some 300 couples pledged their fidelity, faith and love anew during anniversary celebrations hosted by the Diocese of Trenton.
The couples, from parishes around the Diocese marking one, 25, 50 or more years of marriage, took part in the Bishop’s Anniversary Blessings Masses Oct. 8 in St. Aloysius Church, Jackson, and Oct. 22 in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton.
Supported by their family, friends, clergy and members of the Church community at-large, the men and women reconfirmed the sacramental ties that unite them as blessings were bestowed upon their unions by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.
In the Cathedral, the Bishop reflected on marriage as an example of human life where heaven and earth intersect. While civil society may protect the “human good of marriage with laws that require a civil license,” the Church, the realm of God, he said, “accepts that protection and affirms it with a sacramental blessing that once received, guarantees God’s grace, grace that is faithful, fruitful and forever.”
“What God offers you in the Sacrament continues to find its fulfillment each and every day of your married lives. … Your anniversaries witness the grace of God that has enabled your marriages to grow and deepen your love, to be faithful and fruitful and forever … together,” Bishop O’Connell said.
Such marriages, he said, have been and continue to be journeys of love.
Those journeys were retraced in especially moving moments as couples renewed their vows. With tears in their eyes and loving smiles on their lips, the anniversary couples stood as the Bishop asked them to face each other and join hands. Leading them in the renewal of their marriage vows, the couples were instructed to touch each other’s wedding bands, at which time the Bishop offered a blessing upon the rings, symbols, he said, of their true love and abiding commitment.
Musical accompaniment from the Diocesan Festival Choir, under the direction of Shawn Mack, added notes of grace to the celebrations, underscoring the romantic and spiritual nature of the day, from the stirring, traditional notes of “O Perfect Love” during the procession, to the moving lyrics of “Pan de Vida Eterna” (“Bread of Life Eternal”) during Communion.
The multicultural nature of the gathering was embraced, with the use of translation devices for those who speak only Spanish, as well as Readings in both English and Spanish.
Heaven and Earth
Over the years, the Anniversary Blessings Masses have become a celebratory mainstay. In the homily before 200 couples and their families in St. Aloysius Church and 100 in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Bishop O’Connell drew from each day’s Scripture Readings to share God’s role in the gift of marriage. For each Mass, he was joined at the altar by his episcopal vicars and priests who lent their prayerful support to the couples.
“Each and every one of us is a vineyard, planted and pruned for the possibility of bearing fruit,” the Bishop said to the couples from Monmouth and Ocean Counties gathered in St. Aloysius Church. “Today, in the Diocese of Trenton, we lift up the Sacrament of Marriage and see it as a vineyard, given to God, blessed by the Church 1, 25, 50 years or more, which gift and blessing made you his tenants.”
“You have been good and faithful tenants of this gift, this vineyard,” he said, encouraging them to look back and “see the good fruit that you have born – the fruit that is two lives become one in a love that has endured.”
Acknowledging the struggles along the way, some encouraging and some difficult, he commended the couples for overcoming the obstacles as they “made the vineyard of your marriage strong, beautiful and so fruitful in so many ways.”
He concluded each homily by wishing the couples before him a hearty “Happy Anniversary.”
As the Masses came to an end, couples lined up to receive personal blessings from priests of the Diocese who joined Bishop O’Connell. During the receptions that followed in the respective parish halls, couples took joy in watching a slideshow of original wedding photos that had been collected by diocesan staff weeks prior, reacting with smiles and tears when their own portrait appeared.
Embraces and hugs from children, family and friends during the festivities lent an added glow to the day.
Peg Hensler, diocesan associate director for marriage ministries, said the annual Anniversary Blessings are a testimony to families and the community at-large of marital devotion.
“For young couples just starting out to see people celebrating the fruits of 50 years of marriage or more sends a powerful message,” she said.
She drew from Pope Francis, praising married couples as a “living sign of Christ, offering thousands of small and real gestures” of faith.
Real and Forever
Among the couples moved by that “powerful message” of decades-long devotion were relative newlyweds Samantha and Matthew Whelan.
Members of St. Anselm Parish, Wayside, the Whelans were among couples celebrating first anniversaries with Bishop O’Connell in St. Aloysius Church. They were overjoyed to “have the blessings and support of so many couples” wed 25 and 50 years as they received their blessing.
“It was amazing. Especially the number of couples married 50 years and over,” said Matthew Whelan, adding that it gave the couple inspiration for the journey to come.
Their story began in Lincroft’s Brookdale College, where they met, though they went their separate ways before reconnecting several years later. Their courtship lasted nearly seven years.
“We feel marriage is a sacred bond, and we wanted to make sure this was real and forever,” Whelan said.
For both, this philosophy evolved over time. At a young age, Whelan’s parents’ divorce caused him to make what he calls “a mature decision,” by forgoing Confirmation until he was fully able to profess the Sacrament as something he “truly believed.”
Meanwhile, the early death of Samantha’s father had a profound effect on her family, which remained deeply Christian but ventured into a Protestant church. By the time the couple reconnected, they had come to recognize how important faith would be in a marriage. They knew it would be at the heart of their relationship, Whelan said.
Samantha returned to the Catholic Church, and the families united for a Catholic wedding. Keeping a “Christ centered” home is what’s important, Whelan said.
Seeing so many couples at the Anniversary Blessings Mass who have stood the test of time is a testament to that belief, he added.
It was almost emotional,” he said. “I hope I live 50 more years and we get to that point. It was wonderful and inspiring to see these couples who have endured in a time when divorce runs rampant.”
Lifelong loves Andrew and Grace Ann Sabados understand the meaning of endurance. The Sabadoses, members of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, where Andrew serves as a deacon, celebrated 55 years of married life with a blessing from Bishop O’Connell and renewal of their vows in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral.
The couple grew up in the neighboring communities of Pottsville and Minersville, Pa., where they met as teens – though not, he recalled, high school sweethearts. Rather than “single dating,” their group of friends traveled together, enjoying group outings to play miniature golf and treats at local dairy bars.
By 1960, a summer romance with Grace Ann lit the spark that would last 55 years, he recalled. She was a senior in high school; he was in the Air Force. He remembers that she “wrote to me every day. Every day, I got a letter.”
When his two-year tour of duty was nearly up, she was working for Bell Telephone, and he was transferred to Maguire Air Force Base in Burlington County. The time to marry was at hand, literally.
“I had to ask her father for her hand and assure her three brothers that I would take care of her. We were married in St. Patrick’s Church in Pottsville,” Deacon Sabados said.
The sense of faithful devotion so apparent in their courtship never waned. “For 50 years, with three children, two daughters and a son, we lived our vows,” he said.
That love was the guiding force when Grace Ann agreed to stay home for 16 years and devote herself to the care of their children, and it was there when Deacon Sabados went to college by way of night school at what was then Trenton State College.
“It took seven years, and she took care of the household – everything,” he said, adding that “everything” also included a major illness that came later. “Our journey as a couple began when we took vows to take care of each other and love each other with an unconditional love.”