In a speech to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota on Friday, Pope Francis spoke of a need for a “new catechumenate” for engaged couples. The Roman Rota is the judicial tribunal of the Church that deals with, among other things, null marriages. The pope suggested the creation of a process, similar to that of preparing adults for baptism, that would prepare couples for marriage and continue to accompany them in the early years of their marriage.
Catholic marriage today is a hot mess. The Church recognizes that if a couple is free to marry they have a natural right to do so and no one, including the Church, has the right to create prohibitive obstacles. In order to confer the sacrament of Marriage, the Church does have a right and obligation to ensure that the couple is properly disposed, that is, that they understand the sacramental commitment that they are to undertake. There is therefore some conflict in dealing with the timeline of a couple deciding to marry and their typically abject ignorance on what constitutes Catholic marriage.
The Church recognizes two vocations with sacraments: Marriage and Holy Orders (ordination to the priesthood.) Preparation for ordination takes about seven years of study and training. Marriage? As little as a weekend plus a few short meetings with the parish priest.
In my experience, with few exceptions, the couple that presents themselves for marriage in the Church is already living together. A fair number of them have children. I remember once when I was a parish secretary and a potential bride called. I went into my usual spiel about our requirements, the first being that the couple complete the marriage preparation weekend that the diocese offered. The bride-to-be laughed out loud, explaining that they had been living together for seventeen years and that marriage prep was not an option. The reality is that such a couple would likely require considerable marriage preparation, although the weekend downtown probably would not fit the bill. Unfortunately, few of them are deeply committed to their faith. Even among those who are active Catholics, many do not understand the Church’s teaching and presume it is archaic.
Marriage preparation must begin with a clear understanding of what constitutes Catholic marriage and, unfortunately, that is all but meaningless when a couple is crazy in love and wanting to marry. At that point, they are already starting to book venues and prepare guest lists. Ready or not, it’s happening. Young people need to learn about and understand Catholic marriage before they are anywhere near heading down the aisle and preferably before they are involved in a serious relationship.
Marriage preparation should include discernment about whether an individual is called to the vocation of marriage and also whether a particular couple is called to marriage together. It should discuss what sacramental marriage means and how it is distinguished from a natural or civil marriage. Why is marriage always open to new life? How does our faith sustain us when we are challenged? When we are facing crushing disappointment? And what about our responsibility to raise Catholic children? What does that mean in practical terms? There are many things we need to have thought about before we put ourselves at risk of falling in love with someone who, though perfectly nice, is not a suitable lifetime spouse.
Individuals need to understand this well before a partner enters the picture. They need to understand how chastity enhances the development of intimacy so that they make the healthiest choices from the beginning. They need to have a vision of marriage that includes being an active member of their parish community.
Those of us who have been married for decades know that there is no real preparation. I can remember reading something to the effect that we all wake up at some point and we look at the snoring lump on the other side of the bed and think, “Oh my God, what have I done?” And our spouse will have moments like that too. So long as we don’t think that at the same time, we’re okay. And really, those periods of discontent, even if they are extended, do pass with a little prayer and effort. Or maybe a lot. But our society has created unrealistic expectations of happiness and people panic when they are less than happy. Yes, we should be happy in our marriages, warmly content, and peaceful. And if we marry well, that will mostly be true. But, life happens. Jobs are lost. Parents get sick and die. Money crises occur. Kids are difficult. Sometimes really difficult. People we love, even our spouses, disappoint us. If we allow them, these things will pass and we will return to the happiness and contentment we knew – often better for having weathered a storm together.
What gets us through is our faith and hopefully that is what Pope Francis is getting at. Understanding marriage in the context of our faith, as part of God’s plan for our salvation, adds the necessary context to the ups and downs that life throws at us. I don’t presume to have the answers, that’s for sure, but I am glad to see that the pope recognizes that this needs attention.