June 21. It hardly seems possible. It has been nearly 39 years since I met the beautiful woman who would become my wife.
We were both “juniors” at the time: I, a third year college student; Joanne, a third year high school student. But by the time that I realized I was dating a 16-year old—a “cradle-robber,” my college buddies would call me—I was hopelessly smitten. We were married two years later, at the tender ages of 22 and 18. This past week we celebrated our anniversary.
Last night, some dear friends gave my daughter a shower for her upcoming wedding. In less than three weeks, she will be exchanging vows with a wonderful man she met in college. The convergence of these events caused me to reflect on some things that I experienced some 37 years ago.
We were, as they say, “unequally yoked.” I was a Roman Catholic and Joanne a Seventh-Day Adventist. In truth, neither of us took our faith very seriously at the time. So where and in what manner we would be married were details of little importance to us. But our parents were another matter, as those “details” became the subject of a few spirited exchanges.
Somehow my parents prevailed, and a Catholic ceremony in Atlanta’s SacredHeartChurch was selected. We later learned that Sacred Heart was where the parents of Patty Hearst were wed.
We also learned that a prerequisite for our Catholic wedding was Catholic pre-marital counseling, a condition that nearly became a show-stopper. Would pressure be applied on Joanne to convert? Would we be told to raise our children in the Catholic faith? Those were pivotal questions for my future in-laws, and, quite frankly, for Joanne and me.
He was not what I had expected. All the priests of my religious upbringing were fatherly in appearance and disposition, which tended mostly to the authoritarian. But his jet black, wavy, and slightly tousled hair gave an appearance more in line with a seminary student than of a seasoned clergyman.
By my guess Father Joe Cavallo was 30, if that—not much older than me. But there was something about him. Maybe it was the thick, black-rimmed glasses, or the dark penetrating eyes underneath them. Whatever—here was a man, I thought, whose wisdom exceeded his apparent age. But there was something else—the ready handshake and convincing smile, projected genuineness, and an unexpected cordiality to a Catholic looking to take a wife “outside the faith.” I took an immediate liking to him.
Still, I was nervous over how he would respond to our concerns; mainly, would he insist that we commit to certain sectarian demands? That had to be settled from the start. And it was. After the initial pleasantries, Father Joe put our fears to rest, saying that he would not impose any conditions on us, other than a profession of Christianity, which we gladly accepted.
I do not remember anything else he said then or during our counseling sessions. Nor, to my deepest regret, do I remember much of what he said to us during the marriage ceremony, this being in the bygone era before camcorders, when every moment of the pre-wedding, wedding, and post-wedding proceedings is captured by an omnipresent videographer.
My memory retention was not helped by the fact that my focus during our wedding was elsewhere—on our honeymoon to be sure, but more significantly, I was dealing with feelings of doubt, doubt that had been growing for days. Doubt, not in my love for Joanne, but about my fitness as a provider and head of a family.
Although I have long forgotten the details of Father Joe’s sermon, I do recall being deeply stirred by his main point: Love, once shared, is always there. Even when it appears lifeless from years of hurt, discontent, and disappointment, love can always be revived where there is will to breathe life into it.
Love is always there. It was an inspiring idea, empowering even. We didn’t have to “grow apart” because of diverging life goals, nor “fall out of love” according to the principles of karma or pop psychology. Through good times and bad, we could choose love, falling deeper into it and growing closer through it. Because love is not a matter of stimulus-response, natural law, or cosmic happenstance; it is a matter of human will.
Even though his exact words are lost somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory, I remember thinking at the time that it was the most meaningful message I had ever heard on love or marriage. In fact, it has been for me a kind of marital “guard rail.”
During the last nearly four decades there have been rare moments when, after giving ear to my darker angels, I could have acted on thoughts that would have taken me down the road of alienation, separation, and isolation. But in those moments, the sudden whisper, Love is always there, was all it took to keep me from stepping off the path and out into the abyss.
Over the years I have often thought about contacting Father Joe. I thought about telling him how much his message moved me at the threshold of married life, and about how it proved true 10, 20, 30 years later. But I never did. I never so much as reached for the phone directory or, in recent years, Google.
Until the other day.
With our daughter’s marriage fast upon us, it occurred to me how fitting to share with her and her fiancée the words Father Joe shared with me and her mother years ago. It was a long shot, I knew it. Not only could he be difficult to track down, but in an age before computers and word processes, the chance that a copy of his sermon would have survived was remote at best. Nevertheless, I was determined to try.
After checking our marriage license for his full name and its spelling, I Googled him. Several hits, nothing. Another, the wrong guy. A few more, same thing. Then one reading: “Necrology, Priests, Archdiocese of Atlanta.” Archdiocese of Atlanta, that must be him; but necrology, that didn’t sound good.
I clicked on a link that opened to a long list of names. Next to that was a corresponding list that read, “Date of Death.” My eyes widened and went straight for the “C’s”, stopping at “Cavallo, Reverend Joseph C.” Across from the entry was, “November 7, 1990.”
It never entered my mind that Father Joe would have died, much less that he would have done so 20 years ago. He couldn’t have been much older than 45 at the time.
Stunned, I continued my search. When I found his obit, the heading immediately drew me in: “Father Joseph C. Cavallo Dies, Served at Side of the Poor.” As I read on, I learned that Father Joe had a heart for those on the margins of society—the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden. He ministered to the poor, fought for human rights and fair labor practices, and supported migrant workers in their struggles against powerful corporate interests.
He died at the age of 46, the victim of an extended illness. He was a man I wish I had known.
As a Catholic priest, Joe Cavallo never experienced love within the context of marriage, but he lived it in the wider context of life. By loving the unlovely and giving to those who could not give back, Father Joe was a “walking letter” of what he imparted to two marriage hopefuls one warm June morning in 1973:
Love is not about worthiness; it’s not about feelings, it doesn’t have to fall victim to our internal emotions or the external pressures of life. Love is about will—the daily choice, the intentional choice to love, opposing the pull of our passions, refusing to allow our emotions and circumstances control our resolve, and, above all, bucking against what our no-fault culture would have us believe, namely, that love is about personal happiness and self-fulfillment, rather than the selfless, sacrificial impulse toward others modeled by Love Incarnate, Jesus Christ.
As on my wedding day, I want my daughter and her fiancée, to know this: With all of the joy and love that you are feeling now, it is hard to imagine, but times will come when you won’t feel very joyful. You may evenfeel that your love is flickering, if but for a moment. It is in those times that you will need to remember this time and know: Where love once was, it always remains. May its flame burn brightly as you tend to it daily with other-centered devotion.
With all of my love, Dad.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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