LOS ANGELES — Marriage and family are themes Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized in his pontificate, especially in recent months, calling for the Church to invite couples to experience the joy of God’s plan for marriage and family “with a pastoral ministry that is intelligent, courageous and full of love.”
Catholic dioceses across the United States are hoping to start married couples off on the right foot, as marriage-preparation courses take on new structures and methods in order to adapt to a changing culture.
For one thing, diocesan leaders recognize that people’s backgrounds in the faith and experiences with marriage are very different than they were 40 years ago. In general, couples are marrying at older ages,some are already living together when they approach the Church for the sacrament, and they’re not formed or informed by the Church’s teaching.
Flexibility Is Key
Marriage-prep programs discuss both the sacrament of matrimony, but also other key topics, such as communication, finances, intimacy, decision-making, natural family planning (NFP) and others. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the programs have a critical focus on what it calls “family of origin”: namely, how each person in the couple has his and her own perspectives and expectations of marriage and growing up in a family that are uniquely formed by their own experiences.
Candy Metoyer, the archdiocese’s English-language coordinator for marriage preparation, marriage enrichment and natural family planning, said that when couples go through marriage prep, it typically involves a full day of marriage preparation, although some programs stagger the preparation over three to four meetings. But Metoyer said having the couples discuss their own “family of origin” is a “tremendous eye-opener” and key to their program’s success, because it gets them to communicate to each other their respective points of view on marriage and family.
“We all have pictures in our mind of how life should be, and it begins in our family of origin,” she said.
But the key to this knowledge is that they can take the best of their family experiences and have the freedom to chart a new course for the new family the couple will form in marriage.
“What we’re already seeing is that once they see that and understand that, then they have choices,” she said. “They get to talk about that, and then they can choose how they want their new family of origin to be.”
Adaptability is key in presenting the Church’s marriage preparation to different cultures. Graciela Villalobos, the archdiocese’s Spanish coordinator for marriage enrichment and natural family planning, said the “Y Seran Los Dos Uno Solo” program is designed to communicate the Church’s teaching to Latinos through the lens of Hispanic culture. But Villabos explained the same flexibility was evident in the archdiocese creating a marriage-prep class specifically geared toward couples who are already civilly married or are living in common-law arrangements and have children.
“We include parenting in the second program,” she said. “It covers areas that are the same [as the other program], but it has a different perspective and different approach.”
Both Metoyer and Villalobos shared that pastors at several churches in the archdiocese have been successful at inviting couples in their parishes, particularly those living together with children, to go through this program and then get married in the church by hosting a group wedding once or twice a year. They said the parishes take on the normal expense of hosting a wedding and reception, so that these costs associated with getting married do not discourage people from seeking the sacrament.
Shift to Inspirational Model
For the Diocese of Arlington in Virginia, a big shift in its marriage preparation over the last five years has been from simply presenting the Church’s teaching to actively inspiring couples to learn more.
“We want to inspire them to want to put Jesus at the center of their lives,” said Thérèse Bermpohl, director of the Office for Family Life.
Bermpohl said they made a conscious decision to craft marriage-prep programs and presentations with the aim of “inspiring” couples to go deeper into the Church’s teachings and draw closer to Jesus Christ. She added that they have been experimenting with doing classes over three nights on three different weeks in the southern part of the diocese.
Bermpohl said her office is an extension of the bishop’s ministry and is very committed to helping couples get married and resolving any difficulties they may encounter in their situation.
“In our diocese, we say: 'Call us,'” she said.
21st-Century Marriage Prep
Frank Hannigan, director of marriage ministries at the Archdiocese of Chicago, says the Church needs to bring marriage prep into the 21st century to engage the Millennial generation.
The archdiocese has taken its marriage preparation online with CatholicMarriagePrepClass.com. The eight-hour class involves a wide array of Catholic teachers speaking in video format and is customizable to a variety of situations. It can be done by a couple over a weekend or drawn out for a longer period of time. The site also has an optional “Learn NFP Online” course that is taught by graduates from the University of Notre Dame.
“With an online program, you can keep going over it all for a whole year,” Hannigan said.
Hannigan said that marriages are the lifeblood of the Church, and particularly the parish, and they have to “make it as easy as possible” for people to get the preparation they need to get married. He pointed out three big reasons why the Church needs to make sure its marriage resources are easily accessible online: one, because the Millennial generation is actively engaged on smart phones, tablets and the Internet; two, first responders, medical professionals and people in the service industry (who could be afraid of losing their jobs by asking for time off) need the added flexibility; and three, in today’s culture, couples need more opportunity for study and review.
“This one lady wrote back to me, ‘You were our last hope,’” he said, recounting the story of a woman who needed marriage prep and had only a limited window to get married, as her fiancé was engaged in combat in Afghanistan.
Hannigan said the program has more accountability than a normal marriage-prep program. Each section has questions that must be answered by the couple via email. When the couple answers the pre-marital inventory, a copy also goes to their parish priest or deacon.
“That way, they’re all prepared for that first meeting,” he said, with the clergy.
Hannigan explained that only when they score 80% or higher on the questions can a couple receive a certificate of completion. That indicates they have addressed pertinent issues at stake for a successful Catholic marriage.
Christian Meert, founder of Agape Catholic Ministries, said he would like to see diocesan marriage ministries move their programs more toward a personal approach that builds a lasting relationship between the engaged couple and the Church.
“What we have to do is know who they are and talk to them as a unique couple,” Meert said.
Meert recommends that dioceses reconsider relying on a one-day, one-size-fits-all model of group marriage preparation, because it does not “give [couples] enough time” to prepare for their marriage. He also pointed out that many couples seeking marriage in the Church are not formed in the Church’s teaching and cannot receive “more than they can accept” at one time.
He’d like to see more parishes connect the engaged with mentor couples to help them prepare for marriage. “It takes time [to form a couple], and they need mentor couples who are well-formed also,” he said.
Meert’s Agape Ministries has an online marriage-prep program with a mentorship component that takes at least 20 hours to complete, putting the average time of completion between six weeks to a few months.
Meert pointed out that, unfortunately, most couples signing up for the course are already living together. But couples want to stay married forever, and they’re open to high standards, which makes them receptive to embracing the Church's teaching.
He said their longer marriage prep program has found couples really do respond positively to the Church’s vision for marriage. A survey of 1,000 couples going through Agape’s CatholicMarriagePrep.com in 2013 showed that 77% decided they would practice abstinence before marriage, and 65% said they would practice NFP in marriage.
“Marriage prep,” Meert said, “is a window open to conversion.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.