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Weak Marriage Preparation Fuels the Vocations Crisis

young couple on benchArticles relating to the sanctity of marriage have been churning out from Catholic media sources recently. The identity of marriage as between a man and a woman has been outlined and explained. Volumes have been written about the sacredness of sex and the scandal of contraception.

Catholic couples with even limited exposure to Catholic media know that contraception is wrong, that the potential spouse needs to be a different gender for the marriage to be valid, and that they should wait until marriage to engage in sexual relations.

While the prohibitions are clear, marriage preparation fails to instruct couples in what they should be doing once they get married. Matrimony is its own sacrament, so it must be important and holy. But those are vague concepts. What do they mean?

Very little, if any, material on how a couple ought to practically utilize the graces of marriage for the salvation of themselves and each other is given in many marriage preparation programs. My husband and I had a disappointing experience with Pre-Cana in our diocese. It seemed as long as basics such as communication, primary financial skills and defining abusive behaviors were covered in a Saturday afternoon retreat, attendees were considered prepared for a lifetime vocation and ready to effectively evangelize and raise the next generation of the faithful.

My observation is not meant to minimize the efforts of those who write on the sanctity of marriage and associated issues. In our morally-compromised society, their witness is desperately needed. There are too many people completely unaware of what the Church teaches on these issues and they need to be reached. The problem is that this written evangelization alone is often treated like comprehensive marriage preparation. Reading a book or a few articles is insufficient for actually building strong marriages.

Another problem is that vocations to marriage tend to be treated as “default vocations” for those of us not “holy” enough to be called into the priesthood or religious life. If one looks at diocesan vocations resources, there are tons of formation programs, vocation fairs, and weekend retreats aimed at recruiting young people for the priesthood and religious life. My experience being educated in Catholic schools and participating in parish youth programs gave me plenty of exposure. No resources were aimed at preparing young people for marriage.

I understand that there are shortages and that we need new priests and religious desperately. Church programs that encourage religious vocations have been formed in response to a crisis. Nevertheless the church will not gain new religious and priests if she does not cultivate fertile ground of the family in which religious vocations grow. It seems strange that the Church has devoted so much time and energy to harvesting religious vocations from existent marriages, yet spends so little preparing marriages that are just beginning.

To put it bluntly, the marriage formation programs seem to be lower priority than encouraging religious vocations. When my husband and I started marriage preparation, I hoped that we would cover new ground with our pastor. I wanted learn more about what the sacrament of matrimony entailed, and hopefully be formed in a way that would deepen my relationship with my fiancé. I wanted to be challenged and gain insight into the areas where I needed to grow.

Our pastor basically told us that we were both from “good families” and there was nothing he could teach us. Diocesan formation was no better. There was nothing about what marriage is or means as a sacrament, very little spiritual formation and no counseling or individual direction of any kind. We had hoped to hear Theology of the Body or Humanae Vitae at least mentioned. Instead we were offered vague “relationship skills.” It was a set of skills for damage control when things get rocky, at best. It was fluff-laden, empty platitudes at worst.

Going through marriage prep felt as if we were there to fill a requirement and nothing more. It felt like the diocese was saying, “Show up, sit still for a few hours while we spout general good advice , and we’ll give you a certificate so that we can say that we taught you something.”

Contrast my marriage preparation experience with the support and years of formation that priests and religious receive before ordination or final vows. Regardless of their prior knowledge of the faith or their personal prayer life, a priest or religious must undergo formation with a spiritual director. They are directed to find mentors who have been living as religious that can help guide their growth. They are required to study practical skills needed in their vocations as well as undergoing spiritual formation. They are made to understand that what they are attempting to undergo is a life-long commitment, and they are given the tools to live their commitments.

I talked to other couples we know who were preparing for marriage and heard similar stories to ours. One couple we knew drove for four hours to attend a Pre-Cana retreat, only to suffer through a two-hour talk on the symbolism of unity candles. Another couple we know walked out on a similar retreat half-way through, disgusted. This couple, like us, was also told by their priest that there was nothing he could really teach them, that they also came from apparently “good families”, and he assumed that they were ready.

I am by no means encouraging years-long engagement periods, but I do think that there ought to be more serious formation before marriage. It should involve prayer, spiritual direction, and direct teaching of Church doctrine. Priests also need to have the courage to help a couple discern if they are, in fact, called to this vocation. Couples need to work with their pastors to identify possible problems in preparation for the daily challenges of living together. Marriage is a serious, life-long vocation, and deserves treatment as such.

