By Steve & Kathy Beirne, NACFLM Region I & II
PREPARES couples to celebrate and live a Christian Sacramental Marriage.
Formal marriage preparation in the Catholic Church began in the 1940’s in Chicago with the birth of the precana movement. Pastors began to see that couples approaching the church for marriage had very little idea of the seriousness of the sacrament they were entering, and the importance of the job they were taking on. Courses began to be offered to acquaint the couple with the different aspects of married life – from the mundane areas of finance and the mechanics of sex (often taught by a banker and a doctor) to the loftier ideas of sacrament, covenant and vocation, more often taught by a priest.
The humble beginnings of the precana program bore fruit, and marriage preparation has become an expectation for couples entering marriage under the auspices of the Catholic Church. While the types and forms of this preparation varies, there are usually some common elements.
Some clergy presence is usually involved. The program may be led by a priest or deacon, or the clergy may just supplement the instructional part of the preparation with individual meetings with the couple, administering the PMI to assess the couple’s readiness and freedom to marry. The clergy person is also determining whether the couple has a faith dimension in their lives. It does not have to be a fully developed expression of faith even the beginning of a spiritual life is enough to welcome them into a deeper relationship with God through the church.
Some form of skills building is introduced. Couples learn about negotiating a lifelong relationship, about communicating across genders, about understanding one another’s family and family style, and many other aspects of healthy relationships.
Instruction in what the Catholic Church means by marriage – the theology and tradition, the principles and practice of a Catholic marriage is discussed, a process that is often an eye opener for the engaged pair.
So why does the Catholic Church require marriage preparation when so many other churches and venues in our society do not?
Because marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic Church it is treated with special importance. Just as a priest goes to the seminary to prepare for his ordination, and the adult being baptized goes to RCIA, Catholics being married attend marriage preparation. You may say, but a priest’s preparation is years long and the catechumen’s is months long. Why is marriage preparation so much shorter?
The answer is that we believe marriage preparation begins in childhood, and has been going on for a lifetime! From the earliest experience that a child has of a married couple (hopefully, his or her parents) ideas are beginning to form about this special union called marriage. Remote preparation is often subconscious. Children watch how married couples treat one another, see how they are portrayed in the media and in popular culture and ideally have conversations about them with their parents and other caring adults.
Proximate preparation begins when couples begin dating. The young person begins to understand what it takes to build a caring, growthful, intimate relationship. How do you reveal your deepest values to someone else? Is the other person able to admit that they have faults? Can they show their caring side? Are they respectful of the values and norms you were brought up with? Can you handle the demands of a relationship, and as the bond with one special person emerges, can you see it lasting a lifetime?
When that choice is made, and the two people believe that they have found “the one,” then immediate preparation begins. It is important to remember that it is God’s grace that brings these couples to the Church. Perhaps their reasons for seeking a sacramental marriage may be superficial and they may present obstacles that will need to be addressed but each year thousands of young and not so young couples approach their parish looking to be married. The Church recognizes that a unique opportunity for evangelization and formation of couples is given to us during this teachable moment. It is our responsibility to cooperate with God’s grace and warmly welcome each couple.
When we speak of our responsibility we are referring to the entire faith community including the ordained priest or deacon, the lay couples who share their sacrament and the church’s teaching about marriage, and finally all the faithful of the parish who pray for each engaged and newly married couple. Ultimately, it is far more than preparing a couple for their wedding day. Marriage preparation is also a way for the faith community to invite the couple to join a parish that will support them throughout their lives.
Programs can take on many different forms. Some employ a one-on-one sponsor format. Some are held in a group setting, and even those vary from a one day type of program to a series of several meetings. Engaged Encounter and some other programs use a weekend retreat style. Most recently, online marriage preparation is also available. Many programs utilize a premarital assessment tool that raises issues for couples to discuss that they may not have had a chance to discuss earlier. Marriage preparation is a gift to the engaged couple, and the people who staff the programs are a gift to the Church. When believers come together to offer these programs to engaged couples it is a visible sign of the words of St. Paul: There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. (Corinthians 12:46)