BELLAIRE, Texas — Meeting with the wedding coordinator made it hit home. Like many young adults, Todd and Christa Chapman, both in their 20s, hadn’t attended Mass regularly during college. But when they started planning their wedding nearly three years ago, they realized they needed to get more involved in their faith.
“We did face the obstacle of saying, ‘We want to have a Catholic ceremony, so we need to be living what we say we believe in,’” said Christa, who lives with her husband in Bellaire, Texas. “It’s one thing to say I’m a Catholic, but it’s another to be a practicing Catholic.”
As Catholic marriage rates decline, many of the couples who do marry in the Church today are impacted by divorce and societal pressures, and some have been away from the Church as young adults.
“It’s almost like every couple has the window open for annulment because they don’t have a clue what they’re getting themselves into,” said Bill Coffin, a longtime marriage-education advocate from Silver Spring, Md., and executive director of the Institute for Development of Emotional and Life Skills, who helped pilot the Catholic marriage-preparation course “Mastering the Mysteries of Sacramental Love.”
In addressing the problems, U.S. bishops and marriage-education experts have pointed to a need for marriage catechesis among youth and have called for greater education and support for marriage along the entire continuum, from youth education to post-wedding marriage enrichment.
The Pontifical Council for the Family is preparing a document for presentation next year at the Seventh World Meeting for Families in Milan, Italy, that will offer practical applications for the formation of children, the instruction of engaged couples in the faith, and preparation of couples immediately before marriage.
Dioceses and organizations in the United States and around the world are responding to the need for marriage education with programs that reveal the beauty of the sacrament in the context of young people’s lives. From burgeoning youth education to courses and inventories for engaged couples to new online and programs, a variety of tools are available. In addition, there’s a new website initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (ForYourMarriage.org).
The Church’s role is pivotal to help couples, with all the societal components working against marriage, said Chris Codden, president of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers and director of the Office of Marriage and Family for the Diocese of Saint Cloud, Minn.
Good marriage preparation is necessary more than ever, given societal and family changes, said Redemptorist Father Robert Ruhnke of San Antonio, who developed the marriage-preparation program “For Better and Forever,” which enables couples to practice skills and learn about the impact of their family background on their own lives and relationships. “That’s exactly why marriage is in such big trouble in our society — because when people come out of more dysfunctional families, they have less appropriate skills [needed for marriage]. And when they don’t take the time to do really, really serious marriage preparation, then they’re pretty much going to do badly. You can predict that.”
The Diocese of San Bernardino, Calif., seeks to break this cycle with a five-year plan to promote marriage preparation and formation at all levels, said Maria Covarrubias, diocesan director of the Office of Catechetical Ministry. Since starting the program last year, the diocese has offered communication courses and a conference for youth, singles and engaged and married couples. The diocese also wants to include dating, discernment and marriage in its confirmation program, as well as offering more resources for engaged couples.
“By the time these couples come to do this marriage preparation, they have already made choices for their lives,” she said. “They come and ask for the sacrament of marriage sometimes not even really understanding what this entails for their life, for a lifelong commitment — that when we ask to get married by the Church we’re really asking for a way of life.”
While marriage-preparation requirements vary by diocese, some say not all are extensive or effective enough. “Priests … have eight years of training for their vocation, and most Catholic couples have eight hours of training for their vocation,” Coffin said. “What’s the relative importance of those two vocations in our Church?”
David and Kayla Meier of St. Paul, Minn., said they came to their marriage preparation with a fairly good understanding of the sacrament from their parents, catechesis and young-adult ministries. However, going through the weekend engaged retreat, and meetings with their pastor and a mentor couple required by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis helped the couple, both 26, to consider important issues and share experiences with a wide range of couples before they were married last year.
It also spurred on conversations they were having on their own, Kayla said. Marriage “was not just an idea anymore, but We’re really going to do this. It was a good opportunity to take it to heart.”
Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.