Love is patient, kind, not selfish, not jealous or pompous, never inflated or rude, doesn’t seek its own interest, mollifies tempers and never broods over injury. St. Paul’s insight into love has spread for thousands of years from Corinth to a multitude of Marriage ceremonies. The words of St. Paul are indeed the foundation for a strong and happy Marriage, but they will never take root within a Marriage without preparing the soil of the relationship. Pope Francis told a gathering of Vatican judges that, “Love needs truth.” If love is not rooted in truth it “is subject to changing feelings and does not stand the test of time.” If the Church provided better Marriage preparation then the need for annulments would be greatly reduced.
Strong Marriages begin when a child learns to be loved and accepted in its family. Strong relationships begin when the adolescent learns that God is at the foundation of every life decision. By the time the child becomes a young adult the foundation is in place to start talking about the important issues that challenge and build Marriages. Limiting Marriage preparation to the few months before the wedding is like throwing a slab down on the beach, building a house, and expecting it to remain standing after the storms pass through.
Couples can plan and arrange Marriage ceremonies anywhere, but if they approach the Church they are asking to be prepared for a Sacrament. Marriage preparation is often focused on the practicalities that couples will face, and these are very important to discuss before they enter into a lifelong commitment. Some of the issues brought out in the preparation will be overcome as the couple’s love matures and aligns itself with the ideal set forth by St. Paul. Other issues can be the harbinger of a sad and broken relationship when the storms arise. The Church teaches that Marriage is a covenant, not a contract. The nuance of the difference is rooted in an understanding that God is part of the compact made in Marriage. This is not a lesson easily taught; it must be witnessed.
The Church has become acutely aware of the need to continue the Spiritual formation of the individual after any Sacrament. After the party is over and the couples resume life as a new entity, they often get lost to the Church. Marriage needs to be nurtured by the faith community. This is a great challenge for our parishes, but Pope Francis implores us to find a remedy or risk losing the souls of couples and the families they will create. He asks that parishes increase their efforts when it comes to preparing young couples for Marriage, calling for a “new catechumenate” in preparation for Marriage. “Just as adult converts need to prepare themselves for the Sacrament of Baptism, so should those who want to enter the Sacrament of Marriage.”
Creating a comprehensive approach to Marriage preparation requires a very different philosophy within a parish. Rather than looking at this directive as yet another program to tack onto the already busy and overburdened staff, parishes need to become mission-driven; focused only on forming disciples. If the Church is going to create an environment that nurtures young married couples in their faith then parishes need to think in terms of the original mission of Jesus Christ. Every event and activity within the parish, including Marriage preparation, will ask the question, “How does this help people to encounter Jesus?”
St. Valentine’s Day is a day set aside to celebrate love and provides the perfect backdrop on which to paint God’s plan for Marriage. The U.S. Bishops Conference has dedicated February 7 to 14 as National Marriage Week, calling it an opportunity to promote, celebrate and strengthen Marriage. Parishes might wish to use this occasion to introduce a mission-driven approach to Marriage preparation without adding a single new program or staff member. Remote preparation for Marriage can begin by asking the little children where they saw love in their families.
A young married couple can be asked to tell the youth about how they made the decision to marry; planting the seed of discernment into their decision making. Invite a married couple to give a brief witness of how Jesus accompanied them at a moment in their Marriage. Give the names of the newly-engaged couples to a married couple and ask that they pray intentionally for their Marriage to grow in faith. Announce the names of the engaged couples so that the whole parish can celebrate and pray for them. Encourage couples to go on a Marriage Encounter weekend. Use National Marriage Week to launch an intentional campaign to promote the good of all marriages. Nurture the soil so that the words of St. Paul will find fertile ground to grow strong Marriages.
Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation.