On Coming to the Sacrament of Marriage

A Personal Pilgrimage

Part I of II: On Christ’s Love of the Sinner1

In the context of the widespread discussion on how to help married people, whether in the preparation for marriage, in the midst of difficulties, or in the impossible moments of coming to the truth about marriage, I saw the need to draw on my own experience of how God has helped me to both recognize my own vocation, and to inform this debate with the reality of experience: a reality that witnesses to the mercy of God as greater than the wretchedness of the sinner.


“On the Truth that Heals (cf. Jn 8: 31-32) the Crisis of Marriage”

The truth to be uncovered, however, is nothing if it is not what we recognize in our hearts. When Jesus Christ said to the woman at the well, ‘he whom you now have is not your husband’ (Jn 4: 18), it was not a truth that she rejected or rebelled against; rather, in her experience of life, it was a word which delivered her from the many faceted difficulties of identifying what was going on in her life (cf. Jn 4: 7-26). At the same time, Christ turned her to a new understanding of communicating with the Father “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4: 24); and, in the very reality of the word which He spoke to her, Christ established her in the truth which made it possible for her to worship the Father “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4: 24). While, on the one hand, we do not know what happened to the Samaritan woman, we do know that the Lord brought about salvation in her life. On the other hand, even if we do not know how her life ended, we can trust that because she accepted that Christ had led her to “the Father,” bringing others with her (Jn 4: 21, 23, 27-42), that the Father welcomed her into His kingdom, along with those her witness had brought to Him.

This article, therefore, is about my experience of coming to the truth of marriage: an experience that was long and painful and, at the same time, an unaccountably intimate dialogue with the truth about myself; and, in that respect, the call to prayer is about precisely the person that I am coming into the presence of God and asking for help in the “today” of my life (cf. Ps 95: 7). God, however, speaks the truth in a way that, ultimately, leads to a heart that can hope in His help; and, like the woman at the well, the history that brought me to Him is a prelude to being clear that He has made a new beginning in the life that, ultimately, He began and never abandoned.

There are the following three parts to this account of the help that Christ and His Church can give to us. Part I: On a Personal History of Coming to Marriage; Part II: On the Trials of Marriage; and, Part III: On two Temptations in Responding to Real Difficulties.


Part I: On a Personal History of Coming to Marriage

While it was obvious to many, if not to all, that marriage was one of a variety of human possibilities, my experience of coming to the possibility of marriage, several times, and being unable to marry, reveals that both in terms of this generation and the particular characteristics of my own history, marriage turned out to be far from a self-evident option. The point, then, of this introductory section is to show, however briefly, that the word and action of God has been a necessary ingredient in becoming clear, chaste, and capable of being open to the full reality of marriage.

In the beginning, then, as a girl-friend emerged out of an indiscriminate mass of people, so began a heartbreaking search for the nature of what it was all about.

On the one hand, there were a number of women, over the years, without any clarity as to what determined the possibility of marrying one rather than another, except that often there were complicating factors; and, indeed, those complicating factors could be anything from an existing, previous, or potential marriage to someone else, to the perplexing and bewildering basic questions about marriage as a “closed” cell: an unalterable one to one sentence. Not to mention the difficulties, if not human impossibility, of possessing a stable identity, a means of earning a living, or even an understanding of what defined marriage as an expression of human friendship. Even if it was clear that an annulment, a formal recognition by the Catholic Church that a particular couple were not sacramentally married, it was nevertheless unclear what constituted the choice of a spouse: what differentiated one person from another.

On the other hand, it was abundantly obvious that the pain of human experience taught that the desire to marry was almost irrepressible, and sprang afresh even after many anxious, fraught, and bitter disappointments; and, at the same time, the Catholic culture of being open to life was challenged, even among Catholic religious, to the point of making the search for the truth an imperative for a broken but indeterminate Catholic-Christian: a Christian who did not understand his own complete inability to identify and to live a Christian life. In the very process of drawing close to the Catholic Church, it became clear that, confused and uncertain about marriage, marrying a divorcee in a registry office did not address the freedom to marry, or the reality of marriage, as the whole gift of self; however, a part of coming to that conclusion was being refused absolution in confession because it was not at all clear, to me or to the priest, that I had rejected the possibility of marrying in a registry office.

