Before the Wedding Bells Ring Out

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.— Statistics say that for every new marriage celebrated in the United States this year, there will be one divorce.

That's hardly an encouraging statistic for the thousands of engaged couples across the country who are in the final stages of planning their spring and summer weddings. But marriage preparation experts see two possible remedies.

One cure, for those meant to be married, can be to reintroduce them to their faith, making it a more vital part of their lives.

“For many of the couples who attend Catholic pre-marriage programs, the experience can be a turning point, whether they have drifted away from their faith just a little, or even for those who are far out to sea,” said Mary Hasson, who designed a marriage preparation course in Bethesda, Maryland.

“Each person, each couple is in a different place in terms of their openness to God,” she continued. “A good program should be designed to break down their barriers and get rid of their stereotypes and caricatures of Church teaching.

“Its goal shouldn't be just to make sure that each couple hears an accurate summary of the Church's teachings, but rather to move each person one step closer to Christ.”

A second remedy is a powerful pre-marriage program that can help a couple to decide not to marry in the first place.

“We have two or three couples on most weekends who either postpone or cancel their weddings — and those are really our success stories,” said Kathy Conway of Engaged Encounter in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “And we have couples who have been married before who come to the Engaged Encounter weekend and say, ‘If we would have done this the first time around, we may never have divorced.’”

Last year, the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University completed a study of Catholic Engaged Encounter, a nationwide marriage preparation ministry.

Most of the studies done about marital stability and religious practice all across the board tend to show a correlation between the two...

It found that the encounters did “a superb job” in helping couples prepare for marriage. A year after attending an Encounter, nine out of 10 newlywed couples said “the weekend was a valuable experience which brought them closer to their spouse and to God, and that it taught them important skills,” the study reported.

‘Beginning of the sacrament’

The idea behind Engaged Encounter is to make these couples take a pause from planning the wedding to spend time seriously planning the marriage.

“The wedding is just the beginning of the sacrament,” Father Bill Carmody, pastor of Corpus Christi parish in Colorado Springs, recently told a dozen couples gathered for an Encounter weekend. “Spouses are sacraments to each other. They are the presence of God to each other.”

For over 20 years, Engaged Encounter has been offering weekend pre-marriage retreats in dioceses across the country where lead couples and clergy take them through a series of topics about the sacramental nature and vocation of marriage. But the couples themselves do most of the work. They are required to discuss privately with each other topics such as living as a Christian family, sexuality (including natural family planning), finances, decision-making, and balancing work, and family.

“There are many other programs in Catholic parishes that we looked at that were so secular, where they didn't talk about marriage being a sacrament, or about God being part of your marriage, and there was no priest or religious present,” commented Kevin Conway, who along with his wife, Kathy, form a veteran Encounter lead couple at Corpus Christi parish in Colorado Springs.

“Promoting the idea of marriage as a sacrament is what Engaged Encounter does well,” he said.

Hasson, the marriage preparation expert who works at the Center for Family Development in Bethesda, agreed.

She said that nurturing this spiritual dimension is the key. “We need to convince them first of all that it matters what the Church has to say to them about marriage. ... That the happiness that all of them are looking for in marriage will be elusive unless they are open to Christ in their lives.”

Georgetown marriage prep experts acknowledge that couples seeking marriage in the Catholic Church probably have an edge over the rest of the population when it comes to making the relationship last over the long haul. Even those couples who are only marginally committed to the Church at the time of their wedding may grow in their devotion as their marriage matures.

“Most of the studies done about marital stability and religious practice all across the board tend to show a correlation between the two,” said Richard McCord, executive director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Marriage and the Family. “People spending time focusing on the spiritual dimension of marriage, all of this has a positive effect on marital stability.”

‘Three to Get Married’

Another marriage preparation program that has had very positive reviews is the Three to Get Married program. It was designed in 1994 for use in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and the Diocese of Arlington, Va., in part to meet their marriage preparation requirements.

Three to Get Married also uses presentations followed by directed questionnaires that the couples work through with each other. It takes place over two consecutive weekends — a hefty time commitment for many working professionals.

Even so, “couples are usually pleased and surprised at their exit attitude when they fill out the evaluation at the end of the weekend,” said Mary Jean Mallory, a board member at the Bethesda family center who helped to develop the program.

Three to Get Married refers to the necessity of making God a partner in marriage and “slowly introduces Catholic doctrine through a series of presentations,” Mallory explained. This is due to the large number of non-Catholics at every weekend.

“I would say that 75% of our clientele are mixed marriages. And the one who is Catholic doesn't practice much. Over half are cohabiting. These are basically people who have been away from the faith for a while,” Mallory said.

Hasson acknowledged that “while Church teachings haven't changed, the people coming into the programs are in radically different places from those in prior generations.

“They come to our program after having heard a steady drumbeat for 20 years telling them that individual fulfillment matters most, even at the expense of spouse or children, or that self-sacrifice is a sign of low self-esteem; that the Church has a Third World view of women, and that marriage hinders a woman's self-fulfillment; that sex is about pleasure without commitment, and that children are a hindrance to personal freedom and must be carefully planned to minimize disruption of personal goals.”

Engaged Encounter deals with many of the same lifestyle challenges to the teachings of the Church with their couples.

The Georgetown survey found that among their respondents who attended Encounter weekends “almost half (44%) were cohabiting before marriage, only about half (47%) attend Mass regularly, and more than one-third (35%) were entering mixed marriages.”

Given the successful track record of Three to Get Married, Encounter, and several other Catholic pre-marriage programs, it might be expected that couples would line up to attend. Not so, in Mallory's experience.

“Most of the couples who sign up do so because everything else that is shorter is full already,” she said.

Catholic pre-marriage programs strive to achieve a balance between the practical and the spiritual topics they need to cover which are important to newlyweds. Each couple who attends brings with them very different life experiences.

“I wish they would have spent a lot more time talking about finances; that's such a big issue in marriage,” said Walter, who recently attended an Engaged Encounter weekend in Colorado Springs with his fiancèe, Chelley. They requested that their last names not be used in this story.

Chelley took issue with the week-end's presentation on decision-making: “They told us that we need to work out some kind of agreement about every major decision. ... Walter and I are older than most of these other couples, and I have the maturity to defer to him on issues where he might know more about it than I do.”

At Three to Get Married workshops, the toughest subject to broach with their couples is natural family planning, Mallory said.

She said that their audience is usually so skeptical about its effectiveness that they lead with the medical considerations and the scientific information about natural family planning, as presented by a Catholic obstetrician-gynecologist.

“What we have found is that couples are so adamantly opposed to it ... contracepting is a normal part of their relationship already,” Mallory said.

“We also have a witness talk, presented by a couple who have six children, whose first three were the result of contraceptive failures,” said Mallory.

The Legionaries of Christ have been involved with Three to Get Married from the beginning. “The priest is vital to the entire weekend.” Mallory told the Register. “Because we had a priest available for personal consultations, we have had a couple of women convert from Protestantism and a few couples who were cohabiting separate until their wedding.

“One of the priests who works with us on the weekends tells the couples, ‘If you don't have a relationship with Christ, the rest of this is a shot in the dark.’”

Molly Mulqueen writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.