Navigating love and religion in a mixed-faith marriage

“Where’s your husband,” she asks, as I warm my hands on one of the familiar styrofoam coffee cups that seem to be the MVP of these after-church gatherings. Our children’s laughter bounces around the walls of the social hall as they dart behind us, lost in a game of hide-and-seek. I hesitate but summon the truth. “He’s not Catholic,” I say. “What about yours?” I’ve noticed she also comes to Mass alone, arms overflowing with children, hair often disheveled, overwhelmed but determined. The first time I saw her it was like looking into a mirror, and it felt good. “Mine’s an atheist,” she says, pausing to let the words hit me before shrugging with a chuckle. I echo her, knowing that sometimes all you can do in an uncontrollable situation is laugh.

There’s a small group of us. Parents with young children who show up to Mass without their spouses. We’re small but mighty, and we all come from different backgrounds and mixed-faith situations. I don’t know the details of everyone’s family situation; I only know we’ve all ended up in the same place: at church alone.

I’m what people refer to as a “cradle Catholic.” My childhood memory bank overflows with church scenes: fiddling in the pews as grandmother urged me to sit still, decorative rosaries and religious art on the walls of my family’s homes, Our Fathers and Hail Marys chanted at regular intervals, and a Catholic school uniform freshly ironed and hanging in the closet above my Barbies and roller skates. Church is as much a home to me as my mother’s kitchen table, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yet despite the roots of Catholicism that were cultivated deep in my identity, I managed to fall in love with and marry a man who not only wasn’t Catholic but didn’t have a strong religious identity at all. As a young 20-something who was head-over-heels in love with a handsome young carpenter, the mismatch in our religious beliefs seemed minor and easy to overcome. And while we have managed to create a happy and successful marriage spanning more than 11 years, we’ve had to maintain a delicate balance of nurturing our relationship while respecting our differing perspectives. It’s been a challenging adventure, but one that’s led me to believe that mixed-faith marriages can overcome differences, thrive and bear the fruit of the Spirit.

Not forcing conversion

To be fair, my husband did offer to convert to Catholicism when we got engaged. There have been many times I’ve regretted not taking him up on that offer, but overall, I’m glad I didn’t. I knew at the time (and I still know) he would have been doing it for the wrong reasons. He wasn’t a believer and had little desire to be one; he was simply a young man eager to please his fiancé. He would have been going through the motions, and I wanted him to come to God with an open heart and mind.

To my husband, engaging with religion feels like showing up to a party that’s been going on for hours. The partygoers are all family and best friends, and they speak a secret language he has no hope of understanding. All he can do is stand awkwardly in the corner near the punch bowl. I feel for him; I really do. I can understand why the party doesn’t appeal to him and why he doesn’t want to mill about aimlessly as I flit around the room, communicating in code and playing party games to which he doesn’t know the rules. There have been countless times I’ve tried to “help” (maybe force), but one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is that I need to let him grow into faith in his own time.

A personal relationship with God

Despite my husband’s early identity as a skeptical agnostic, I have managed to maintain a strong connection to my Catholic roots, though it hasn’t been easy. There have been periods where I’ve let my relationship with God fall by the wayside, skipping Mass in favor of Sunday morning hikes, opting to doom-scroll Instagram rather than open my Bible, and letting popular, new-age beliefs prevalent online influence my heart and mind. But as I approach 40, I’ve learned to open my ears to God’s call and to answer. Just like daily exercise, I know I always feel better — my whole life is better — when I prioritize and nurture my relationship with God. And so, through much trial and error, I’ve found the key to maintaining a strong connection to my faith, despite wherever my husband might be in his spiritual journey, is to let my faith be mine. Just mine. If I allow my relationship with God to depend on someone else, even my husband, it will always be weak.

Of course, that means putting a lot of effort and intention into my religious life. Our marriage has been blessed with three children, and I am now solely responsible for their Catholic upbringing. I rush them out the door every Sunday to go to Mass. I make sure we’re active in the parish community, attending events, volunteering and arranging playdates with church friends. I enroll them in faith formation classes, and I volunteer as a teacher. I read them Bible stories and sing countless rounds of “Jesus Loves Me” in the car. And I love it. Being an engaged parishioner brings me joy and fulfillment, and I know first-hand the gift I’m giving my children. It can be difficult, but I know I can make sacrifices to show up for God who has always shown up for me.

Slow growth in faith

Though there are times I feel sad my husband doesn’t join us in our Catholic life, there are many things I’m grateful for. One is that he’s always been respectful of my religion. He’s never made snide or critical comments about my faith, never discouraged us from attending Mass, never cringed when I hung yet another rosary on our wall, and he always listens to our children’s prayers with a smile. Ultimately, the key to our happy marriage has been respect and space. He’s had to respect my beliefs and give me the space to become what my friend lovingly refers to as “very Catholic.” I’ve had to respect his perspective and give him the space to wrestle with his faith.

And for that, we have both been handsomely rewarded. I’ve been blessed to witness an awe-inspiring transformation in my husband over the years. He went from being uninterested and, at times, critical of organized religion to responding with genuine interest when presented with Catholic rituals. He now reads the Bible daily and occasionally joins us at Mass, which is something I wouldn’t have imagined in the early years of our marriage.

While being in a mixed-faith marriage has been a non-linear and often difficult journey, my Catholic foundation provided the keys to success: trust in God, prayer, patience and love. By offering space, understanding and encouragement without imposing on my husband, I’ve been blessed with the great joy of watching God touch his heart in ways I never could have had I pushed my beliefs on him. I look forward to the coming phases of our life and seeing how the plans God has for us unfold. My husband is still not Catholic, and that’s okay. I know we will continue to grow in our faith and witness wonderful works of the Lord, even if the journey doesn’t look the same for both of us.

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