From the Depths of Human Experience
There emerged, then, a certain logic from the depths of human experience; and, even if this was not equivalent to salvation, yet it did, remotely, begin to point to the path of truth towards it. Firstly, it was increasingly obvious that whatever “faith” was, it was not obvious to me; and, therefore, without fully grasping this ignorance, my life as a Catholic-Christian was almost a “seesaw” between sin and the sacrament of reconciliation.

Secondly, the natural history of a disordered life raised the question of a psychological condition that arose from denying the humiliations which were suffered at school; however, as the probing continued, so it “made sense” that the internal disorder that needed discovering was expressed in an outward disorder which constantly showed itself in abandoned courses, short term work, and an inconclusive work and vocational identity. In terms of answering the question of the origin of psychological disorders, nothing was as adequate as the origin of original sin: a sin that simultaneously deprived human beings of the complete gift of the Creator and, at the same time, originated the development of the imperfections which manifest themselves in dysfunctional human lives.

Thirdly, impoverished friendships, uncertainties about identity, the readiness to give and to take in the giving, left a person swirling amidst a multitude of ideas which were partial truths and “moments” that disintegrated into nothing. As impossible as it was to fulfill, the desire for permanence shone through all the transitory relationships. Indeed, love began to make sense as a single act of loving another person: as if the equality of love, of a man loving and being loved by a woman, transcended all the other imperfections of actual concrete people. The constant problem, however, was the restless inability to “commit” to one person.

Fourthly, the whole disaster of contraception and abortion rose up, like a rebellion, protesting the existence of human life, and the profoundly open and uncompromised gift of self which belonged to marriage; but, again, the impossibility of transcending almost endemic “transitoriness” did nothing but rage like a nature at war with itself, and threatened, increasingly, the reality of life and hope itself.
Finally: How many visits to confessors, spiritual directors, or advisers, even a so-called Christian psychotherapist, did nothing to root order in a disordered heart; and, therefore, there grew a profound dichotomy between an increasingly explicit understanding of the Christian vision of the human person and, paradoxically, a personal ignorance of sin, and the call to conversion.

A powerfully gentle word that brought the change it expressed
A word of God transforms a life in a way completely different to the truth that emerges, nonetheless, from a disordered life. Indeed, the truth that does emerge from experience is still true, but it is like a laser that does not cut: it does not bring with it that power to change that is as inseparable to the word of God as the beginning of creation. Thus, there was a moment in which death had found its prey; indeed, having failed to take my life at fourteen, it was revisiting the possibility at forty, having failed many times in-between. It is difficult to account for the difference between a “being-for-death” and a “being-for-life”; but, in a moment, Christ passed through the closed door of my heart, and fulfilled the words I read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘Since God could create everything out of nothing, he can also, through the Holy Spirit, give spiritual life to sinners by creating a pure heart in them … ‘(CCC, 298). Within twelve months, I married. Twenty years later, we have ten children, two of whom are in heaven, and the power of that word still unfolds through many other words within the Word.


Part II: On the Trials of Marriage

It is almost impossible to count the number of trials in a marriage. Indeed, almost anything, beginning and ending with money, ill health, work-related stresses, studying, seeking work, a home for a growing family, being open to life, relatives, and old friends, seeking comfort or understanding in a difficult time. And, never mind the additional challenges of extra money for car repairs, Christmas presents, and the general wear and exhausting nature of a young family, can all be the occasion of marital difficulties. The prospect of divorce, adultery, separation, returning to the parental home, abandoning the family, “going lost,” drinking, or any of an almost unimaginable variety of ways of falling prey to the daily impossibilities of marriage and family life. All of which help to discover in “each of us” the human weakness and tendency to reject and recoil from the sufferings of an intense daily life. Whether the difficulty was brief, serious, long-term, personal, shared, or a complex combination of a whole variety of factors, the ongoing, daily reality of life did not entail sweeping changes, but almost imperceptibly gradual modifications of heart, circumstances, and life-style. The visit of an angel to Joseph, then, which helped him to accept the reality of Mary’s miraculous pregnancy (cf. Mt 1: 18-25), is also a sign of the divine help that we all need in the course of married life—even from its beginnings, and until its very end.

What, then, is the principle help to married people, including preparing for marriage, marrying, founding a family, and unfolding the myriad daily difficulties that are a part of the multifaceted reality of life? Accompaniment, as it is called, has specific roots in the chaplaincy work of Karol Wojtyla: “Wojtyla … thought of his chaplaincy as a ministry of ‘accompaniment,’ a way to ‘accompany’ these students in their lives:’ ‘A really effective chaplaincy, he believed, had to be present to these young lives in the world as well as in the Church”.2

Thus, the “accompanying” went on into the lives of those who married, were open to life, and who continued in this developing spirituality which unfolded in the ministry of Wojtyla (later John Paul II).3 This pastoral experience, then, as curate, as well as Pope, gradually convinced John Paul II of the necessity of World Youth Days: “that a pastoral strategy of ‘accompaniment’ with young people was as valid for a pope as it had been for a fledgling priest.”4 Accompaniment is also a characteristic of a small community sharing prayer, the word of God, and the help of periodic times of retreat or convivance;5 and, more recently, “accompaniment” has been identified in different ways in Pope Francis’, the Joy of Love:6 on the many and diverse ways of helping people celebrate marriage and family life.

In a word, then, the action of God did two, if not three, things. The patience of God allowed me to reach the point of being ready to receive the help of God. However, in retrospect, the help of God had been available in many ways, throughout my entire life; and, therefore, what was different was that there was a moment when this was experienced as an inner certainty: that God helps. In the course of marriage, then, the turn to prayer and the grace to believe that God acted in the circumstances of our life, made it possible for us to be open to life, even in the midst of our various sufferings. Thus, there was the steady turn to prayer, and the benefit of various kinds of help. Secondly, the presence of a walking community, a group of people to whom the word of God was also being addressed, was a constant source of help as well as, in its own way, a source of many challenges, too. Finally, God had gone before us and raised up a charism of the Catholic Church which accompanied us in many different ways; and, in its own way, still does: the Neocatechumenal Way.

The reality of conversion is not magic, however, and moves in a mysterious way amidst the warp and weave of actual lives, circumstances, and possibilities. While it is possible to emphasize, or overemphasize, one help or remedy over another, there is no doubt that the constant help of word, liturgy, and community throw light on the everyday nature of the Christian Faith, and its being lived; and, at the same time, exposes the truth that Christ is present in marriage in a way that can only be described as constantly turning water into wine (cf. Jn 2: 5-11). In other words, then, it is possible to discover that the life of Christ is not just a kind of religious ornament on the human nature of marriage—but that the presence of Christ is what constantly makes possible the communion of marriage and family life.


Part III: Two Temptations to Polarization

It is possible, then, to widen particular difficulties, and to pose a tension, as it were, between doctrine and pastoral experience: as if doctrinal truth and pastoral experience can be opposed to one another in the one Church of Christ as if love and truth are not inseparable in Christ and His Church. The value of this exercise is to explore the danger of division in an otherwise necessary dialogue about the subtleties of the truth entailed in real experience.

The objectivity of the truth
On the one hand, then, it could be claimed that there is a tendency to recognize that the truth is, by definition, incontrovertible. Therefore, if an action is a sin of adultery, then that, of itself, determines the objective nature of the act; and, although “intention” and “circumstance” can intensify, or alleviate the degree of personal responsibility, neither intention nor circumstance can change a sin into a good act (cf. The Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 1749-1756). As it says in the Catechism: “There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery.” (CCC, 1756) In other words, presuming the conditions necessary to the reality of a marriage, supernaturally constituted through the baptismal faith of the man and woman, there is an act as irrevocable as the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ: an act which gives life through death in marriage.

