By Fr. Britto M. Berchmans
Even though I have been a happy celibate priest for the last twenty-eight years, I consider myself a hopeless romantic. I am convinced that marriages are made in heaven. Every time I meet a couple that still has the spark after several decades of marriage, I feel vindicated in my romantic view of marriage.
In the Church we constantly encourage couples to have great marriages, but we do not always show them how. Relationships are hard work. We, as Church, must teach our
couples the necessary skills and spiritual insights so that they may be able to construct a strong, life-giving union. It is not a matter of merely passing on information. We need to accompany them on their journey.
One of the most successful initiatives that were restored in the Church after the Vatican Council was the RCIA. Over the years I have seen the quality of Catholics the program has produced. The secret of their success lies in the time and energy invested in the program. These catechumens are not alone on their journey that usually lasts several months. They are accompanied by the entire parish community. In a special way they are accompanied by their parish sponsors.
On the contrary, the preparation for marriage too often consists of simply filling out some paperwork and going through a Pre-Cana program. The couples think that the marriage celebration involves only them and no one else. In the minds of many a couple, the community is present only as guests at the ceremony, and certainly at the reception.
I wish that we could make marriage preparation more intense and more spiritual. As Church, we must demand more from our couples if they want to get married in church. By transforming the marriage preparation into a serious time of prayer and spiritual growth, we may be able to integrate the couples more fully into the life of the community.
The journey does not end with the celebration of marriage. It continues even after the wedding. The faith community should become their constant source of support through all of their challenges. If the couple should be accompanied, who should be their companions on the road? Basically there are three: the priest, the mentor couple, and the larger parish community.
The priest plays a major role in helping the couple to prepare for their big day. He is not called upon to be a functionary merely celebrating a ritual. He needs to become the link between the couple and the community. Usually he is the first person that they meet in the parish. Their experience with him may determine their experience of the Church as a whole.
The priest has to make every effort to form a personal relationship with the couple. It is not enough to meet with them for just one meeting to fill out the paperwork. We should insist on several meetings during which we discuss both spiritual and practical aspects of the marriage relationship. We should not prepare them merely for their wedding day; we must prepare them for their married life. Our conversations can cover such topics as biblical insights for a healthy marriage, the meaning of the marriage commitment, differing communication styles of men and women, and finally, wise conflict management techniques. As a result of these conversations, on the wedding day the priest is no longer a stranger who hardly knows their names. He has become a friend who is able to celebrate a very personal and meaningful wedding Mass or ceremony for the couple.
It is not enough that the priest accompanies the couple during the marriage preparation. He needs to become in some sense their priest for life. The priest should encourage the couple to call on him for any need during their married life. I do understand that taking on the role of the couple’s priest for life can bring on some extra duties. But I have found that the calls from these couples do not place an undue burden. Besides, the couples seem to draw much comfort from having a personal connection to a priest of the Church.
Many successful programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and RCIA attribute their success to the commitment of sponsors who accompany the candidates on their journey. The God of Exodus walked with the people of Israel for forty years until they made their home in the Promised Land. The journey was by no means easy and the people were not always grateful. The Lord was patient and never gave up. In the same way, the Risen Lord walked as a stranger with the two disciples who were tracing their steps away from the community in Jerusalem towards their homes in Emmaus. The Lord was patient as he explained the scriptures to them. They finally recognized Him in the breaking of the Bread. I am proposing that in order to have a proactive marriage preparation, we need to find mentor couples who will accompany engaged couples on their journey towards marriage.
The mentor couple has to win the trust of the young couple. The parish may assign a mentor couple when a young couple asks to get married in the parish. The two couples may meet in the context of a meal in the home of the mentor couple. The mentors
should encourage the engaged couple to call on them if they have any question regarding the wedding. They could meet at least a couple of times before the wedding in an informal setting. They could be in the church for the wedding calming the nerves the bride and the groom. After the wedding, the mentor couple may hold an intimate celebration for the couple in their home. Hopefully through all these meetings a bond may be created and the young couple may come to rely on the wisdom of the older couple. Especially in the case of young couples living far from their families, mentor couples may provide a sense of comfort and support in matters both spiritual and material.
THE PARISH COMMUNITY
We know that the celebration of every sacrament is a community event. Yet in the case of matrimony this aspect is too often lost. Somehow we have to impress on the couple, as well as the larger parish, that the two people getting married are affecting the life of the community. To that end I suggest that we hold at least two liturgical celebrations during the year. We need to bring together all the couples who got married during that year for a Parish Wedding Mass. Thus the whole parish will acknowledge the couples and they in turn will feel connected to the community. In the same way, it is helpful to hold an Anniversaries Sunday when we can recognize all those who are celebrating special milestones in their married life. Special prayers and blessings can be offered. Even a renewal of vows may take place.
The priests must be encouraged to speak on marriage and family life in their homilies all through the year. From time to time, petitions – for couples getting married or for families – must be included in the intercessions. When choosing topics for adult education or talks in the parish, every effort must be made to address relationship issues. If topics that relate to their actual life are discussed, parishioners will show up. Finally the entire parish must constantly pray for married couples and families. For, if the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the laborers toil.