Archdiocese of Detroit Begins Building the Marriage Catechumenate

The vision of two Synods on the Family for marriage formation is starting to take shape in the U.S.

(photo: Unsplash)

DETROIT — The renewal of Catholic spiritual vigor within the Archdiocese of Detroit has been underway for several months following the release of Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s pastoral letter “Unleash the Gospel.

The blueprint for revitalizing Catholic discipleship involves establishing a “catechumenate for marriage” — fulfilling the vision for marriage formation expressed by the 1980 and 2015 Synods on the Family.

“The archbishop here is really calling us to arms,” explained Auxiliary Bishop Gerard Battersby, who is involved in implementing the pastoral letter’s vision for the parishes to have a “second catechumenate” for marriage and other forms of family-based pastoral accompaniment. He told the Register Archbishop Vigneron wants discipleship to permeate every aspect of Catholic life and for Catholic individuals and couples to become alive with the “self-giving love of Christ.”

The marriage catechumenate is an idea for marriage formation championed by the first Synod on the Family in 1980 and then by St. John Paul II with Familiaris Consortio in 1981. However, the concept did not gain traction until the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family, which called again for a catechumenate for marriage. Since then, Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the Church to implement the catechumenal model, where couples would be formed for marriage within the context of the parish community, with their pastor and mentor couples working together, both before the wedding and into their first years as a new family.

“St. John Paul II said as goes the family, so goes the Church,” Bishop Battersby said.

“Unleash the Gospel,” he said, imagines couples formed into a communion centered on Jesus Christ and following him to sanctify all aspects of life, so they can go forth and sanctify the world by their witness.

“There is one pattern for our living, our self-giving and our fulfillment, and that is Jesus Christ,” he said.


A Second Catechumenate

“Unleash the Gospel” charges the archdiocese’s Office of Family Life to develop an implementation plan for a catechumenate for marriage by June 2019.

Janet Smith, theology professor and Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said she is “over the moon” with “Unleash the Gospel.” She considers it among the “most important documents in the Church in the past 25 years.”

The fight for fidelity to the magisterium following the Second Vatican Council “really depleted a lot of energies,” Smith explained, that otherwise would have implemented the Council’s true vision. But she said “Unleash the Gospel” and new emerging programs and methods of evangelization and discipleship are proof that the Council is now starting to bear its authentic fruit.

Smith said that catechumenate programs, like the “Witness to Love” ministry being implemented in the archdiocese, have benefited not just engaged couples, but mentor couples and priests. Smith said her seminarians are excited by the new catechumenal approach and she intends to promote “Witness to Love” to her classes.

The “absolutely essential element” she singled out is the personal mentorship that takes place with one-on-one catechesis and evangelization, with the priest, the mentor couple and engaged couple working together. Every couple is different, she said, and many couples have issues such as pornography addiction, abortion history, cohabitation or some other manifestation of the broken culture.

“Every parish should have this or something like this,” she said, adding that it would lead to fewer wounded persons, more persons who can minister to the wounded, and stronger family and social support networks that would reduce the need for civil government to stand in those gaps.

“A strong marriage is the backbone of the Church, the backbone of the culture and the backbone of our vocations,” she said. “Almost everything good comes out of a strong family.”


‘Reproposing’ the Gospel

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati this year became the first U.S. archdiocese to embrace explicitly the “catechumenate for marriage,” and other dioceses and archdioceses are planning to follow suit. The archdiocese’s blueprint, “What God Has Joined Together,” builds its marriage catechumenate on several programs — “Witness to Love,” the “Fully Engaged” inventory, “Engaged Retreat Day” and natural family planning series — and set a goal of Jan. 1, 2018, for its implementation in parishes.

Dan Thimons, director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life, said the Cincinnati Archdiocese is responding to the strong call Pope Francis made to the Roman Rota earlier this year to implement a new catechumenate for marriage.

He explained the heart of the marriage catechumenate is the recognition that the engaged are the new “mission territory.” Many of them are baptized, yet they know “very little about marriage, the sacraments or how to have a relationship to Jesus Christ and his Church.” The catechumenate for marriage, then, is a “reproposal of the entire Gospel through the lens of marriage and family” to the engaged couple during their marriage preparation.

The marriage catechumenate, Thimons explained, involves more than catechesis, because, like Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, it involves learning how to live out the faith and how to be involved in the Catholic community.

The catechumenate approach, he said, also corrects the notion for both people in marriage ministry and the engaged that marriage preparation is about fulfilling “requirements” to get to the wedding.

“The catechumenate is different from that,” Thimons said. “It’s a process of accompaniment, deepening a relationship with Jesus Christ, with his Church and one another, and recognizing that the wedding is really just the beginning of their new sacramental life together.”

Mary-Rose Verret, co-founder of the “Witness to Love: Marriage Prep Renewal Ministry” with her husband, Ryan, explains that the marriage catechumenate is responding to “the wisdom gap” of how to live a married life in a culture of family breakdown and divorce. Millennials in particular, she said, now have parents and grandparents who are divorced, and so need mentor couples they trust to be their witnesses to the Church’s vision for a joyful marriage.

Instead of just teaching the theory, Verret said her program forms couples through “the up-close and personal witness of a good marriage,” she said. Because the engaged are choosing a mentor couple whose marriage they admire and who fulfills the “Witness to Love” criteria for committed Catholic life, they have a relationship built on trust to which they can continue to turn after the wedding.

She said the big difference “Witness to Love” has found is integration in the parish community, due to the friendships between the engaged and mentor couples, which helps “drastically lower the divorce rate and increase church attendance.” She said the chances are “very slim” that a couple that does not feel connected to the community will continue going to Mass based on excellent programs and teachers alone.

“Marriage catechumenate is about providing an entry into the life of the Church,” she said. “It is integrating them into the life of the Church so they can receive the grace of this sacrament.”


Future of Marriage Catechumenate

One of the areas to be developed with a catechumenate for marriage will likely be in the realm of liturgy. In March, Father Paul Holmes, a moral and sacramental theologian at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, told the Register that the Latin Church could look back at its own betrothal rituals, or the rituals of its sister Eastern Churches, to provide a catechumenal liturgical process similar to what the Church does for baptism.

Father Holmes, who researched what a marriage catechumenate could look like after the first Synod on the Family in 1980, had explained that matrimony as a sacrament is rooted in a Christian’s baptism, so the public rituals of a catechumenate for marriage would highlight the connection between those two sacraments.

Bishop Battersby said he believes the catechumenate for marriage will eventually have “a public-liturgical recognition and commitment,” as couples move through the stages of their preparation.

“I think that is going to be a necessary part of it,” he said.

Bishop Battersby said the “heart” of “Unleash the Gospel,” including the marriage catechumenate and family-based accompaniment in the parish, is “becoming a Eucharistic person.”

“It is becoming a person whose very life is caught up in the self-donative love of the Paschal Mystery and living out of the promontory of hope that comes from the Resurrection.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer. 

A bride and bridegroom stand before the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica as Pope Francis conducts a wedding ceremony for 20 couples on Sept. 14, 2014.

The Pope’s Plan to Strengthen Marriage Formation (Aug. 6)

Earlier this summer the Vatican announced that Pope Francis wants to reorient how the Catholic Church does marriage formation. In a 97-page document, the Vatican provides a new “catechumenal itinerary toward matrimonial life.” What is that? We find out with Register Staff Writer Peter Jesserer Smith. Then our Register Intern Hannah Cote highlights some new ways Catholic couples are honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary in their wedding ceremonies.