When I first heard it last September, I didn’t pay it much heed. It’s always possible that something puzzling is reported that may have had a different meaning in the original context. Now Cardinal Kevin Farrell has said it again, and the puzzlement endures in the repetition.
“Priests are not the best people to train others for marriage,” he told Intercom, the magazine of the Irish bishops. “They have no credibility; they have never lived the experience; they may know moral theology, dogmatic theology in theory, but to go from there to putting it into practice every day … they don’t have that experience.”
Many priests devote enormous time and heroic energy to marriage preparation, often in the face of significant difficulties. They might not be the “best people” to do it, but certainly they would be deflated to hear Cardinal Farrell pronounce that, having “no credibility”, they are consequently wasting their time.
About 18 months ago Pope Francis – who himself offers all sorts of homely, affectionate and practical advice to married couples – took a rather different view when addressing parish priests, telling them that “no one better than you knows” the situations that couples face.
“May your primary concern be to bear witness to the grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony,” Pope Francis said. “Such witness is put into practice concretely when you prepare engaged couples for marriage, making them aware of the profound meaning of the step which they are about to take.”
So if it were a matter of authority alone, Cardinal Farrell’s comments could be ignored in light of the Holy Father taking a contrary view. Yet if Cardinal Farrell is right, it doesn’t matter that Pope Francis disagrees with him. But is he right? Is it true that priests have “no credibility” in preparing couples for marriage, because they have not been married themselves?
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