A Year After ‘Amoris Laetitia’: Marriage-Ministry Reform Sees First Fruits

Some parishes, dioceses and the U.S. bishops’ conference are starting to respond to Pope Francis and the synod’s call to reform marriage preparation.

(photo: Unsplash)

ROYAL OAK, Mich. — When Jamie Onica and Shawn Tryon celebrate the sacrament of matrimony in September, the couple will have prepared for marriage via the kind of parish-based accompaniment that Pope Francis called for in Amoris Laetitia.

“It’s been a really positive experience,” Onica, 26, told the Register. She and Tryon met 10 years ago and formed a friendship that later blossomed into romance. When they decided to marry, they chose the Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, Michigan, where Onica’s parents were also married, for their wedding.

Most couples’ experience of marriage preparation in the U.S. consists of a one- or two-day session, followed by a couple of meetings with a priest. According to a 2005 study of 119 diocesan policies, commissioned by the U.S. bishops’ conference, marriage-preparation programs tended to range from just six hours to 20 hours.

However, Onica and her fiancé have received in-depth catechesis from the shrine’s Father Ryan Adams. Their experience of marriage preparation at the shrine includes meeting twice a month with a mentor couple whose marriage they admire, attending Mass at the parish, having dinner together, and working together on videos and instructional materials. Onica said it was “so important” for them to have the perspective of a couple who could share their own challenges, and how they dealt with them, over 30 years of marriage. Onica said the process has helped them as an engaged couple learn how to pray together every day, have a chance to discuss areas they had not thought about before, and made them aware of their strengths and areas to grow as a couple.

“I’m 100% glad we did it this way than any other way,” she said.

When Amoris Laetitia was published, Father Adams proposed to the shrine’s pastor they change their marriage-preparation methods along the lines envisioned by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia to form couples for Christ-centered marriage: giving the engaged “time and space” to be formed for marriage, accompanied by mentor couples and a priest working together, and integrating them into the life of the Church.

As a child of divorce, the priest told the Register he felt the need to pray, fast and do penance for the couples he was marrying because the Church’s typical methods of marriage preparation up to that point — a class and a few meetings with the priest — gave him no confidence that it made any substantial impact. Such methods disturbed him, particularly the thought of their children possibly suffering the “horrible pain” of divorce he experienced in his life. Many of the couples did not have a deep relationship with Jesus — despite his best efforts — and the Church’s teaching did not seem to sink in.

So on Jan. 1, 2017, the shrine adopted Witness to Love, a new virtue-based, catechumenal approach to marriage ministry that took off after the 2015 Synod of the Family, and featured the kind of parish-based accompaniment for the engaged and newlyweds detailed in Amoris Laetitia.

Since then, forming couples for marriage — such as Ornica and Tryon — has become a source of joy for Father Adams. The longer, more involved approach has not turned away millennials seeking the sacrament of matrimony, as some priests feared — if anything, the couples’ own positive experiences appear to have encouraged others to seek out marriage formation at the shrine, whether they are engaged or convalidating their civil unions, and the couples have integrated into the life of the local Church.


Evangelizing With Marriage Formation

The Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, has begun an overhaul of marriage formation by focusing on the four stages of evangelization of engaged and newlywed couples — pre-evangelization, proclamation, discipleship and apostleship.

“That’s the underlying foundation,” Peg Hensler, associate director for marriage ministries and natural family planning, told the Register. The diocese has placed its plan and resources to build peer-to-peer, intergenerational marriage ministry in the parishes at BuildingStrongMarriages.org.

The diocese is developing this approach to help parishes follow Pope Francis’ vision of journeying with couples through their individual situations, responding to their need for support throughout their married life.

The diocese aims to train core teams that are “founded in marriage as a form of evangelization” and will have the responsibility to establish parish-based marriage ministries. They will also help train mentoring couples in relational skills, prayer and accompanying the couples in their growth in virtue.

“We want those mentor couples to be a channel of grace to other couples,” she said.

The nearby Archdiocese of New York is in the preliminary stages of implementing its renewed marriage-preparation program, which it expects to roll out next January.

Kathy Wither, director of the archdiocese’s family-life office, told the Register that the archdiocese redesigned its program “to engage, catechize and even evangelize the couples who are presenting themselves for marriage in the Church.”

The new program under development has at least two phases. The first is a pre-Cana phase that includes online learning and a one-day in-person program that serves as “a springboard, instead of an end,” to the second phase, which features a mentoring component. Wither said the overall goal with the combined approach is to invite couples into a relationship with Jesus Christ and center their lives on the Eucharist — aspects that Pope Francis has emphasized as critical for nourishing couples in a lifelong marriage.