We might say, therefore, that there is the possibility of emphasizing the reality of living in the truth in a way that it is impossible to envisage how the sinner can come to it. It is not, therefore, that the truth of the sacrament of marriage is open to change, or that there can be an understanding of sin that contradicts sound reason, revelation, and magisterial discernment, and tradition. Rather, it is a question of whether or not it is possible to communicate the splendour of the truth in a way which contradicts the spirit of love: that the truth be expressed as a heartless measure of the impossibility of human effort, the quagmire of human difficulties, and the tragic ramifications of consequences which continue to unfold.

Doctrinal and dogmatic truths are not, however, unassailable towers, impossible for human beings to scale. Rather, they are an expression of the interior life of God which He alone makes possible in the life of a sinner, and of the Church. Thus, there is, as it were, an echo of the life of the Blessed Trinity in the very mysteries of the Church which God alone makes possible for us to bear within us as the evidence of His own existence, and active presence among us.

Thus, the temptation of this tendency is to overlook the fact that the lived reality of being a Christian is a gift of God; and, in truth, it is the love of God which makes the sinner a resplendent member of His Church. Therefore, in front of the impossibility of living love’s truth, it is absolutely necessary to discover the poverty (cf. Ps 34: 6) that makes it possible for the power of God to deliver from sin, and to open a way through the impossibilities of life (cf. Ex 14: 15 – 15: 22). Is there, at the heart of this temptation, an uncertainty about the “power” of God to act, and to bring life out of death; and, therefore, is there a real need to rediscover the grace of God in-action?

The grace of God acts in the reality of “today”
On the other hand, then, it could be argued that there is a pastoral, Christ-like touch that enables a person to come out of his present situation, and to start walking with Him. It is not, therefore, about telling Mary Magdalene, or the nameless men in her life, that there are human impossibilities, such as the quandaries of what to do in the context of divorce, remarriage, adultery, the renunciation of sex in an unlawful union or multiple partners. Rather, it is about communicating that Christ said that “apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15: 5): that there is a reality to the deliverance from sin that only God can give to a person who is either unable to see, objectively, the truth of his situation or, further, having glimpsed the truth of it is unable to come out of it. In other words, no amount of parish programs, theses or dogmatic truths, on their own, can bring about God’s action in the human heart. However, there is no certainty that God will not act through parish programs, theses or dogmatic truths and, therefore, they cannot be automatically discontinued or abandoned. What is more, Christ said to a public sinner, indeed, to anyone who is disposed to listen to His word: “go, and do not sin again” (Jn 8: 11). In other words, the word of Christ is a word of power.

In the context of the present climate, perhaps we need to recognize the extra-sacramental action of God which belongs, in fact, to the liturgy of the Church:7 the liturgy that proclaims and makes possible the Passover from death to life: through conversion to the good forgotten, obscured, or forsaken in sin. In view, then, of the whole of life, there is the possibility that God can use anything and everything to draw the sinner to Himself, and to help him, little by little, to live in Him. Does not St. Augustine say that the greatness of God is shown precisely through what scandalizes us: that God allows sin because He can bring good out of it? God, however, does not sin; but God does take the sin of the sinner, and help him to discover the lie that needs love in the truth to be healing.

Thus, the temptation of this tendency is to overlook that the messiness of life is a point of departure; and, what is more, that a point of departure entails an ongoing action of God which is as beautifully true as it is God acting to bring His love to exist. Indeed, it is possible to reproach the sinner so forcefully for his sin as to abandon hope in the heart so bruised that the tendency to repentance is rejected as too painful, and the Church as too unwelcoming; and, therefore, it is possible that this betrays an unwillingness to see the mercy of God as actively bringing about the very dialogue which, paradoxically, can rebound against the sinner.8 In other words, there needs to be a renewal in Christ who, in the mystery of the Church, comes in search of the sinner; but, in the very nature of His coming, brings a change in the very person to whom He comes.

