Reverence for Christ, love and laughter are paramount in the home of Irene Sarmiento and Ernesto Lozano, who met and married in their home-country of Mexico before emigrating to Canada with their growing family 11 years ago. They’ve been married for 26 years and they have six children.
“On our wedding day, we received the blessing of the bishop who married us, and one of the wedding gifts was a papal blessing from Pope John Paul II. I feel we’ve had tons of grace helping us on our journey,” said Irene.
That journey would carry them far from their beginnings, but when they arrived in Canada, they found a new home in their Catholic communities in Calgary.
“When we went to Church and I saw the tabernacle, I felt at home, because the Church is everywhere, and it is actually like you have a family,” said Irene, commenting that the Church community in Canada welcomed them with open arms when they arrived.
The family of the Church welcomed another couple into its midst in 2014, when Jean-Francois (JF) and Ana Church said, “I do.”
Though they met one another and attended JF’s prom together in 2006, they had a long journey toward marriage. As both of them journeyed separately toward a deeper relationship with God and a greater understanding of the workings of the Holy Spirit in their lives, they formed a friendship that blossomed into love as they eventually served in youth ministry together in Ottawa.
“It is such an intimate relationship when you are working with someone and being guided by the holy spirit and teaching about God,” said Ana. “You really get to see that person’s heart and where they are at and where their relationship with God is at. At the time I thought, ‘these are all the qualities that I’m looking for in a husband.’”
Both said they feel they were guided to one another by God.
“For some time, I thought I wanted to be a priest,” JF shared, saying he took a yearlong discernment retreat to find out.
“The answer for me was clear that I was called to exemplify the Holy Family, and that’s a tall order. I didn’t know who the lady would be at that time, but every time there’s a shadow of doubt, I know that I discerned this and that God has a plan for us.”
God’s plans are mysterious and beautiful. As I listened to both of these couples share their memories, my own came vividly to mind. Thirteen years ago on February 14th, my husband Joseph who had also discerned the priesthood but felt called to have a family, married.
As I walked down the aisle of our hometown church on the arm of my dad, I remember being awestruck. My thoughts raced, but I remember thinking that this was the church where our parents had brought us to be baptized, and where we had walked down the aisle to receive the Eucharist countless times, and here we were on the same path toward something entirely new and sacred. We felt truly at home in the Church in that moment.
“Being married is not easy, it is hard,” said Ernesto matter-of-factly, “especially being married to someone like me,” he finished with a wry smile.
I’ll confess I feel like Joseph sometimes carries an unfair burden with such an emotional, opinionated wife. But all self-deprecation and joking aside, as Catholics we have been richly blessed in the Sacraments, which feed our souls and call us to deeper conversion.
In 2011, Joseph and I walked the aisle of the same Church at my father’s funeral. It gave me comfort to recall our wedding, my First Communion and all of the Masses I’d attended there as I walked, this time with the heaviness of grief. It was in the Sacraments and in my marriage that I found solace.
This moment came to mind when Ernesto said, “when you are feeling terrible, there is always the Sacrament of Reconciliation.” He and Irene try to go often, and to normalize going for their children.
It is important for them that their children would feel at home in the church.
“When the children were little, I would take them and ask the priest if they could talk with him a little bit. That way when it came time for their First Reconciliation they weren’t going to a person they didn’t know,” Irene said.
As Irene and Ernesto recall starting their family, they remember feeling overwhelmed too.
“When you have your first child they do not come with instructions,” said Ernesto facetiously.
“Yes,” added Irene, “you have to figure it out as you go.”
Six children, including now-adult children have given them a lot of practice in parenting, and I had to resist the temptation to sit for hours picking their brains for advice about my own family. Something that is important to the couple is mentorship of parents, which they do through their involvement with a program called Family Enrichment.
As parents of young children, Mass can be a challenge. Nonetheless, Ana and JF try to attend Mass as often as possible.
In moments where certain behaviours are causing problems of concentration, JF says he tries to “remove myself mentally from the situation, as if to see myself in the third person, pretending that I’m God the Father looking at this situation; one of the kids wrote on the pew with wax crayon and I’m trying to listen to the homily.
“Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,” and if I am pretending I am God looking in, I think “okay, this is actually hilarious.” If I miss the homily, then I know God meets us where we don’t expect it, and he’ll fill me some other way.”
“I don’t operate that way,” said Ana, “and I often feel alone in those moments.”
“So often I pray to the Holy Spirit that I need help. Sometimes (during Mass, but also in everyday life) I’m praying under my breath and the kids ask “what are you doing?” and I say “I’m inviting Jesus right now… you should too!”
It models for them that they can reach out to God when they need Him and that He will be there for us even when we might feel alone.”
“It also models for them that we are not trying to raise them to be perfect,” said JF. “We expect them to have freakouts just like we do, but in those moments there is a Holy Spirit, there is a Jesus, there is an Abba-Daddy who cares for us and wants to help. I think it is just beautiful to model that.”
To support one another in continuing to grow a relationship with God, Ana and JF have been going alternate weeks to Tuesday night Reconciliation, Mass and Adoration for almost a year.
“Having that sacred time that we can look forward to and that we protect for each other is really key. We also get to listen to the homily that day, which is really nice,” said Ana.
“It’s amazing how many saints went to frequent confession,” pointed out JF, who finds it helpful to go often and “break the cycle of sin.”
“If I’m going often, with not a lot of time between confessions, I’m forcing myself to be in a position to make an examination of conscience and go a deeper route so that I can address things in myself – other personality defects that are leading me to those sins.”
Ana and JF are a couple who’ve spent quite a long time building up the spiritual life of their family and seeking the Sacraments.
“The key is really staying vulnerable with the Lord and with each other, and I find the Sacraments just make room for that psychologically and emotionally, and bring a source of inspiration and dreaming with the Lord,” said JF.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers