In recent months Ron and Mavis Pirola have attracted a degree of publicity since speaking at last year’s Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family in Rome. While the Pirolas weren’t officially representing any group, effectively they were in Rome as bearers of the countless family stories they have heard from many years of ministry.
Marriage is their thing, and they have not only lived it faithfully, but thought, talked, written and prayed about it. They are wary of being portrayed as extraordinary and are generous in sharing their lives, lows as well as highs. In fact Ron says, simply, “We’ve had some bloody tough times.”
Ron was born in Mexico City of an Italian father and English mother. Mavis says, “I was from an Anglo-Saxon/Irish background, I only knew spaghetti in tins! We shared a common faith, very much in terms of getting to Mass on Sundays, doing the Catholic thing. I came from a ‘mixed marriage’ and it was difficult to talk about faith in the family.” When she began to be interested in Ron, Mavis remembers thinking, "Well at least he's Catholic!"
A life-changing encounter to which Ron and Mavis frequently refer was with a Chinese-Mauritian couple they met while Ron was a trainee doctor in Perth. Reg and Jeannette Lam-Po-Tang introduced Ron and Mavis to Equipes Notre-Dame, or Teams of Our Lady – a lay spirituality movement for married couples. It meant meeting together once a month with other couples and supporting each other in their faith journey. “It led us into an understanding that our marriage was important, not just for us and for our children, but in a wider sense,” said Mavis.
In acknowledging the importance of Catholic faith in their relationship, Ron owns that it was very much “a pre-Vatican II faith, the emphasis was on saving your soul. It seems strange terminology now – it wasn’t outgoing at all.” [‘Vatican II’ refers to the second Vatican Council of 1962-5, a real game-changer in the Catholic Church.]
Ron says, “We were so crazy in love, so over the top, people laughed at us. We talked and talked, but we didn’t talk about the important things – would we have children, how many would we have – all those fundamental issues they teach you nowadays in marriage preparation.”
Mavis adds, “We look at marriage prep courses today and wonder whether we would have married!”
“The one thing we knew was that it was for keeps, that was the society, and it was relatively easy to have that concept,” said Ron.
“We also had the model of our parents, couples very committed to each other but they had difficult lives,” said Mavis.
“Children came pretty quickly and our life just disintegrated. We were seriously sleep-deprived and it was hard to think straight. We wouldn’t have had an unbroken night’s sleep for fifteen years,” remembers Ron.
Ron's career focus was in his family's best interests; he believed that if he qualified as a hospital specialist, he would have more time to spend with his family. “Getting that college qualification nearly pulled us apart really,” admits Ron. Ironically, by the time he became a hospital specialist, the system had changed and it was GPs who had more regular hours!
As Ron built his career, the Pirolas moved to Sydney, then London and New York, and by then they had four children. “Our kids were in schools in New York where half the students were black and a quarter Jewish – a wonderful multicultural experience for them,” says Ron. Their continued involvement in Teams in New York led them to Marriage Encounter. “That was shortly after the Second Vatican Council and the Church was experiencing an extraordinarily exciting time, with Marriage Encounter, Charismatic Renewal, home Masses – all these things were exploding!” recalls Mavis.
They describe Marriage Encounter as “the biggest single turning point in our lives”. Mavis says, “All the concepts we learned from that weekend – love is a decision, feelings are neither right nor wrong – continue to sustain us forty-one years later.”
One of the principles that shines through Ron and Mavis’ conversation is that the marriage relationship is the most important thing, and they both cite “keeping the romance alive” as essential. Mavis still enjoys finding little love notes left by Ron in the kitchen before his early departure for work, and he insists, “Everyone has time to say ‘I love you’, many times a day...”
Ron and Mavis have four children and eight grandchildren. Two of their children have married, and three are actively committed to the Catholic Church. They understand the sadness of parents for whom faith is important when their children have not made that commitment – and at the same time, they acknowledge that they learn so much from the attitudes and stances of each member of the younger generations of their family.
The last question I asked was, “Is there something you would still like to achieve?” Their answers were, unsurprisingly, complementary. Mavis’ response was all about sex. She said, “I’d like to see the sexual relationship of a couple recognised as part of their spirituality. It’s not ‘your sex life’ and ‘your spiritual life’, they’re integrated, and I’d like the sacredness around that to be integrated, which is completely opposite to what’s happening in our culture. It’s not about rating your sex life; sex is how we express our relationship and each couple expresses their intimacy in their own unique way.”
Ron repeated the statement he and Mavis had made to the synod in Rome: “All we said was that the fullest expression of the sacrament of matrimony is in sexual intercourse.”
Ron’s answer was all about prayer, because, “Prayer is relationship.” He strongly advocates a prayerful lifestyle, which necessarily means, “You have to have some time in prayer. If I get up in the morning and don’t spend a few minutes in prayer, the rest of the day is less prayerful. If a couple can just spend some time in prayer together, the Holy Spirit will work through them, affect their lifestyle...revolutionise families and therefore the world!”
However, Ron adds, “We find it incredibly difficult. For us, it’s not easy, it’s a challenge....because we’re two very different people. Prayer is very personal, and when you pray openly you make yourself vulnerable.”
I spoke to Ron and Mavis on the day that the Sydney siege took place. When we heard the dreadful news, Ron gently suggested that we stop for a moment and pray. While this couple remains “crazy in love”, their love is one that is outward looking – to their family, their church and the world, and that’s what marriage is all about.
Ron and Mavis chair the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council. You may wish to visit acmfc.org.au. The Ordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family will take place in October. To learn more, visit mn.catholic.org.au.