BALTIMORE — Pope Francis called for a new vision and reform of marriage formation in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. But in candid comments last week, the Holy Father appeared to give family-life offices worldwide a stark assessment that marriage preparation today is a substantial failure, when he controversially suggested many sacramental marriages today are null.  

For diocesan and parish marriage-prep coordinators who have not read Amoris Laetitia, the Pope’s message was a not-so-subtle hint that they should get cracking on learning its lessons and applying them to their situation. The reform of marriage formation that Pope Francis calls for will require dioceses to retool their approaches to a missionary model “going out to where people are” and scrapping an approach that serves “small and select groups.” Instead, Pope Francis, in the apostolic exhortation, sees the parish having the main role in the “pastoral care of families,” based on the call from the bishops who participated in the two-year synod on the family process for “a greater effort on the part of the whole Christian community in preparing those who are about to be married.”

The grand vision for a new model of marriage formation is heavily steeped in the Church’s principle of subsidiarity, where the parish is ground zero for pastors, pastoral workers and experienced married mentor couples to build relationships with the couples and help them grow in love as they approach marriage. Marriage-preparation programs need to integrate couples into the life of the parish, where they can learn the benefits to their marriage that come from having family spirituality and prayer and participation in the Eucharist on Sundays.

The Pope sees the parish as a place where pastoral accompaniment continues as couples take their first married steps together and where they can find resources and support they need as they grow or encounter challenges.

 

Seeking the Right Balance

Christian Meert, director of the Office of Family Life for the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Colo., told the Register that he agrees with the Pope’s assessment: that the way marriage preparation is generally structured needs to change.

“Our hope is that it is the last nail in the coffin of the one-day, overcrowded classes,” he said.

Many of today’s engaged couples, he said, do not understand the faith or the sacrament as couples generally did 40 or 50 years ago.

Due to this fact, he said it is helpful that the exhortation outlines how to evangelize engaged couples and “outlines a whole program of what they should go through — but with one step at a time.”

“We have to find the right balance of: How much can they take? How much time can they devote to marriage prep, and what do they need to start? I think that’s what the Pope is saying, too,” he said.

Meert said the plan is to strengthen the mentor-couple component of live classes and online classes at CatholicMarriagePrep.com. Mentor couples are a feature of the “Ministry to the Newly Married” program that Meert’s organization, Agape Catholic Ministries, provides parishes looking to strengthen newly married couples in the first five years of marriage. The witness of older married couples allows the engaged to see another married couple that has their own flaws and has faced joys and challenges of life together. In addition, personal stories can assure newlyweds that “we all went through the process.”

“It is nice for an engaged couple to be in dialogue with a married couple, one-on-one, where they can ask any question they want,” Meert said. Having those mentor relationships after the wedding can develop a bedrock network for couples as they seek how to put the Church’s teaching into practice in their lives.  

 

Laying the Groundwork

At the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Edward Herrera, the director of marriage and family life, told the Register that the archdiocese has been focusing for the past four months on how marriage and family life can be a time of evangelization. They are looking at how the archdiocese and parishes can work together to concretely implement Amoris Laetitia at the parish level.

The archdiocese is looking at putting more efforts into divorce recovery and supporting children of divorce, as well as working with the Vocations Office to give seminarians in-depth pastoral training in the issues raised by Pope Francis. The archdiocese is also piloting in the parishes “Witness to Love,” a parish-based marriage-prep renewal program that uses mentor couples chosen by couples that meet the approval of the pastor and evangelize the engaged.

“If RCIA is the way in which individuals are welcomed into the Catholic community, I think that’s the same way we ought to look at marriage preparation, where we are walking with the couple, [helping them to] enter more deeply into their relationship with one another and their relationship with Christ,” Herrera added.

He also liked the Pope’s challenge to couples to have the courage to opt for a “more modest and simple celebration” and reject the consumerist expectations of the wedding industry that may discourage couples with fewer economic means from getting married. He noted that the archdiocese already has had parishes where Hispanic priests celebrate multiple couples getting married together — most of them convalidations.

“There are still the ways the Church can lead and say, ‘No, it doesn’t have to be this huge, several-thousand-dollar celebration, but it can be more simple and fix our gaze on what the sacrament is all about,” he said.   

In the San Francisco Archdiocese, the groundwork is being laid for a discussion on Amoris Laetitia. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone is preparing a short series of longer reflections that will run in the archdiocesan paper.

Mike Brown, the archdiocese’s communications director, told the Register that the archdiocese has already been taking stock of the results from the survey it conducted before the synod on the family and discussing how to respond to those challenges.

The survey noted that just 42% of respondents thought marriage preparation was effective, while 41% said they “don’t know.”

Brown added that an upcoming archdiocesan conference in September, “Together in Holiness,” “will undoubtedly rely quite a bit on the apostolic exhortation.”   

 

Update and Renewal

The Archdiocese of New York is undergoing a comprehensive process of updating and renewing marriage ministry, in response to a directive from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, one of the U.S. participants in the synod on the family.

Kathleen Wither, director of the archdiocesan Family Life/Respect Life Office, told the Register that Amoris Laetitia came right in the middle of discussions that will conclude this month.

“We’ll probably be focusing on Chapters Four, Five and Six, as we look at both content and delivery,” she said.

Chapter Four covers marital love and features the Pope’s deep dive into St. Paul’s hymn to love in First Corinthians — a favorite of Catholic weddings — that explains how each verse shows the sacrificial character of true love, not sentiment. Chapter Five covers married love through the different stages of parenting and helping children grow in freedom and virtue.

Chapter Six contains many of the Pope’s pastoral suggestions for marriage ministry: particularly in making marriage formation a time to evangelize the couples, provide them older married couples as mentors and teach them how to pray together routinely since, “the family that prays together stays together.”

The Archdiocese of New York is planning a priest study day, where Msgr. Leslie Ivers, director of ongoing priest formation, is preparing to lead priests  through an overview of the apostolic exhortation. Part of the discussions will explore what marriage preparation needs today and how to provide ongoing support to newly married couples.

“We have been looking at some marriage-mentor models as part of our approach to building and strengthening of marriage,” Wither said. She noted that the “Witness to Love” organization also came to the archdiocese in April to give a presentation to a working committee of priests and lay marriage-ministry leaders.

Wither explained that archdiocesan staff are currently discussing a number of options and enhancements, including greater online programming and processes, and incorporating the “Prepare-Enrich” and “Catholic Couple Checkup” online relationship inventories into the programming. She sees marriage preparation as an iterative process that they will continue to enhance, year over year, in progressive stages.

“At our current stage, we delineated three goals for our new marriage-prep program,” she said. “The first one was getting the couples to participate in the Sunday Eucharist; our second one was ensuring they are welcomed and become engaged with their parish; and the third one was assuring that they develop the virtues and have the tools to help them live their vocation joyously and generously.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.