If a Catholic man needs several years of theological training to become a priest, does it make sense for a Catholic couple to get married with only a day of formal preparation? Both Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony are vocations and lifelong commitments. Both are sacraments. Both the priest and the spouses are called to be “parents,” whether biological or spiritual.
But are Catholic couples being sufficiently prepared for marriage?
That question will no doubt come up as the world’s bishops gather at the Vatican this fall. Pope Francis has called for a special meeting of the Synod of Bishops in October to discuss problems facing the family today, especially in the context of evangelization.
There’s been a renewed urgency to respond to the breakdown of family life, the soaring rates of unwed births and the redefinition of marriage. Since the culture no longer supports reverence and permanence in marriage, those who prepare couples in the Church realize that more than a one-day Pre-Cana program is needed.
“Twenty-five to 30 years ago we didn’t worry whether the couple knew their Catholic faith or not. The assumption was that couples understood the importance of Church and Mass and baptizing their kids and all the pieces involved in having a stable marriage,” said Chris Codden, director of the Office of Marriage and Family in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn. “We don’t see that anymore.”
Before preparing for marriage, many couples need to learn the basics of the faith. “We’re trying to help couples reflect on what the Church says on issues, especially Humanae Vitae, and what makes a marriage,” said Codden of the diocesan program .
Christian Meert sees a similar situation in Colorado. Not only do couples have a “very shallow understanding” of what the Church teaches, they are deeply affected by the culture and its relativist, subjectivist attitudes, said Meert, who with his wife, Christine, directs the Diocese of Colorado Springs Office of Marriage and Family Life .
“Right now, the only thing we have are subjective truths. If I like it, if I feel good about it, I do it. What was wrong yesterday is not wrong today,” he said. “Abortion was wrong 41 years ago; now it’s legal and even subsidized by the government. Smoking pot was wrong last year in Colorado until Dec. 31. Now it’s legal.”
But he believes young people “long for something that is the unchanging truth, which society can’t offer — an objective, unchanging truth.”
Codden and Meert both spearheaded new marriage preparation programs to answer the needs of modern couples. They are only two of many new programs used by dioceses around the country. Many are also offered online, as some couples are preparing for marriage while geographically dispersed.
One of the most demanding new programs is in the Diocese of Phoenix , where couples must go through a nine-month process that includes spiritual formation, sacramental preparation and practical training. Engaged couples take a pre-Cana type course, followed by a basic theology of the body course, followed by instruction in natural family planning.
According to Mike Phelan, director of the diocese’s Marriage and Respect Life Department, “By the time this is over almost 60 percent tell us they plan to live out NFP in their marriage, which is game-changing because NFP couples don’t divorce.”
Kari Colella, coordinator of marriage ministries in the Archdiocese of Boston, recently launched a new marriage prep program, “Transformed in Love: Building Your Catholic Marriage .”
“The program begins primarily with human formation to provide the couples with practical relevant tools and information on a natural, relational level,” according to the program’s website. “As the program progresses, religious concepts are introduced in an effort to build the supernatural upon the natural — grace building upon nature.”
In August 2013, the archdiocese published Transformed in Love with Pauline Books & Media so that it could be shared with other parishes and dioceses.
The Archdiocese of Chicago recently launched online marriage prep and NFP introduction programs .
“It’s phenomenally popular. It’s given Catholic couples an opportunity to get married in the Church when they didn’t think they had an opportunity,” said Frank Hannigan, the archdiocese’s family life director. “Research says that 90 percent of engaged couples go to the website first before they would ever attend a parish.”
Like others interviewed, Hannigan spoke of the need to address such issues as cohabitation well before the thought of marriage arises. “We need to talk about these things to students in high school and college,” he said.
Codden, in Minnesota, believes that a good way to do that is by making presentations on the theology of the body in high school catechism classes. “It contains great wisdom on helping us answer people’s question about ‘Why’ instead of just ‘What am I supposed to do?’ We need to bring that down to our high school students and help them to reason why the Church has this system. It’s not just a set of rules; there is some great beauty in that.”
The Meerts’ program is “mentor-led” by a couple who are living a faithful Catholic marriage. “It’s important that the mentors live what they teach,” he said. “Then the engaged couples can relate to them. They’ll say, ‘They’re normal people and they follow the teaching of the Church.’”
Ultimately, said Meert, the goal is not only to prepare couples for marriage but to make sure they become part of a parish. “They have to feel they belong to a parish and at the same time the universal Church. That’s where the marriage enrichment takes place.” That enrichment, he stressed, “has to start right away with newlywed couples, not when they are in crisis.”