One of the many strange weaknesses of seminary training in the decades following Vatican II was the lack of concrete instruction on how to do marriage preparation. Thankfully, Pope Saint John Paul II’s famous encyclical Familiaris Consortio, “On the Christian Meaning of Family”, published in my third year of seminary, set many of us “on fire” with the beauty of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. I have to confess that up to that point it never occurred to me that the family has a mission in the world from God! Our seminary’s Director of Formation provided a retreat on the Pope’s encyclical. As a result seminarians in my deacon class worked very hard to get our superiors to teach us how to do marriage preparation. We even had the creator of the famous “FOCCUS” Inventory (cf. below) give us an in-depth seminar on marriage preparation. I am passionate about the exalted call to marriage, and good preparation for marriage. [I realize marriage preparation begins in the home while a person is still a child. The parish marriage program simply attempts to put finishing touches on the lifetime project.] And the world is so much in need of a deep understanding and love for the institution of marriage as God designed it.
I have finally begun to do some marriage preparation at Divine Mercy, receiving my first two engaged couples this past week. The deacons and I had met just prior. For marriage preparation at our parish, the policies will follow the guidelines outlined in the diocesan brochure from the Family Life Office, included in this bulletin. Here I will say a bit more to complement that brochure.
Step #1: This is simply the first meeting, in which the priest/deacon learns briefly about the circumstances of the couple and explains the marriage preparation requirements to them. The brochure mentions “impediments”. At this early stage, this basically means establishing that neither party has a prior marriage bond which stands in the way. If either party was married previously, has an annulment been granted by the church? There are various other impediments to consider, but this is the primary question that arises in this first meeting.
A significant item to address–at least initially–at this first meeting is the dilemma of cohabitation outside of marriage. There are too many ways that cohabitation weakens a couple’s relationship (No wonder the divorce rate for couples who have cohabited is significantly higher than for those who have not…); and there are too many ways cohabitation wounds and causes hardship for the witnessing community around the couple. I will discuss cohabitation in a future bulletin letter, but suffice it here to say that a couple will be asked to separate their living arrangements throughout the period of marriage preparation up to the wedding. I hope that even this bulletin letter will dissuade all future couples from cohabiting. Marriage is too precious not to ask this of a cohabiting couple. [I sincerely believe that if we can introduce “Theology of the Body” age-appropriately throughout our parish, we should be able to eliminate the sad phenomenon of cohabitation.]
Step #2: At our parish we will use the FOCCUS inventory, perhaps the most popular engagement inventory in the United States. FOCCUS stands for “ Facilitating Open Couple Communication and Understanding”. The couple separately answer agree, disagree or undecided to about 150 statements which span the categories of faith, child-rearing, career, finances, communication, human sexuality and family history issues. The inventory is then scored, and the priest/deacon reviews pertinent questions with a couple to determine compatibility and capacity for marriage. I really like this instrument, because it allows me to get to know a couple quite well in very little time. I get to see how they communicate with each other, and eventually I try to enhance their appreciation for the Faith in every area treated by FOCCUS. There is no set number of meetings required to work through the FOCCUS inventory; it depends very much on where the couple is at in their understanding and communication of each of these categories. My experience is that it takes usually 2-3 meetings to get through the FOCCUS. Then I will meet with a couple a few more times to cover the following: the purpose of the human person (so necessary to understand if you are to raise children), sacrament in general/marriage specifically, and human sexuality.
Step #3: Every couple is required go through an engagement retreat. In the last couple of years, the Diocese has put together a very nice weekend retreat which enables the engaged couple to hear from faithful married couples in the following areas: communication, finances, spirituality, human sexuality/intimacy. Every month there is at least one of these retreats available in the Diocese. We sponsored one at this parish last Spring, and we will do so again the last weekend in April. I very much appreciate the fact that this weekend retreat includes a very strong “Theology of the Body” component. In the past couples have usually attended a 1-day Pre-Cana retreat, but the “Theology of the Body” component was lacking. This led to Diocese to create the 2-day version, which is led by couples who have been specially trained by the Diocese. All the talks and discussion from the team members will be firmly from the heart of the Church. [We will continue to sponsor a 1-day retreat in Paulding in February; and I know Edgerton will sponsor one in July. But if a couple chooses this option, we will be asking them to complete a 4 hour DVD course on “Theology of the Body”.] In today’s world of deep confusion regarding human sexuality, young Catholic couples have a mission to live and evangelize about the beauty of married love. This retreat will help them enter into their marriage and their mission more deeply.
Step #4: The couple will be required to attend a Natural Family Planning course. This is a series of three meetings spaced one month apart, in which the couple learns the art of Natural Family Planning. Strongly to be distinguished from the old caricature of the “rhythm method”, NFP is a very effective and wholesome way for a couple to avoid or space pregnancy, if for God’s greater glory a couple determines they ought to do so. Natural Family Planning is also super useful for couples experiencing difficulty with infertility. Since most couples approach marriage with some thought of limiting or spacing children, and since all forms of contraception compromise the marital embrace – even in its dimension of bonding/love-building – it’s necessary to ask a couple to become acquainted with a method that maintains the dignity and beauty of the marital embrace and actually enhances their relationship, if chosen for serious reasons. [I intend to write more about Natural Family Planning and contraception in a future bulletin, attaching the Diocesan brochure from the Family Life Office. I realize that some people have never heard that contraception is immoral, that it compromises even the bonding/love-building power of the marital embrace. It takes time to consider the teachings, to study them, to give one’s due consent to them.]
Step #5: Of course we cannot require somebody to go to Confession; but we strongly recommend it for a Catholic approaching marriage. Removing any obstacle of mortal sin, the newly married person will receive the fullness of grace available at the moment of the creation of the marital bond, the moment of consent or exchanging vows.
Step #6: This is what I like to call the “finalization meeting”. The priest/Deacon meets with the couple to determine the very practical details of how the bridal party will walk up the aisle to be seated, where parents and grandparents will be, precisely which form of the vows to use, which readings the couple has chosen, etc., etc. I think this meeting is appropriately done right in the church where the wedding will happen.
So there is a quick summary of our parish marriage preparation program. Much of it has been happening already, but the structure is now a bit more defined to make sure the preparation is uniform among the priest and deacons, and that it includes the necessary components of the Theology of the Body and Natural Family Planning.
Have a blessed week!
In cordibus Iesu et Mariae,