LITTLE NECK — Deacon Ramon and Digna Lima, who are both 83, have been married for 60 years. Their secret? Holding hands.
“Sixty years later, we still hold hands every night … Before it was the passion; now it’s the arthritis,” joked Ramon, who’s been a deacon in the Brooklyn Diocese since 1977.
The Limas and Benjie Bernas and Mike Bautista, parishioners at Resurrection-Ascension Parish, Rego Park, are two couples who spoke to The Tablet as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Marriage Week (Feb. 7-14) and Valentine’s Day approached. Their love stories show how the sacrament of marriage and married life can flourish in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
“For us, marriage is all about learning to be patient with one another and with our children,” Digna Lima said. “And it’s about saying sorry to each other every single day. Daily forgiveness, I think, has kept us together for many years.”
The Limas, who live in Little Neck, attend St. Anastaia and Sacred Heart parishes in Bayside, and Deacon Ramon, who has formally retired from the diaconate, serves at Masses at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston.
The couple has three adult children and three grandchildren. They are both from Cuba, where they met as teenagers in 1957 while they were sitting next to each other in an accounting class at the University of Havana. They became close friends while studying for their CPAs. “The rest was history,” Deacon Ramon said.
In 1960, the Limas emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba as political refugees, eventually settling for 20 years in Corona, where they attended St. Leo’s Parish.
Those first decades were an “unsettling, but fruitful” time, the couple said, as they each had full-time accounting jobs to make ends meet and brought Ramon’s parents to the U.S. from Cuba. As their family grew, they moved to a bigger house in Little Neck.
Ramon later entered the diaconate and served at different parishes in Queens, leading bilingual Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) programs and Bible studies, and helping with the sacraments. He led more than 40 pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and was one of the first Latino extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion in the diocese.
In the meantime, the Limas raised three children, including their youngest daughter, Beatriz, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome.
“She is a blessing from the Lord in many ways,” Deacon Ramon said. “When she was born, her condition was a surprise to everybody. We were told she wouldn’t be able to walk, talk or do anything, and that she should be in an institution. Be we said, ‘No.’ Beatriz is now 43 years old, and she loves to dance.”
Reflecting on the longevity of their marriage, the Limas said that unconditional love and faith have kept them together.
“There is nothing that we do now that is not separate from the Lord,” Deacon Ramon said. “It’s a sacrament we take very seriously. When the time comes to meet the creator, the thing He will ask is, ‘What have you done with your life as a married man or woman?’ [Marriage] is not a piece of paper that you sign; it is a lifelong bond. The measurement of love is to love without measure.”
Benjie Bernas and Mike Bautista have many years before they will come close to 60 years of marriage. They got engaged in December and will get married in June.
The couple met in 2014 through the local New York chapter of Singles for Christ, a worldwide Catholic family ministry that originated in the Philippines.
“I remember she came in late one time, and she had this guilty look … and I noticed her dimples and her glasses. I thought it was so cute, the way she walked in all embarrassed,” Bautista, now 29, recalled.
As their friendship grew, Bautista said that he initially rejected the idea of dating Bernas because she was his older sister’s age. But he found himself drawn to her interests, religious devotion and relationship with Christ.
Bernas, now 33, was discerning religious life at the time. She was volunteering at the Little Sisters of the Poor in the South Bronx, and later went on a six-month “dating fast” to help figure out her vocation.
“Discernment is like dating — you have to have the willingness and desire to be a part of it,” she said. “But God reveals His plans for our vocation in slow, slow places, before His grand reveal. I knew I wanted someone who would fall in love with receiving Jesus in the Mass, the same way that I desired it.”
By the end of 2016, Bernas’ dating fast ended. She remembers being on the subway on her way to visit the Little Sisters, when she felt God revealing something to her that she had never considered — discovering Him through Bautista. The two began a relationship in early 2017, after Bautista had waited months to make it official. “She was always worth waiting for,” he said. “I already knew I wanted her to be my wife,” he said. Now that will happen.
They plan to get married on June 13 at Resurrection-Ascension. They are preparing for the big day, and for their lives together, by going through the pre-Cana marriage-prep process through the diocese, and they are about to go on an Engaged Encounter marriage prep couples’ retreat.
Bernas said pre-Cana and the retreat are not about the wedding day itself, but about discovering what sacrifice means in a lifelong vocation.
“The reason two people get married is to echo the love God has towards the church, the way Christ did on the cross, which is really hard,” Bernas said. “But it’s not about loving when it’s easy. Love is when you die to your own selfishness.”