The truth in love, and the action of the word and grace of God
In a word, then, perhaps there is not so much a divisive difference as the need to listen to the “other” in the articulation of our faith9; and, together, to show that Christ calls us all, wherever we are, whether in a mess or not, to shine through with the gratuitous nature of His love-gift of salvation. As St. John Paul II said in his homily for the canonization of Edith Stein: “St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross says to us all: Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.”10 On the one hand Christ’s love of the Church is the basis of the “indissolubility of the marriage bond”; and, on the other hand, Christ comes to help couples as the “physician” of the sick (Mt 9: 12). This is the heart of the question: to find a way, in accordance with the “indissolubility of the marital bond,” to bring the help of Christ to couples. What, then, is true love’s answer? In part, true love’s answer depends on the word and grace of God; and, in part, true love’s answer depends on the pastoral reality of the couples who are seeking the help of Christ and His Church.11

What, then, are the parameters of the action of God, not because God is restricted but because He has already declared Himself through the voice of the Church? In the response of the Church to the actual situations in which people find themselves, it has already been authoritatively said: “It must be discerned with certainty by means of the external forum established by the Church whether there is objectively such a nullity of marriage.12 In other words, there is a need for the objective expression of an annulment in the external forum of the Church if, that is, a marriage is to be declared as sacramentally invalid; and, if sacramentally invalid, not binding on those who had entered into it.

The word of the Lord
Conversely, then, the action of God, which is unbounded, is the communication of love’s enlightening truth to each person according to the reality of his or her situation; and, recalling the words of Christ to the Samaritan woman, He did not say that she had not been married, but that the man with whom she lived, at that moment, was not her husband: “he whom you now have is not your husband” (Jn 4: 18). On the one hand, then, there is the objective truth to be discerned through the external forum of the Church; and, on the other hand, there is the word of God’s enlightenment of our present reality: love’s truthful discernment of “today”. Thus, while it looks as if the love of the law is inflexible and crucifies us, it is the law of love that we pass from death to life; indeed, the inflexibility of the law is, truly, the inflexibility of the truth, but the law of love transforms what would destroy us into what rebuilds us. In other words, natural truth can indicate the reality within us; but, at the same time, it is inadequate to bring about the conversion it implies; and, therefore, while truth crucifies us, the word of God brings about the utterly impossible passage from death to life.13 But this is a supernatural work of God and, as such, is the fruit of either a direct gift of God, or the preaching that plants faith (cf. Rom 10: 14-17), and puts us in movement: either one of the many movements in the Church14 or the movement of the Church Herself.

Given that without Christ we can do nothing (cf. Jn 15: 5), we need a rediscovery of a relationship to His word and His Church. If “ignorance of the Scriptures, is ignorance of Christ” (St. Jerome, quoted in Dei Verbum, 25), and if “it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22), then “ignorance of the Scriptures” is ignorance of man. Conversely, not only is knowledge of the Scriptures knowledge of man “in Christ”, but knowledge of the Scriptures enlightens us in the light of eternity.

But we cannot walk alone and, therefore, I encourage you, in whatever way, to find a people with whom to share the path of life; for in the end, whatever we experience of the help of God is not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors, too (cf. Jn 4: 39-42).15

