Aaron and Mary Wilkerson are parishioners at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia who participate in marriage preparation and enrichment events and present talks on faithful living with the family. Mary also works part time as a Catholic speaker/presenter with BOLD Ministries, introducing the Gospel using humor, Scripture and storytelling. Mary is also a co-host of the “Certifiably Catholic” podcast and the archbishop’s podcast, “Eyes on Jesus.” Aaron, who joined the church in 2009, and Mary are parents to Aaron, 8; Joseph, 7; John Paul, 6; Malia Paul, 4; and Julie Grace, 2.
How do you help those you encounter in your ministry who have felt hurt by the church?
Mary: We work, serve, minister and worship in a church full of imperfect people. Our world is so good, but there is so much brokenness. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from a college professor who told my class, “When the time calls for it, we can and should apologize on behalf of the church for wounds inflicted.” Those wounds are real and deep, and as a minister in the church, it is important that I never try to minimize or make light of that pain. I have been in many conversations where stories are shared of priests doing something hurtful. I’ve talked with people who have been away from the church for years because of wounds inflicted by family members in the name of Jesus. I try to apologize on behalf of the church for their experience and their hurt. Sometimes, an apology offered without an excuse or a “but” can be so valuable. Obviously, I cannot undo experiences or wounds inflicted, but I can acknowledge the pain and clearly state (when applicable) when something wasn’t acceptable.
What advice do you have for explaining the toughest parts of our faith to skeptics?
Aaron: I think a lot of times maybe you can’t. I know that is a bit controversial to say, but so often we are trying to start conversations at the “tough parts” without acknowledging the necessary steps in faith that must occur before we even breach the really difficult stuff. The tough questions can be and are answerable with the truths of our faith. However, if a person doesn’t even know Jesus, how can we expect them to adhere to some of the more difficult teachings held within the doctrine of our faith?
Mary: Every teaching in our faith is tied to another teaching, which is deeply connected to another teaching, which stands on the shoulders of yet another teaching, etc. … If someone is sincerely seeking truth, starting at the “tough parts” is sometimes not as effective as slowing down and starting with the person of Christ, or the Trinity. The deep love shown through creation is where all the “tough stuff” eventually builds from, but if someone isn’t convinced of the passionate love of God the Father, or the sacrificial love of the Son, is it fair to expect them to wade through the deeper questions about morality?
On a practical level, one thing I make sure to do when presenting talks on the tough stuff is ask listeners to extend me grace ahead of time. I explain that I might end up saying something in the wrong way, or I might end up hurting someone by the words I am going to say, but I am trying. I ask whoever is listening to consider extending some grace to me to be able to speak freely, and hopefully truthfully, but with the knowledge that I am very much human … and might screw it up.
What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned through ministry work/parenting/marriage?
Mary: I think learning how to manage time is essential. I’ve learned when I am at work in ministry, spending time with my children or spouse, I have to choose to be fully present. I’ve had to work hard to carve in time for a personal relationship with Jesus through his church. It’s so easy, when working in ministry, to allow the Gospel message to kind of become distant … something I am proclaiming to others. It can be easy to work on a talk or a presentation for a few hours that is about the truths of our faith and consider it time spent with God. In some ways, of course, it is, but it’s not the type of time with God I need to spend to grow in my own walk with the Lord.
Aaron: The same can be true for our children. We can spend so much time setting up faith experiences for our kids but not intentionally spending time in personal prayer. We’ve really had to learn how to balance that in our marriage. We find when we are intentional about our own very personal walk with the Lord, everything is just better. Our home life is better, our faith life is better, and ministry makes more sense.
How do you consistently bring your children around prayer and the sacraments?
Aaron: This can be very difficult, especially with a family as young as ours. Our strategy is that we don’t give ourselves a pass to opt out of prayer or the sacraments … even when it’s challenging. We just recently had an experience at Mass where our 2-year-old was behaving as a 2-year-old often does. A parishioner was upset, whispering to Mary some very negative things about our child.
Mary: I wish I could say I handled it in a classy way, but I might have let my quick tongue get the best of me. Going to Mass with five young children will never be an easy task. I can absolutely see how people start to shy away from attending the sacraments and are truly too tired to even think about prayer.
Aaron: I think part of the battle is naming it from the beginning. With young children, I’m always going to feel tired at the end of the day when it’s time to pray. There will always be parishioners who think it’s better their parish is quiet. However, I believe that the key is to not let it overwhelm me or become discouraging.
Mary: There is a grace whenever we move through the experiences of prayer or the sacraments. Sometimes it’s just a matter of saying to myself, “I am doing this because I know that it is right, I am obligated to do this, and I believe with my whole heart that grace is moving in these moments.”
What keeps you Catholic?
Aaron and Mary: The truth. It’s as simple as that for us. The failings of some parts of the institution, coupled with the chaos of our culture, certainly make it tough. However, not living our faith is not an option. For us, it’s a matter of, “Do I believe in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church?” If the answer is yes, there isn’t any other option than to be Catholic. We do believe. We believe in God the Father, the love of the Son and the movement of the Holy Spirit through the institution of the church. One passage from Scripture that we’re reminded of is when Jesus asks Peter if he would also like to leave with the crowd that walks away from Jesus. His response, which we can relate to, was, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
How do you avoid comparing yourself to other Catholics or other families?
Mary: It’s a temptation I think a lot of us feel. Recently, I heard the archbishop use the expression “the fellowship of the disciples.” The expression was interesting because we had just finished watching The Fellowship of the Ring as a family. In this movie, we watched a brave band of all different creatures trying to complete a task with an incredible amount of consequence riding on its completion. I was struck by how each character was so drastically different and yet so needed in the journey. The expression “the fellowship of the disciples” made me think about how the faithful are all so very different but are all working toward the same thing: holiness.
Aaron: They say, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and I think it’s so true. It’s impossible to compare my reality to anyone else’s. The measure of my success is the degree to which I am following the one who has called me. When I feel pulled toward comparison, I try to remember how futile it is and how terribly harmful it is to the body of Christ.
What does it practically mean to you to “bring Christ into your marriage”?
Mary: For me, it means living the values Christ has called me to, recognizing my great responsibility and challenge to love Aaron well and to lead our children to heaven. Obviously, these are no small tasks. It means serving when I don’t want to, picking up that dirty sock for the 900th time, without making a comment that I’ve already had to pick up socks 899 times. It means being intentional about spending time with Aaron and really carving out that time. We always joke that we are best friends, but part of our friendship is that we need to be in each other’s presence. We call each other to a deeper level of holiness in the day-to-day by reminding each other of who we are called to be.
Aaron: For me, it means taking the teachings of Jesus and applying them to your marriage as much as you’re able. One thing I can think of is not leading your spouse to sin. I try not to be a negative influence on my wife and keep our household free of overtly disparaging thoughts and negative behavior. Also, I try to be humble and resolve conflict quickly, even if I’m not the one responsible for it. Typically, this takes some internal prayers for the grace to admit my faults and apologize for what I’ve done and also give forgiveness if I’ve been wronged.