A Preparation for Love
Couples preparing for marriage today face many challenges. Michael Phelan, director of marriage and respect life for the Diocese of Phoenix and a member of Father Marcel Salinas Council 11536, is well aware of the daunting landscape: Mass attendance is declining, the cohabitation rate is rising, and an increasing number of children are growing up in single-parent homes.
“In many ways, young people receive an ‘anti-preparation’ for marriage. The cultural air they breathe hardly fosters lifelong commitments,” said Phelan.
These could be discouraging realities, yet Phelan has a different perspective. Approximately 1,000 couples each year take the marriage preparation program offered by the Phoenix Diocese.
“Those who come to us and are working toward marriage have made good decisions,” he said. “I have tremendous hope.”
COVENANT OF LOVE
Marriage preparation is usually understood to be a formal course that couples take during their engagement. St. John Paul II, however, invited the Church to adopt a broader understanding of what preparing for marriage means. In his 1981 apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, he asked the faithful to commit resources to the task of marriage preparation that is both “gradual and continuous” in order to foster strong and healthy marriages (66).
Following John Paul II’s lead, the Pontifical Council for the Family released a document in 1996 titled Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage. It emphasized that everyone has a stake in preparing and educating those called to marriage, since marriage is not only for the good of the couple, but also for all of society. Moreover, the goal of marriage preparation for Christians is essentially a “discovery of the ‘Christian mystery,’” a faith rooted in Christ (PSM, 25).
In practice, this preparation unfolds in three stages: remote, proximate and immediate. Remote preparation is the encounter with Christ in one’s family, receiving an education in the faith and forming healthy friendships as one matures. Catechesis continues during the proximate preparation phase, during which a couple discerns that they are called to the vocation of marriage. The couple learns about the mystery of the sacrament of marriage and the grace of Christ, as well as responsible parenthood. Immediate preparation involves opportunities for prayer, reception of the sacrament of reconciliation and plans for the wedding liturgy.
The Pontifical Council for the Family called for the entire diocese to be involved in offering preparation support, since many parishes lack the resources to run complete programs on their own.
“In 2010, we began a process of changing marriage preparation to more adequately reflect John Paul II’s developments,” explained Phelan. “It is called ‘Covenant of Love,’ and it is now a nine-month process from the time the couple contacts the parish to the wedding date.”
The program consists of three components: a married life skills class; a “mini-catechumenate” similar to Engaged Encounter that cultivates communication and evangelization; and a one-day intensive class on the sacramentality of marriage and natural family planning.
According to Phelan, this model is bearing good fruit. After taking the courses, 43 percent of cohabiting couples said they will live separately before marriage, while the majority of couples said they will definitely use NFP in their marriage.
“We then keep the last two months prior to the wedding free in order to allow time for their immediate preparation prayer with each other, preparing the liturgy with their pastor and the reception of reconciliation,” said Phelan.
Haley and David Hernandez of Phoenix are one couple that completed this course. “I was apprehensive about the ‘rules’ of the Church,” recalled Haley. “We were already living together before our wedding and did not want to be judged. Yet Mike and his team presented their message with love, humor, compassion and facts. My heart was changed from within. All of the presenters were humble and real the priest was amazing. It made me cry because I wanted an exceptional marriage.”
Gradually, Haley’s relationship with the Church and her fiancé grew into one of trust. “The course helped me understand our vocation,” she continued. “We chose to move apart until the wedding took place.”
Other marriage preparation initiatives have seen similar success. Pavel Reid, director of the Office of Life, Marriage & Family for the Archdiocese of Vancouver, British Columbia, is also committed to deepening and broadening the marriage classes offered to parishioners.
Simply presenting information in an attractive way is working, noted Reid, who is a member of Coquitlam (British Columbia) Council 5540. “We increased the amount of time spent on NFP and theology of the body from approximately two hours to six.”
The results? Requests for complete one-on-one training in various NFP methods increased from 5 percent to more than 20 percent in one year.
Originally from Trinidad, Lisa and Dominic Price have been assisting Reid as NFP teachers in the Vancouver area for the past two years. Lisa had heard of NFP as a teenager, but it was during preparation for her own wedding that she actually learned what it really meant. “I was so amazed by it,” she recalled, “that I knew I wanted this to be my ministry to other couples.”
Dominic added, “I tell each engaged man that he has an amazing and unique opportunity to know the wonder of his wife’s fertility to know her intimately in a way no other person will ever know her. This really resonates with them. This is something the couples want.”
CHRIST: THE FOUNDATION
Just as marriage is much more than the wedding day, marriage preparation must be understood “as a journey of faith that continues throughout family life” (PSM, 16). Jason and Elise Angelette, co-directors of the Faith & Marriage Ministry of the Willwoods Community in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, bear witness to this farsighted approach. Weekend-long enrichment retreats are offered year-round to married couples, and marriage enrichment becomes an extension of preparation, another opportunity to meet Christ and deepen one’s faith.
“Enrichment cannot be reduced to a set of communication tools,” noted Jason, who belongs to Mary, Queen of Peace Council 12072 in Mandeville, La. “No one builds a house on a toolbox. You build a house on a foundation. As a sacrament, the foundation of marriage is Christ.”
Through the enrichment retreats, couples are given the chance to pray together often for the first time in their marriages. “This opens them to a level of intimacy they have never known,” said Elise. “It renews their marriage and family relationships.”
Reaction to a couple going on retreat is often one of embarrassment, assuming the couple is having trouble.
“This is what we want to change,” said Jason. “Going on retreat with your spouse is something really healthy.”
In addition, the Angelettes have also witnessed the encouragement that couples receive when they realize it is normal to face problems and that there is an entire community to support them.
“We need the parish, we need the sacraments,” emphasized Jason. “This is where we meet each other.”
In many cases, Jason added, participating couples come back to lead retreats themselves as a way of giving back to the community.
Moreover, the renewed emphasis on marriage preparation and marriage enrichment brings with it an emphasis on youth and education within the family. The Diocese of Phoenix, for instance, has begun offering a leadership course for high school students that is focused on St. John Paul II’s catechesis on human love.
“This is something concrete that can be put on a résumé application for college, but is also very formative,” noted Phelan.
There are likewise efforts to provide catechesis to parents, so that they will be better prepared to share with their children the Church’s teachings regarding marriage and family.
Citing John Paul II’s 1994 Letter to Families, the Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage document reminds us that parents are “the first and most important educators of their own children … they are educators because they are parents” (28, emphasis in original).
It is here that marriage preparation comes full circle, equipping families to carry out the “remote” preparation for marriage.
“We can’t immediately measure these results,” said Reid, “but they are contributing to this ‘remote’ preparation the Church asks of us in order to support marriage and families.”
Those working in marriage preparation are eagerly anticipating further guidance from the Church following the upcoming synod of bishops on the pastoral care of the family.
“I am really looking forward to a concrete plan to continue following. Guidelines are immensely helpful,” said Phelan. “Pope Francis has reminded us that anywhere there is a baptized person we have all the resources we need to overcome any difficulties.”
In the end, all of these initiatives have one common goal: to make Christ tangible for every marriage, and thereby transform culture. After working with hundreds of married couples, the Angelettes see one common thread: “Christ is the game changer,” said Jason. “If a couple has Christ, they can face anything.”
COLLEEN ROULEAU writes from Edmonton, Alberta.