In early 2021, just a few short months before my wedding, my health began to decline. I lost weight and experienced fainting, bouts of debilitating sickness, and a vast array of symptoms that affected my entire body. After months of seeing many doctors and struggling with their reluctance to believe me, incorrect diagnoses, overnight hospital visits, numerous labs, imaging, and more, I was properly diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, Gastroparesis, Vascular Compressions, and other comorbid chronic health conditions that greatly affect my day-to-day life. I also learned that it would be extremely imprudent and even lethal for me and a future baby if I got pregnant (if I would even be able to get pregnant). In light of my debilitating symptoms and diagnoses, my husband and I have been living a Josephite marriage since our wedding day.

Many Catholics are unaware of the Josephite marriage. When the question “when are you going to have children?” is brought up, and I respond with a brief synopsis of my situation, they typically tell me, “your marriage is invalid,” “you’re leading yourself and your husband to hell” and/or “don’t you trust God enough to give you a miracle baby?” These are just a few things others have told me. Though we are at deep peace with our vocation and marriage, it can be difficult to cope with the judgment we often receive from others.

A Josephite marriage is a celibate marriage that gets its name from Joseph and Mary and their marriage. Theologically, a valid marriage begins from the time two people proclaim their vows to each other. Consummation is a right of marriage, but spouses may not claim this right for different reasons (such as in the case of Mary and Joseph). The Josephite marriage is incredibly rare today but is still valid and Sacramental. Because of its rarity, many Catholics tend to assume that it is invalid or sinful, when in fact, it is a beautiful form of the vocation in which instead of bearing physical fruit (i.e., biological children), the marriage is able to bear great spiritual fruit. Within a Josephite marriage, St. Paul’s note that spouses refrain from sexual intimacy “by mutual consent for a time” to devote themselves to prayer (1 Corinthians 7) is elevated to daily living. My husband and I are grateful that God has given us the grace to live out this vocation and to bear fruit in other ways.

To put my illness into context, I have been in occupational and physical therapy for almost a year now, as I attempt to regain some of my strength and find ways to adapt to daily living with chronic illness. My husband often has to help me with basic tasks, like putting on pants, holding me while I brush my teeth, and walking me to the bathroom when I am very weak and at risk for a fall. Even if I could safely be pregnant, we are in no place to care for a child when, truthfully, I can barely care for myself. The combination of our current circumstances and my prognosis led to us to sincerely pray and discern our unique vocation: a Josephite marriage.

Despite – or perhaps, because – of our celibate arrangement, we have experienced an abundance of grace in our marriage and the depth of these graces has shown no bounds. When my husband and I proclaimed our wedding vows on a crucifix, we did not realize the extent to which this image of Christ foreshadowed what was to come. Within weeks of our wedding day, we learned that we need to hold on to each other and the Cross ever so tightly as we bear our own crosses every single day. The Lord has been so generous with His grace as He accompanies us through these trials.

My husband has truly been laying down his life for me as he powerfully lives out his wedding vows of caring for his ill bride. He has lost just as many friendships as I have, has canceled his own plans to care for me, and does a majority of the chores around the house. He has even uprooted his life in the area in which we both grew up to move to a completely new town so I could have better medical care. He suffers alongside me – if not even more – because in marriage, our lives become entwined into one and we begin to care for the other more than we care for ourselves. When I suffer, he suffers, and vice versa.

Though my physical abilities are limited, I have the honor of praying for my husband and walking alongside him in other ways in our day-to-day lives. I pray for his physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I pray with him as we read the Scriptures together. I listen to him with great devotion as he tells me about his new work project or something that interests him. I have deep conversations with him about the spiritual life or anything that is on our minds. I share loads of laughter and joy with him as we enjoy shared hobbies and interests, such as movies, reading, and painting. All of this has allowed us to cultivate a love in our marriage that goes deeper than sexual intimacy.

Though our marriage may not bear physical fruit in the form of biological children, it is certainly bearing spiritual fruit as we discover and embrace a love that goes beyond the natural realm. We serve the Church through our witness to fidelity and devotion to the vocation of marriage amidst the depths of our suffering. We also serve the Church through our prayers and thank God for the ability to do so.

We give thanks to God for the great blessing that is our Josephite marriage and remain hopeful that it will continue to bear spiritual fruit as we live out our vocation every single day.

A. Rossi is a 20-something Catholic convert in her third year of marriage. She loves spending time with her husband, reading, writing, crafting, and advocating for those with chronic illness and rare diseases.