The Vatican released a document last week with recommendations for a year-long “marriage catechumenate” to prepare Catholic couples for the sacrament of marriage.
In the preface to the document, Pope Francis referred to adequate preparation for marriage as a matter of justice, as it precedes a lifelong commitment.
But a couple’s experience of sacramental preparation before marriage can vary greatly from place to place.
On June 15, the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life published a brochure entitled “Catechumenal Itineraries for Married Life”, currently available in Italian and Spanish, which suggested three stages in the formation of Catholic marriage.
The first phase, called “next preparation”, should last “about a year”, according to the recommendations of the dicastery. The second phase would take place in the last months before marriage and the third would follow the couple during the first 2-3 years of married life.
The idea of a marriage catechumenate, says the document, is analogous to the preparation for baptism in the early Church: “formation in the faith and accompaniment in the acquisition of a Christian lifestyle, specifically intended to couples”.
The Vatican said: “It is generally suggested that the preparation ahead takes about a year depending on the couple’s previous experience of faith and church commitment.”
“After having made the decision to marry – a moment that could be sealed by the engagement rite – one could begin the immediate preparation for marriage, lasting a few months, to be erected into a true initiation into the nuptial sacrament”, he explains. .
“The duration of these stages must be adapted, we repeat, taking into account the religious, cultural and social aspects of the environment in which we live and even the personal situations of each couple”, indicates the document. “What is essential is to safeguard the regularity of meetings in order to accustom couples to take care of their vocation and their marriage in a responsible way.”
Deanna Johnston, director of family life for the Diocese of Tyler, said she favors longer marriage preparation, but stressed it can’t just be the diocese handing couples a checklist of things to do for 12 months.
“It gives us a challenge, I think, as directors of family life,” she told CNA during an interview in Rome, where she traveled with her husband, Michael, and the eldest child. of her four children, Alexandria, 7, to participate in the World Meeting of Families.
“We can’t just send couples through a program and expect that to be the thing that gives them a happy, healthy, holy marriage,” she said.
At a time when many couples are afraid of divorce or come from divorced families, she stressed that the Church must present the idea of a “marital catechumenate” as a way to achieve a good marriage, not just a another heavy task to accomplish. to fill.
Part of that, she said, is building relationships with engaged couples that continue even after the wedding day.
“I know for us, we’ve only been married nine years, and so much life has gone by,” Johnston said. “I remember going to Engaged Encounter and some of the things they got us talking about, but life is very different from what I think we thought it would be in 2013.”
Johnston said she thinks the engagement period is also an opportunity to grow as a person and in virtues such as chastity, even for practicing Catholics.
“It’s a reaction that I’ve heard, well, if you have two really well-educated Catholics, why would you make them wait for the sacrament of marriage? But even as well-educated Catholics – Michael is a former seminarian , I’m a deacon’s daughter, like we’re good Catholics, right? – but we’ve never been married before,” she said.
“So, recognizing that these two people have never experienced a married life together, it’s so worthwhile for us to invest that time and build relationships to make sure they have a solid foundation.”
Sheila Reineke, natural family planning program coordinator for the Diocese of St. Cloud, told CNA that she thinks expanding marriage preparation from the standard 4-6 month program to an 8-12 months” would build relationships with the other couples that the couples meet. I think they could really become a little community.
Sheila and her husband Vince have been married for 34 years and have four adult children.
Finding community and friendship with other Catholic couples in a Bible study was something that helped strengthen their own marriage early on, they said.
Reineke said she knows some people already find the current standard requirements for getting married in the Catholic Church burdensome, and that there are always necessary exceptions, such as for military couples.
“I would start by listening” to couples’ concerns, she says. “But again, I think if we talk to them with love and explain why, a lot of couples really enjoy the process when they get to the end of it.”
Deanna Johnston’s husband, Michael, is head of the theology department at a Catholic high school. According to him, a year of training for a lifetime commitment does not seem unreasonable.
He and his colleagues try to start even earlier, preparing teens for a successful marital relationship in the future by “educating them in moral theology and church history and ethics just so that they have an orientation to what marriage really is at a very young age”. age, or a relatively young age.
He noted that focusing on forming good Catholic families now will have a positive influence on the children of these marriages who will walk through the doors of high school in a dozen years.
The Johnstons and Reineke agreed that having pairs of mentors is a useful approach to engaged training.
Bishop John Doerfler told CNA his diocese of Marquette is also following the mentor couple model.
One of the difficulties that newly married couples often face is feelings of loneliness or isolation, “especially when problems may arise,” he said. “We hope that over time, by encouraging mentor couples, they know there is someone they can turn to, so they don’t have to go through difficulties or struggles alone. .”
With the idea of a 12-month preparation, “there has to be a kind of flexibility”, he said, “because often people will approach us when they have already set a date for their marriage and we want to be able to work with them as best we can.
“But I think in general trying to prepare for an entire year is a good idea, with some flexibility depending on the circumstances people find themselves in,” the Bishop said.
Deanna Johnston noted that those preparing engaged couples “won’t have all the answers for them when they go through marriage formation at the very beginning, but if we can put it in place for the Church to be there for walking with them through all these different changes and challenges in life – it may be very idealistic, but I think it’s worth it.