I had been away from Tanzania for one month enjoying a vacation with family at home. The highlight of the vacation was presiding at the marriage ceremony for my niece. Joined by more than 200 guests, it was a great occasion for family and friends at a beautiful church and reception hall in New Jersey. It was a day filled with celebration and joy.
Upon returning to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I continued with ministry at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences where I serve as the Catholic chaplain. On my first Sunday back, after celebrating Mass at our university hospital chapel, there were some people who wished to see me. They had a sick person who they feared was in danger of death.
The patient was a woman in her mid-thirties. Her husband and two relatives came with a request. The woman, Anna, had suffered with stomach cancer for several years. She had received treatments and had been in and out of hospitals throughout the ordeal. Although they have one child, Anna and her husband, Valentine, had not yet had their marriage blessed in the church, a condition so common in Tanzania today. Valentine, fearing that Anna may soon die, came to request that I come to the ward and bless the marriage.
After gathering some details, I went with Valentine to see Anna. She was indeed very ill, nothing but bare bones. But, she was conscious and alert. I asked Valentine to sit on the bed next to his wife. I explained to Anna that I had come to bless her marriage. She was grateful. Some nurses gathered around the bed and together with the two family members, I conducted a marriage service.
The Joy Of Love
While beginning the prayers in Swahili, I had an immediate flashback to my niece’s wedding of just one week earlier. As Valentine and Anna exchanged their vows, I could feel a lump in my throat. When it came to rings, of course there weren’t any. So I did some quick thinking and improvised asking that each simply repeat these words: “Anna (Valentine), accept my word of promise as a sign of my love and fidelity to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The two weddings were so different. Instead of a beautiful church in New Jersey, our service was conducted in a hospital ward in Dar es Salaam on a bed with sheets stained with Anna’s pain and suffering. From the richest to among one of the poorest countries in the world I was struck by the contrast!
Throughout the service I sensed the tears coming to my eyes and had to work to hold them back. After the wedding ceremony, Anna and Valentine received Holy Communion for the first time since their marriage eight years earlier. As the service ended, despite the contrasting scenes, I realized there was something so much in common with my niece’s wedding: it was that moment of great joy and celebration when Anna and Valentine were announced husband and wife.
As they held hands on the bed, those present shrilled the sound of ululation, the traditional African expression of joy. Anna’s constant physical pain suddenly was eased by the joy of love shared between them. In taking care of his wife, Valentine was a living witness to the promises they shared: “I promise to be faithful to you in good times and bad, in sickness and in health. I will love and cherish you all the days of my life.”
Two days later, Anna passed away. How grateful I am for this brief encounter with Anna and Valentine. May she rest in peace!
Post Script: Father Michael J. Snyder has blessed other marriages in Tanzania. In the accompanying photograph, this man was ill with AIDS and died soon after his marriage was blessed.