US Bishops Speak Out About Need for Marriage Catechumenate

‘So much attention is given to the ceremony rather than to the vocation,’ Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco says, in discussing the need for accompanying couples embarking on the vocation of marriage.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops discussed a new Vatican proposal for a marriage catechumenate at its fall plenary assembly.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops discussed a new Vatican proposal for a marriage catechumenate at its fall plenary assembly. (photo: Unsplash)

BALTIMORE — The Church has recently been considering how best to accompany and prepare engaged couples for the vocation of sacramental marriage. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops discussed a new Vatican proposal for a marriage catechumenate at its fall plenary assembly last week in the closed-door portion of their meeting in Baltimore, and some bishops shared their thoughts afterward with the Register about the need for these efforts and what they may involve. 

This summer, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life published a booklet, “Catechumenal Itineraries for Married Life,” which proposed three stages of formation: the first phase of proximate preparation lasting “about one year” before the wedding; the second phase of immediate preparation in the months preceding the wedding, possibly including the rite of betrothal; and the third phase of two to three years of post-wedding guidance as the couple begins married life. 

“The contemporary reality requires renewed pastoral efforts to strengthen preparation to the Sacrament of Marriage in dioceses/eparchies and parishes on all continents,” the document reads. “The ever-diminishing number of people getting married in general, but especially the brief duration of marriages, even sacramental ones, as well as the problem of the validity of marriages celebrated, constitute an urgent challenge which puts at stake the personal fulfillment and happiness of a great many lay faithful around the world.”


Taking Time to Discern 

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, told the Register that the Vatican’s proposal “meshes well with the pastoral framework for marriage that we passed last year for dioceses to develop their own programs.” He said these efforts have been inspired by the need to accompany couples. He said that “the idea of catechumenate is that they’re part of a community. They’re part of the parish, so it’s more of a parish-engagement approach, too.”

He said that whether or not couples would take a year for marriage preparation “would be up to the bishop in his diocese,” but he pointed out that “nowadays couples plan way out, more than a year, in advance for their weddings. It’s unfortunate because so much attention is given to the ceremony rather than to the vocation, but I don’t think there’s a big problem with it taking longer; a year might be a long time, but it’s certainly not too long of a time to prepare for a lifelong commitment.” 

Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon, another member of the USCCB committee, told the Register that the extra time to prepare for marriage could be considered in the context of “the years of formation that we give to men who are discerning a priestly vocation. They go through anywhere from seven to nine years of formation to become a priest.” 

He said that the Church sometimes does not give “as much attention to preparing young people for another vocational sacrament in the Church, and that is the sacrament of matrimony.” Preparation for matrimony, he said, “begins when we’re children and being formed in a family,” but “when it comes right down to actual discernment of marriage with this person, I’m in favor of really taking more time to properly do that, so that young people will be more prepared and eyes wide open, going into marriage — understanding what marriage is, but especially on the spiritual dimension as a sacrament.” 

“This is not a simple choice somebody is making,” he said. “This is a life-changing, permanent vocational decision that deserves lots of prayer and discernment and formation.” 


Promoting the Vocation of Matrimony

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, who also serves on the USCCB committee, told the Register that “there’s even a preliminary step before” marriage preparation these days, which is “promoting matrimony as a vocation.” He said that, “traditionally, we’ve talked about vocations. We’ve talked about priesthood and consecrated life, and it was just sort of taken for granted that young people knew about the sacrament of marriage; and if you were Catholic, that was kind of a customary expectation.” 

But in our current cultural climate, Bishop Paprocki stressed, “We can’t take that for granted.” He has found that, “for many young people, they do not have marriage on their radar at all; they’re not even thinking about it. That’s the first step before we even talk about a formation program — how do we get young people to recognize it is a true vocation of giving yourself in love to your spouse, and out of that love comes your children, and then giving of your love to raise your family?”

Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, agreed that promoting the vocation of marriage would be an important part of the Church’s renewed focus on preparation for the sacrament. 

“All bishops will tell you that weddings are down,” he said. “Marriage and family life is hurting, and I think preparation is important to help young people be supported.” 

He emphasized the importance for young couples, “especially when they’re not very close to their parents or their families, to have other people supporting you” in the early years of marriage. 

Bishop Daly said it also was key to stress the “sacrificial element” in marriage. He recounted hearing from a woman who had been married for 25 years, who said that “when you first get married, you think that other person is going to fulfill everything, and then you realize he’s not going to do that”; and “then you reach a point where you have to start really giving of yourself,” even when “sometimes it’s unequal.” 

With respect to formation for marriage, Bishop Daly said the question to focus on is: “How do we in marriage prep get young people to realize that marriage is a struggle — so is any vocation — but the blessings that are given for fidelity give you a joy and peace?” He called these times “challenging” because of “the whole attack on what it means to be a husband and father today,” with contemporary culture seeking to erase the need for the family by saying, “Women don’t need men; they can be artificially inseminated. Men don’t have to do anything; they can just watch pornography and smoke pot and play video games.” 

Given this destructive context, Bishop Daly said, “this notion of sacrifice in marriage prep” can assist in addressing these cultural attacks and temptation.