Here’s the Main Thing Missing From Marriage Prep
An engaged couple going through marriage prep at our church was on the phone. The bride called to tell us that the mentors they had invited to help prepare them had a family emergency and were unable to finish. Their wedding was in three months. How would they finish? I wanted to snap at her, “It is not my problem. You figure it out.” Before I could say what I was thinking she asked in a very small voice, “We were wondering if you and your husband could be our mentors. We have been watching you and would like you to mentor us.” My heart was caught before Christ. Looking at me as He must have looked at the Pharisees. I dropped what I was doing and agreed to serve.
Those of us in ministry often feel that we are giving from our want. We offer all that we have and we are discouraged when results are not immediately obvious. We are tired, we have our own struggles with faith, the demands of family and our personal lives weigh on us, and still God asks for more. In Sunday’s Gospel Jesus tells the story of a widow who gives from her want. We often hear that God stuns those who give from their want with His generosity. If you want to grow in faith you must share the little you have with others. Don’t give up on God yet! He is constantly doing something new!
Even though we might at times succumb to a temptation toward apathy, God wants to stun us with His plan for marriage and family life. Those of us on the intense frontlines of ministry often think, “Nothing new will come of this Synod so I just hope and pray that Pope Francis has something amazing to say.” I want to say very clearly that Pope Francis cannot fix the problem. Not today and not without you. Even if his document following the Synod is a profound and wise document (which it most likely will be) it still cannot fix the problems in the Church and the world today. The Church needs you and me to do that.
It was at the last Synod on the Family in 1981 that Pope John Paul II wrote his post-Synodal document “Familiaris Consortio.” There are some very helpful words in this document (if you have not read it you should!). If we had followed the primary suggestions in that document we could be in a very different place today in the Catholic Church. Ironically, a major struggle lamented about in this most current synod was addressed directly in “Familiaris Consortio.” Both synods express the idea that marriage preparation should not only concern itself primarily with teaching about marriage. Rather, preparation for marriage should be structured “in such a way that those preparing for marriage will not only receive an intellectual training but will also feel a desire to enter actively into the ecclesial community” (FC 66). Interesting concept, but can marriage preparation really enrich your parish and the greater Church today? I think it can if we are open to a new experience in how we approach marriage preparation.
It is true that marriage preparation has come a long way since 1981. Almost every diocese has guidelines in place that insure couples will receive substantial “intellectual training” (FC 66) but very few dioceses or parishes have responded adequately to the need for couples to “feel a desire to enter actively into the ecclesial community” (FC 66). Was this issue raised at the recent Synod on the Family? We did our homework and had an Italian friend do their best to translate the final document from the Synod for us. This is what it says:
What is necessary is a formation which accompanies the person and the couple in the way and the manner in which the communication of both the faith is united with experience of life offered by the whole ecclesial community. The efficacy of this help requires also the best possible pre-marital catechesis. Which should be part of the ordinary pastoral care. The pastoral preparation has to be a part of the presentation of the Christian community in an adequate way that emphasizes the gospel message of the dignity of the person, his liberty and respect for his rights. As it has been presented very well in the Familiaris Consortio (cf 66): the remote preparation and the passing on the transmission of the faith by Christian values from each family; the next preparation which coincides with the itinerary catechesis and the lived formative experience of the ecclesial community (paragraph 57 in the final document from the Synod unofficially translated from Italian).
We are convinced that the Holy Spirit has not given up on this very essential message. Without being plugged into the lifelines of grace of the Church and a particular Christian Community (also know as their parish) a married couple will never experience all the riches that God wants to bestow on them. Information about the sacrament of marriage devoid of a secured relationship with the newly married will struggle to sustain and nurture these newly established domestic churches! Couples need Christ, and you and I must introduce every engaged couple to God who became Man. We begin that introduction through the mentors that they trust.
Married friends become an essential starting point for the coaching and support of life skills while a priest, deacon, or trained marriage coordinator provides the necessary theological and moral formation required to live out fruitfully the grace of sacramental marriage. As evangelists we must continue to form and disciple the mentor couples so that they can in turn form the engaged and newly married couples into joy-filled disciples who are living lives that will lead others to Christ.
That bride whose story we began with changed how we view every engaged couple. It allowed us to really answer the question, “Do we actually love the couples we serve?” This couple whom we initially served very reluctantly changed not only how we viewed marriage preparation but they also blessed our own marriage with their witness. Their eagerness to learn more, their joy in receiving the sacrament, and their love for us, helped us to realize that there is no such thing as a “second-class sacrament.”
The Holy Spirit has not given up on us. Listen to His call to renew marriage preparation and you just might bring new life to His Church.