Defending the sanctity of marriage is important, and I am grateful to those who undertake the effort. There are many who need to hear the beautiful truth of the Church’s teaching on marriage. I will say, however, that defending the sanctity of marriage might be easier if we as a Church held marriage in higher regard. We must take the formation of our families more seriously from the very beginning, and actively nurture what we defend. The vocation of marriage deserves equal dignity to religious in preparation, formation, and guidance because it has an equal and complementary importance in the life of the Church.


Emily Hess is a recently married twenty-something woman with a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a hunger for the Truth.  She has worked as an intern for the Marriage and Family Life office in her diocese, and graduated from the only Catholic university in Oklahoma: St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee.  She resides with her husband in beautiful South Texas.
  • Florian

    Nov. 17th. I’ve been saying for a long, long time that the programs to prepare couples for marriage are totally inadequate so reading your article gave me hope. As I read I realized that Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis have written and spoken beautiful about the dignity and sacredness of the marriage covenant but they can’t go out and develop programs in individual parishes. Pope Francis stated recently that he thought perhaps 90% of marriages are invalid – why? Because couples are not adequately prepared to know and understand what it means to make an eternal covenant with one’s spouse, one’s God and one’s Church. As you say, Priests and Religious have years of preparation before taking final vows or being ordained. There should be a year long marriage formation/preparation in each diocese. Many who want to be married in the Church have not even attended Mass since their Confirmation, and have no intention of doing so after marriage. I gave talks to a large group of teens preparing to be confirmed and learned that the majority had not been to Mass or the Sacraments since their First Holy Communion and did not intend to participate in the Sacramental life of the Church after being confirmed. I spoke with the Priest in charge about this and suggested that those who said this should not be confirmed until they were ready and able to make a real mature commitment to their faith. Father X told me that they would be confirmed so as to move things along. So it’s no wonder so many couples are not at all prepared for Sacramental – Covental marriage. Couples like you and your husband could help greatly if you could find other couples like you and form some kind of a formation program for you Dioceses – or at least for your local parish. There are so few Priests now and they have their hands and schedules full…but well formed, happily married couples could take this on – you have the experience and the knowledge born of that experience that you could share. The vocation of sacramental marriage is the foundation for all other vocations. But we don’t make that known, I will be praying that God will inspire you…St. Pope John Paul II will surely help you…peace and God’s blessings..

  • Micha Elyi

    Any bishop or pastor whose marriage prep starts when a couple announces their engagement to him has failed.

    Marriage prep for this generation begins with the catechesis of their parents as children. It continues with the homilies about the holy vocation of marriage, the moral and practical advice, those children hear as they grow up. It continues further with their pre-Cana catechesis and contemplation, their wedding, the spiritual and material support the newlyweds receive from the parish as a whole, the baptism of their children, and the in-home and Church instruction their children receive, their confirmation, and their post-confirmation catechesis their children receive about the holy vocations of sacred marriage and sacred orders.

    After all that, the children, now young adults, are ready for formal parish “marriage prep” (as it is commonly understood today) to begin.

    • Emily Kimmel

      I agree. The start of formation should begin in the home as children- this is true of all vocations.

      The problem is that the Pre-Cana programs will sometimes assume that this pre-formation has taken place without seeking to find out if it has, or will assume it hasn’t, throw some basic generic ‘truths’ out there, and then move the candidates along without bothering to see if anything stuck.

      I’m sure that there are good programs out there, but I think they tend to be rare.

    • Thomas Sharpe

      As my wife and I being promoters for NFP to a marriage prep program, I totally agree. You can’t “start”, talking about what NFP means to marriage to couples total focused on the Wedding Day.

  • Thomas Sharpe

    It is strange that Clergy have devoted so much time to Vocations to the Priesthood, and so little to Vocation to Marriage. Where do priests come from?

    Even more, it is strange, very strange, for the Clergy to focus so much attention and money on Catholic Schools, especially high schools, when these schools only educate a minority of Catholic children, and are pretty much limited to upper middle class with 1 or 2 children (through contraception). While married who practice NFP and are open to life, and have 3 or 4 children or more, are left out in the cold, and have only a bare bones CCD program to support their educating their children in the faith. Vocations to the priesthood not only come from families, they come from families that are faithful.

  • Truth Seeker

    What a bunch of whining. You people are just getting married. Big deal. Some people take themselves too seriously.