  1. This is now a part of the book, The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends, (Chapter 4: Part I: enroutebooksandmedia.com/familyonpilgrimage/).
  2. George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, New York: Cliff Street Books (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers), 1999, p. 100.
  3. Cf. Weigel, Witness to Hope, pp. 100-108.
  4. Weigel, Witness to Hope, p. 493.
  5. Eg. As found in the Neocatechumenal Way.
  6. Cf. Pope Francis, Chapter 6 of Amoris Laetitia,
    w2.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf; indeed, the reality of accompaniment is such a rich and complex phenomenon, as much about the family being accompanied sharing that experience, as other families and people accompanying them.
  7. Cf. Pope Benedict’s XVI, Verbum Domini, 84-87
  8. Cf. Pope Francis, “Pope’s Morning Homily: Chief Priests Rejected a Repentant Judas”, December 13th, 2016, zenit.org/articles/popes-morning-homily-chief-priests-rejected-a-repentant-judas/
  9. Cf. Cardinal Peter Turkson, Edward Pentin’s, “Church Leaders Respond to the ‘Dubia’”, December 6th, 2016, ncregister.com/daily-news/church-leaders-respond-to-the-dubia
  10. Sunday, 11th October, 1998, n. 6.
  11. Francis Etheredge’s Response on LinkedIn, 9/12/16, to Edward Pentin’s, “Church Leaders Respond to the ‘Dubia’”, December 6th, 2016.
  12. Paragraph 9: Cardinal Ratzinger, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_14091994_rec-holy-comm-by-divorced_en.html
  13. Cf. Pope Francis, “Pope’s Morning Homily: Pastors Should Accept the 1st Step, Let God Do the Rest”, December 15th, 2016: zenit.org/articles/popes-morning-homily-pastors-should-accept-the-1st-step-let-god-do-the-rest/
  14. Eg., The Neocatechumenal Way, Focolare, Communio et Liberatione, Youth 2000, etc.
  15. If you would like to discover further how the word of God has helped me in a variety of ways, please read the following work: hprweb.com/2015/02/witness-begets-witnesses/). But for a book-length investigation, go to Scripture: A Unique Word, 2014, particularly Chapter 2 for the perspective on the conversion of a man; and, for further work, go to the trilogy: From Truth and truth, 2016 (the books are all published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Newcastle upon Tyne). There are also the early chapters of The Human Person: A Bioethical Word (enroutebooksandmedia.com/bioethicalword/) or the whole book, to which this essay now contributes, called, The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends (enroutebooksandmedia.com/familyonpilgrimage/).
Francis Etheredge About Francis Etheredge

Mr. Francis Etheredge is married with eight children, plus three in heaven. He is the author of Scripture: A Unique Word and a trilogy, From Truth and Truth (Cambridge Scholars Publishing); The Human Person: A Bioethical Word (En Route Books & Media, 2017), with forewords from eight writers; The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends (2018); and Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, with contributions from ten other authors, as well as The Prayerful Kiss (2019); Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration (2020); Honest Rust and Gold: A Second Collection of Prose and Poetry (2020), Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers (2021), Unfolding a Post-Roe World (2022), Reaching for the Resurrection: A Pastoral Bioethics (2022), Human Nature: Moral Norm, Lord, Do You Mean Me? A Father-Catechist! (2023), A Word in your Heart: Youth, Mental Health, and the Word of God (2023), and An Unlikely Gardener: Prose and Poems.

Francis is currently a freelance writer and speaker and his “posts” on LinkedIn can be viewed here. A radio interview can be heard here.

He has earned a BA Div (Hons), MA in Catholic Theology, PGC in Biblical Studies, PGC in Higher Education, and an MA in Marriage and Family (Distinction). He is a collaborator of the Dignitas Personae Institute for Nascent Human Life.


  1. About your statement, I ask you to consider something else that is supposed to occur long before any investigation regarding invalidity.

    QUOTE: “In the response of the Church to the actual situations in which people find themselves, it has already been authoritatively said: ‘It must be discerned with certainty by means of the external forum established by the Church whether there is objectively such a nullity of marriage.’ In other words, there is a need for the objective expression of an annulment in the external forum of the Church if, that is, a marriage is to be declared as sacramentally invalid; and, if sacramentally invalid, not binding on those who had entered into it.”

    The response of the Church in the external forum includes another question that is totally separate from invalidity: SEPARATION. The Church, not the civil forum, has rightful competence to decide which party (if either) has a right to separation of spouses, and the natural/moral/material/canonical obligations of parties toward each other and their children.

    With the non-profit organization Mary’s Advocates, I work to reduce unilateral no-fault divorce and support those who are unjustly abandoned. In unilateral no-fault divorce, those who control the split of everything, view marriage obligations in a way that is diametrically opposed to the Christian and Catholic understanding.

    We publicize the Catechism and the Catholic Code of Canon law about separation and divorce. Those with Catholic marriage are not to file in the civil forum for divorce without their bishop’s permission, unless the particular law in their diocese or territory has waived the requirement.

    Keep us in mind if you know anyone who is being reluctantly abandoned by a spouse who appears to care about being Catholic. We show the party that wants to keep the family together how to petition the diocese for help using canon law.