By now it's an accepted truism: Most American couples walking down the aisle today spent untold hours and dollars organizing their weddings — and very little time, if any, getting ready for their marriages.
Talk about misplaced priorities.
“In Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), Pope John Paul II talks about how, in order to show the world that the sacraments are real and do bring about sanctification, we need to make sure our couples prepare properly for the sacrament of marriage,” says David Walker, director of the marriage and family life office in the Archdiocese of Denver.
It's up to the Church, he adds, to give Catholic couples access to “all the tools they need to live this out in the post-Christian culture we live in.”
One such tool his office employs, a video-and-workbook set titled God's Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage (Ascension Press), is the first of three required programs for Denver's engaged couples. Christopher West, Denver's first marriage and family life director, put it together based on John Paul's theology of the body.
Tool No. 2 is a course in natural family planning taught by the Couple to Couple League. Not a few Denver couples have been known to enter this phase skeptically, or even cynically, yet come out beaming.
“My husband, Tim, and I came back into the Church because of our NFP experience,” says Alia Keys of Denver.
“I was panicky about natural family planning; I had a very contraceptive mentality before that class,” she continues, explaining Tim was a cradle Catholic, she a “disgruntled” Catholic.
“Neither of us understood the Eucharist,” she says. “Then we took our NFP classes and all of a sudden the scales fell from our eyes. We started going back to church on a regular basis.”
Their conversion has been complete: Today they're NFP teachers, and Alia recently became Denver's coordinator of the marriage and family life office.
To director Walker's knowledge, while some dioceses have strong NFP programs and some parishes require couples to take the course, Denver is still the only diocese in the country that mandates natural family planning instruction for all its engaged couples.
Walker says statistics show that nothing can safeguard a marriage against divorce as effectively as natural family planning: The highest divorce rate his office could find for couples practicing natural family planning was 4% to 5% — compared with the 50% average across the United States.
“Natural family planning really builds stronger, healthier marriages,” he says.
Another distinctive part of Denver's marriage-preparation program lets couples take all but NFP classes over the Internet.
Sarah Reeves and her fiancé, Andrew Nunlist-Young, felt more open discussing questions during their recent online course. After both graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder, she was in living in Massachusetts and he in Utah.
“The online course gave us a chance to gather our own views, to go over the readings and to pull our thoughts together before talking about them with one another,” Reeves explains. “I had to take some time to think where I was on an issue.”
The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston promotes natural family planning with similar gusto, says Winnie Honeywell, director of family life ministry.
“We have a guideline that says every couple of childbearing age must take an information session or a course,” she says. But the course isn't mandated for the couples.
Honeywell clarifies that Galveston-Houston's overall marriage preparation is not a program but a “perspective, a schema” that, in accord with John Paul's 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, treats marriage preparation as a lifelong process.
Five diocesan offices worked together to articulate this perspective, publishing the fruit of their cooperation as a manual in 2003. Today the diocese uses the manual to advance the marriage-prep program in a number of different diocesan programs. For example, the youth office has added workshops on dating and the perils of cohabitation.
“When we get young couples coming straight into marriage prep, they're already formed by the culture as much as by the Church,” Honeywell says. “You can't start talking about cohabitation [out of the blue] and expect to have a whole lot of effect. You have to talk early on about how everything fits together — marriage, chastity, the importance of covenant relationships and the dangers of cohabitation.”
The familial vision of John Paul II is also important in the family-life office of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., according to Robert Laird, its director.
“We're trying to speak the language of John Paul in marriage prep — which is actually his New Evangelization,” he says. “We're taking what he's saying and applying it.
“In Familiaris Consortio, Paragraph 33, John Paul calls natural family planning something else — really, fertility awareness,” he adds. “Teaching a couple about their fertility and the virtuous application of natural family planning is also what Paul VI defines in Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth) as responsible parenthood.”
Laird continues: “When couples ask what is natural family planning, I say it's fertility awareness. And the virtuous application of natural family planning is responsible parenthood, which is really an application of what John Paul calls the theology of the family. That's how we teach it in our marriage-prep weekend conferences.”
Mike and Kyle Boeglin of Arlington know it works.
“We were planning to use birth control,” Kyle Boeglin says. But three weeks before their wedding at St. Paul's in Bloomington, Ind., they were introduced to natural family planning, learned the basics and, shortly after, took the full course when they moved to Arlington.
“It had such an effect on us, and it's so wonderful for our marriage,” Boeglin says. “We love our Catholic faith and natural family planning has helped us embrace it.”
It didn't take long for the practice to pay off. “On our honeymoon we were fertile and we had to decide whether to embrace natural family planning for all it was,” she says. “And we did.”
This year the Boeglins, like the Keys in Denver, began teaching an NFP class.
“We consider ourselves everyday people, average 20-somethings, and we felt we could relate to other people our age,” Boeglin says.
The Boeglins now work with the Lairds, giving their witness at marriage-prep conferences.
“We've been so blessed by being NFP teachers,” Boeglin says. “It reaffirms our faith and it's a marriage booster to us.”
And it has born another big blessing already — their 5-month-old son, Joseph.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.