By Veola Burchett
Special to the Intermountain Catholic
“Marriage is a vocation, inasmuch as it is a response to a specific call to experience conjugal love as an imperfect sign of the love between Christ and the Church. Consequently, the decision to marry and to have a family ought to be the fruit of a process of vocational discernment.” (Amoris Laetitia, Chapter 3, Par. 72).
As Pope Francis states in his encyclical, the decision to marry shouldn’t be made on a whim. Marriage preparation should be a time of prayerful discernment, a time to evaluate ourselves and our partner – our values, ideals, goals, dreams. Marriage preparation is an exciting and wonderful time, but it is also a time of work.
Couples who present themselves for marriage in the Church often don’t understand all the ins, outs and whys for what is being asked of them. Put simply, the Church’s goal is to ensure that the couple understands what they are asking for, and to give them tools to start this lifelong journey. It is also the Church’s responsibility to protect the Sacrament of Marriage.
Usually when a couple calls the parish, their question is, “What do we have to do to be married in the Church?” That’s a good place to start. The parish secretary needs the pertinent information – names, anticipated wedding date, parish membership – before setting up an appointment with either the priest or deacon. In some parishes, a deacon will be assigned to assist with marriage preparation even if the priest will preside at the ceremony.
At the first meeting with the couple, the minister will outline the various options for marriage preparation, all of which is under the purview of the local pastor. It is he who decides which programs to use and how often he or his designee will meet with the couple.
There are various programs available, but all meet diocesan guidelines. Every marriage prep program must hit seven points: Theology, Law and Marriage; Conjugal Love, Parenthood, and Responsibility; Family; Liturgy and Spirituality of Celebration; and when appropriate: Cohabitation, Inter/Intra Faith Marriages; Second Marriages. Each of these individual subjects have four to six criteria that should be covered. A pastor can choose any program he wishes as long as it fulfills the requirements.
Some pastors choose to do all the marriage prep themselves, which gives the pastor a chance to get to know his parishioners, and most pastors impart a very deep understanding of the theology of marriage. However, the pastor can choose other programs that give an insider’s view of the reality of marriage.
A pastor may choose a sponsor-couple program. This program is led by a married couple in the parish who have been trained in one of numerous sponsor couple programs. The engaged couple meets with their sponsor couple over a course of a few months, usually weekly, during which various topics are explored. The married couple gives their own lived experience while guiding the engaged to discuss their own values and ideals. The advantage to this is the one-on-one commitment; it also provides a tie in to the parish – for example, the married couple can arrange to meet the engaged couple at Mass on Sunday and introduce them to fellow parishioners. A community attachment is formed.
A popular form of marriage prep is Catholic Engaged Encounter. Engaged couples attend a retreat with other engaged couples led by two trained married teams. The married teams give short presentations on a given topic, the engaged separate by gender to answer questions relating to the topic, then join their partners, exchange and read their partner’s notebooks and then discuss to answers. The disadvantage is that usually there is not enough time to delve deeply into the discussion, so couples are encouraged to continue the conversation after the retreat. The advantage to Engaged Encounter is that it allows engaged couples to meet with each other, and the marriage prep requirement is fulfilled over a weekend.
A third option that we are just beginning to explore is internet programs. One I highly recommend is out of the Diocese of Colorado Springs, which allows couples to go at their own pace with a trained mentor couple. This is a great alternative for military couples, those with difficult work schedules or who have other issues such as child care. The disadvantage is that there isn’t a tie with the local diocese or a parish, and there isn’t an opportunity to interact with other engaged couples.
Working with their pastor, the couple can help find the best program that fulfills their needs.
For a Catholic marriage, engaged couples also must attend a Natural Family Planning Introductory session. The Catholic Church advocates NFP as the only method of responsibly planning a family. The newest methods are as effective as any artificial birth control when properly used. I like to tell couples that just as they had to be taught how to drive a car, so they need to be taught how to effectively use NFP. There is a learning curve, but anything worth learning does take a little bit of time and practice. The Church teaches NFP because it respects the woman’s body in its natural state and doesn’t try to change it in any way. NFP also requires the couple to communicate almost daily about their family, their goals, and their particular life situation – all crucial conversations to have.
Ultimately, the goal of the Church is for couples to have successful, healthy marriages that honor Christ and bear witness to His love in the world. Each couple is called to be that sign. By building healthy marriages, couples build healthy families and strengthen their Church and community.
I like to tell engaged couples that the Church’s goal is this: “On your wedding day, most of you will have a first dance. The dance floor will be surrounded by your family and friends, and the 12-year-old girls will be swooning, saying, ‘Look how in love they are.’ But our goal, as your Church, is that at your 50th wedding anniversary party, as you are dancing, surrounded by your friends, children, grandchildren, you are more in love at that dance than the one at your wedding.” To get you to that point, the Church starts her journey with you by providing marriage prep that will help you to discern your marriage course.
Veola Burchett is director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Office of Marriage and Family.