Continuing Marriage Education: The Church’s Undiscovered Territory
While most couples go through marriage-preparation programs, very few subsequently take advantage of marriage enrichment or know about such options.
CHICAGO — When a man and a woman love each other and get married in the Church, they might want to continue marriage education that can make their marriage’s first steps even stronger. Unfortunately, it’s an area that is an undiscovered one for most couples.
But the opportunity for marriage education beyond pre-Cana (marriage preparation) is something that has already blessed the marriage of Dan and Lindsey Smith, two Chicago natives, both 28, who have been participating in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s marriage-enrichment program. Lindsey Smith told the Register that she and her husband were married in September and have discovered new avenues of working on their marriage and making it stronger as a result of the program.
Smith pointed out that her own parents experienced divorce — and she wanted to make sure that she was not part of the 50% whose marriages go in that direction.
She also pointed out that her husband’s parents have made continuing marriage education a priority in their marriage.
Dan and Lindsey both want to have that kind of lasting marriage, which is why they are attending workshops for newlyweds.
“Nothing was wrong,” she said. “I was just thinking anything that can make this better [is worth doing].”
“I just wanted to make sure we were starting off on the right foot and doing everything we possibly could to make our marriage better, because I don’t want to end up in the same situation [as my parents],” she said. “I think it’s been very beneficial so far.”
She said recent classes covered finances, sexuality and expectations. “I think [they’ve] helped us, because [they]forced us to talk about different things that we wouldn’t have thought to talk about,” she said.
Smith said the marriage-enrichment classes have pushed her and her husband to discuss in depth topics they covered in pre-Cana, but also other topics more relevant to their newly married situation. She pointed to the class on expectations in the marriage relationship, where she and her husband answered the questions separately and then compared answers.
“My expectations were different from his, such as about time spent together and other little different things,” she said. “It’s nice, because it’s not the type of stuff you think about on a regular basis; so it’s like you have a lot of ‘aha!’ moments.”
Smith said the archdiocese has six programs, and they have signed up for four. But she said that after their most recent class, they decided that they would keep doing marriage enrichment at various intervals in the year, “as something to keep making our marriage better and keeping us communicating on a regular basis.”
“It’s nice to see couples who have come back; and they’ve been married five months, one year, two years, five years, 10 years, and they’re giving examples,” she said. “It’s more examples that show we’re all human, and everyone thinks differently; everyone acts differently. It just puts everything in perspective for you.”
From Marriage Prep to Marriage Ministry
Frank Hannigan, the director of marriage ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said he wants dioceses and parishes to realize that the Church has to move beyond depending on marriage preparation for their couples and move toward a model of continuing education.
He said the archdiocese rewrote the manual on marriage preparation under the direction of Cardinal Francis George
Christian Meert, founder and president of CatholicMarriagePrep.com, echoed Hannigan’s thoughts, and said it is “not enough” to leave the formation of couples at marriage preparation. He pointed out that it generally takes between five to seven years to form a priest, and even then, they continue to work on their vocations.
“Why stop at marriage prep? Keep going,” Meert said. “Love is a decision. You have to work on it.”
Meert said having mentor couples who have good backgrounds in the faith and have been well brought up in the Church is key, and he would like to see mentoring promoted in every parish.
Part of the challenge is getting couples to see that marriage-enrichment programs are valuable to helping them grow in their marriage. Although programs like Worldwide Marriage Encounter and Retrouvaille provide enormous benefits to couples either seeking to revitalize their marriage, or (in the case of Retrouvaille) to heal a relationship on the rocks, “what we want to do is give more before people get in trouble.”
Meert said Agape Catholic Ministries offers a five-year parish program called “Ministry to the Newly Married.” The program costs a grand total of $10 per parish per year, or $45 per parish for five years.
“It’s very expensive,” he joked.
The program involves an older, experienced mentor couple, married at least five years, meeting with a newlywed couple four times during the year on four different topics. At the end of each year for the full five-year program, the couple pairs with a new mentoring couple. The added beauty of the program is that, after five years, the parish has more mentor couples to carry on the program and share it with others.
Why the Gap?
So far, while the Church has made strides in marriage ministry, there’s a huge falloff between the couples going through marriage preparation before the wedding and married couples going through continuing education. And while studies do point out that couples who go through marriage preparation have statistically lower rates of divorce, one in three Catholics will end up divorced.
Why the gap?
Meert said that the parishes have to make marriage enrichment a priority, but first and foremost, it means that the Catholic parish has to be outgoing and make itself a very welcoming place for couples. “The risk is that we lose them until they have children,” he said, when parents are seeking baptism for their kids.
Thérèse Bermpohl, the director of the Office of Family Life for the Diocese of Arlington, Va., agreed that parishes were key in actively building relationships with newlywed couples to keep them engaged and educated as they take those first steps of marriage together as disciples of Jesus Christ.
“We want you to be welcomed and encouraged; we want you to be inspired,” she said.
Most marriage enrichment happens at the parish level, she said. However, the Family Life Office is trying to get a couples’ retreat off the ground, to complement its men’s and women’s conferences, as well as theology on tap programs already under way.
“If we can just do things to lead people to have a deeper encounter with Our Lord, then that is what is going to transform the person and transform the marriage,” she said.
Getting It Right
Hannigan said the Chicago Archdiocese has retooled its marriage programs by bundling at least a year of continuing education in with its marriage preparation. Couples who go through the course are signed up for a regular e-newsletter called “First Years and Forever” that goes out to newly married couples and covers a variety of topics, answering questions relevant to their newly married life. Couples who take the online marriage-preparation course at CatholicMarriagePrepClass.com also get the same deal.
“We want to help our married couples get that first year right,” Hannigan said.
He said they have the e-newsletter and the workshops because they want newly married couples not to think that they’re married, and that’s it.
“We’re saying, ‘Now, you’re married, and there’s more,’” he said.
Hannigan said parishes that provide a healthy mix of gathered events and social-media technology can provide the year-round “24/7” marriage education and support that Catholic couples need, so they can live a witness to Christ and Christian marriage that their children can grow up witnessing.
Lindsey and Dan Smith took up that very invitation in the “First Years and Forever” newsletter to continue their marriage education. She said that because the locations for the program are spread throughout Chicago, not many couples attend. She thinks that many people may not realize the resource is available and that parishes should encourage couples to take advantage of marriage enrichment.
“I feel like if you really want this to work, why not work at it? Because nothing comes out of doing nothing,” she said. “I want my marriage to last forever, so why not give it that extra bit of education and knowledge?”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.