By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published November 6, 2008
Grasping each other’s hands and looking into the eyes they have known for so long, more than 120 jubilee couples renewed their wedding vows during a Mass at St. Brigid Church on Saturday, Oct. 25.
Sponsored by the archdiocesan Family Life Office, the annual anniversary Mass brings together families and friends to witness something that seems increasingly rare these days: a marriage spanning five or six decades, successfully weathering the difficult test of time.
The Mass, celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, recognizes and honors couples in the archdiocese that have been married for 50 or 60 years.
More than 150 couples from 48 different parishes were invited to this year’s Mass; nearly 40 of them were celebrating their 60th anniversary in 2008.
Distinguished by yellow roses on their jackets and dresses, the couples, who together have witnessed major world events, raised children and participated in church activities for more than five decades, gave encouragement to those currently married as well as to the youngsters present who seemed to appreciate, even at a young age, the extraordinary feat of such a long commitment.
Archbishop Gregory sounded off on such a wonderful sight as he brought the couples back in time in his homily.
“Fifty or 60 years ago … milk was milk and bread was bread, and that was just about all there was to it,” the archbishop began. “We did not care to know or perhaps even think about any other ingredients that could be discovered in a carton of milk beyond the essential contribution of the cow.”
“Fifty or 60 years ago our jubilarian couples might have thought that love was a pretty straightforward reality. However, even then St. Paul had already alerted the church that love was hardly a simple venture,” he continued.
The archbishop told the crowd of nearly 800 that these special couples have learned over the years the “great complexity of true love.” He told the couples they “share its blessings far more deeply than you did on the day of your wedding now a half century or more ago.”
Deacon Dennis Dorner served alongside the archbishop at the Mass and shared some feelings about his parents, Don and Rita, who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on Sept. 25.
“I grew up in a great house,” the deacon said, adding that he never heard cross words between his parents growing up. He later learned that they vowed never to argue in front of their children.
The second of six children, three girls and three boys, Deacon Dorner said that his parents are still “very committed” to each other and that it is great to see the fruits of a lifelong relationship. It is something he hopes the next generation will be able to experience as well.
“That is the legacy they have left: a lifelong commitment,” he said.
Don Dorner, 82, and Rita, who turns 84 this month, met when Don was home on leave from the Navy in 1945. After finishing dinner with his friend one night, the two men met a group of three young ladies, all sisters, and Don ended up walking Rita home.
“That is where it all began,” he recalled.
He returned to the Pacific with the Navy in 1946 and 1947, and he and Rita wrote to each other constantly. After he came home, they were married in 1948.
“We always had such a loving marriage, and we still do,” said Dorner.
He said that keeping the marriage young is one way to build a good, healthy relationship. He encouraged young married couples to continue going on dates, which he and his wife still do, and to always kiss their spouse before going to bed.
“We never went to bed without a kiss goodnight,” he said.
Other clergy in the archdiocese came to the Mass to honor their parents or their own marriages.
The parents of Father Dan Fleming, the pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Church, Newnan, celebrated their 60th anniversary this year, while Deacons Mike O’Brien and Bill Bevaqua of Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Atlanta, celebrated 50 years of marriage with their wives, Rita and Marisue, respectively.
Deacon Bevacqua, who was ordained in 1990 and has served at OLA for 18 years, and his wife were married 50 years ago this past June. The couple has raised five children with the oldest now serving as a priest in Los Angeles.
Marisue, who came from a strong Methodist family, first learned about Christian marriage from her parents.
“I felt like I knew what a good marriage was like,” she said.
The Bevacquas met the summer after Bill finished college. They worked a summer job together in Ohio and got married shortly thereafter, before Bill was deployed to Germany with the military and she returned to finish school.
“Letters can be very meaningful,” said Marisue about how she and Bill kept in touch while he was away. “We only had each other.”
She also said that both spouses must not hesitate when it comes to their faith. Being open with your partner is an important aspect of a strong marriage.
“We have a tremendous amount of respect for each other,” said the deacon, who enjoyed attending the Mass with the other jubilarian couples.
After the homily, the couples’ eyes lit up as the archbishop asked them to stand and join their hands as they renewed their sacred wedding vows. Nearly half of the congregation stood.
A round of excited applause followed after Archbishop Gregory invited the men to kiss their brides following the vows, resembling the day they shared their first kiss as a couple in the eyes of the church.
During the homily, the archbishop spoke of Paul’s description of love and offered some additions to the disciple’s thorough definition of what it means to share love, especially in this unique sacrament.
“They have discovered that love must sometimes forget a hurt, a slight or an error in judgment,” Archbishop Gregory said. “Sometimes love must just shut up because words are unwelcome and quite inadequate. Love occasionally cloaks itself in humor and even silliness for the sake of the other. Love has many moments of surrender when they have put aside their own heart’s desire for the wishes of the other.”
“It was absolutely inspiring,” said Don Dorner of the anniversary Mass. He echoed statements made by the archbishop in his homily, saying that he has truly come to learn what his vows meant when he took them 60 years ago.
“What our jubilarian couples have done for all of us is to reveal first within their own families and then for the entire church the ingredients of true love in the long history and stamina of their marriages,” said the archbishop.
“We need to know and the world has so frequently forgotten what it takes to live a committed and faithful loving marriage. We have forgotten too often that the ingredients of love are often not glamorous or well known but vital nonetheless,” he concluded.
As the Mass ended, the St. Katharine Drexel Chorale performed an uplifting version of “Lift High the Cross,” which was followed by a joyous piece performed by organist Trey Clegg, much like a wedding recessional.
The anniversary Mass honoring 50 and 60 years of marriage has been celebrated since 2006. Linda Sweeney, program coordinator for the Family Life Office, said that the archbishop had a large part in bringing this celebration to life.
“The archbishop wanted to do it,” she said. “He made it a priority.”
The Mass has become very important for those reaching marriage milestones, and the Family Life Office has received positive comments from couples, their families and their friends, who expressed how pleased they were with the reverence and sophistication of the event.
“It is very important to them,” said Sweeney. “There is a lot of gratitude.”
Following the Mass, the crowd moved to the parish social hall where an elaborate reception awaited them.
Floral arrangements accented a colorful array of treats. The couples and their families enjoyed vegetables, finger sandwiches, juice and champagne as they exchanged stories about their spouses, children and grandchildren. There was even a table with a wedding cake to bring back the wonderful memories of the couples’ special day.
“We want to make it as special as the occasion is,” Sweeney said.
Archbishop Gregory raised a glass and made a toast to the jubilarians, thanking God for their example of love.