Starting From Scratch

The Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico, is now building a marriage ministry from the ground up. Father Nathanael Block, pastor of Our Lady of the Snows in Snowflake, Arizona, is assisting Bishop James Wall of Gallup in developing a new marriage ministry and policy for the diocese, which previously lacked a family-life office. He said the diocese is looking to form couples with the same criteria that Pope St. John Paul II outlined as critical for the formation of holy priests. Like clergy, married couples also need spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral development to receive the grace of their sacrament.

Father Block pointed out today’s culture deconstructs many young Catholics’ understanding of what true marriage is, by normalizing pornography, infidelity, divorce and fear of children. One group of sixth graders in a Catholic school, he said, were “shocked” to learn that marriage is supposed to last for life.

“They weren’t against the idea — but no one had ever told them,” he said.

“People come into marriage formation with all of their specters on their backs, and this can make them cynical or even hostile to being formed for matrimony,” he explained. 

The diocese is considering using Witness to Love to implement parish-based marriage preparation, will make use of a team to travel to parishes, and implement the new marriage ministry to help pastors form couples. The priest said the diocese wants to help pastors realize that making the changes will be easier than preserving the status quo on marriage formation that has led to mixed results.  

“Our bishop wants to make the diocese truly have an authentic Catholic culture, where marriage is venerated, life is sacrosanct, and God is the measure and goal of all things,” Father Block said.


No Shortcuts

Christian Meert, who runs CatholicMarriagePrep.com with his wife, Christine, said he is concerned that dioceses have not understood that the accompaniment Pope Francis calls for in Amoris Laetitia requires developing human relationships with the engaged couples.

“We cannot feed them well with videos, or a one- or two-day class,” he said.

“We have to accompany people on the longer journey,” he said, through catechesis and evangelization that gives them individualized attention. Meert expressed concern that some dioceses were considering replacing classes with online videos and instruction in the name of accommodating couples’ schedules, but forgetting that engaged couples need the witness and feedback from mentor couples who can share their experience of living out the sacrament.  

He said the task for the Church is to find the “right balance” in working with couples who have unique circumstances, such as active-duty military personnel. But the accompaniment of newlyweds by married couples is always indispensable. The online approach used by CatholicMarriagePrep.com, he said, always provides an engaged couple one-on-one time with another instructor couple, so they are not working through the online catechetical material alone.

Besides Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has also asked the Church to take a renewed look at Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) for modeling marriage formation. The Holy Father made two recent appeals to priests — one in January and the other in February — to finally implement St. John Paul II’s unfulfilled vision from 1981 for couples to have a “true catechumenate” process for the sacrament of matrimony.

Mary Rose Verret, co-founder of Witness to Love: Marriage Prep Renewal Ministry, told the Register there has been a surge of interest by clergy and diocesan family-life directors in the renewal of marriage formation, especially along the lines of “our ‘catechumenate’ approach to marriage preparation.” She believes the one-day, streamlined marriage-formation process is “on its way out" as more parishes desire the relationship-based approach backed by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia (Chapter 6) that focuses on parish integration, discipleship and evangelization in addition to solid catechesis. She said more and more pastors will get on board as they see how the new process is renewing parishes with newlywed couples and mentor couples “full of hope and excitement,” and not as just more “red tape and paperwork that would turn couples off and weigh parishes down.”

 “I think over the next few years we will see a springtime for the Church through the sacrament of matrimony,” she said. 


For Better or Worse

How the Church forms couples has an impact on individuals, families and society.

Father Adams explained that just as couples formed well for the sacrament of matrimony generally become “witnesses” to the beauty of marriage, couples who are poorly prepared for the sacrament can end up in bad or failed marriages and provide “a scandal” that may drive other people, including their own children, away from marriage and the Church itself.

Pope Francis’ calls for parish-based marriage formation dovetail with many conclusions of previous studies commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

A 1995 study commissioned by the USCCB stated that the typical mode of marriage preparation — a priest forming the couple alone — was a “significantly less valuable format than administration by a team ... made up of clergy, lay couples and parish staff.”

According to that feedback, couples wanted both the spiritual and theological guidance of a priest and also the input of other couples with practical marriage experience. The study also found couples reported “little of value can be done in one session.”

The USCCB’s Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth is responding to Amoris Laetitia by putting together a pastoral plan for marriage that can serve as a resource for dioceses and parishes as they implement the Church’s vision for the renewal of marriage ministry. Andrew Lichtenwalner, the committee’s executive director, told the Register that the plan is anticipated to come before the entire body of U.S. bishops by 2019.

“We’re already in the first phase of developing this pastoral plan,” he said. The first stage involves a comprehensive consultation that will engage a number of bishops, family-life directors and married couples.

Lichtenwalner said the committee aims to distill the insights of Pope Francis and the synods on the family, as well as St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the U.S. bishops’ own insights cultivated over the past 40 years, “into a pastoral plan that can inspire marriage and family ministries, but also marriages and families themselves.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.