Could marriage preparation by itself become a thing of the past for couples approaching the wedding altar?

The idea of a “marriage catechumenate” — a period of formation for marriage that would cover a period of time both before and after the wedding day — was part of the discussion at the ongoing synod of the family taking place in Rome.

“At least 10 times, the topic of a ‘catechumenate for marriage’ came up,” Vatican spokesman Father Thomas Rosica revealed at an Oct. 6 media briefing, describing it as “preparation for marriage, a longer process for marriage, as well as a preparation that takes place in the years right after the [wedding]; it continues.”

Lauren Cater/CNA

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Overall, Catholics have a lower rate of divorce than the general population in the United States. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University reports close to one out of three (or 28%) of Catholic marriages end in divorce. But the rate jumps to nearly one out of two marriages ending in divorce for Catholics in “mixed marriages” with Protestant or non-religious spouses.

CARA’s surveys also show that weekly Mass attendance and church involvement correlate strongly with better family outcomes, such as spending time together as a family, eating dinner or playing games as a family, or even praying together. But just one out of five Catholic parents with children at home go to Mass weekly; and just under half of Catholic parents go to Mass once a month or more. The other half of parents go rarely or not at all.

One of the proponents of a “marriage catechumenate” type of formation is Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who proposed the idea in a book called The Mystery and Sacrament of Love, first published in 2007, but updated later to coincide with the synod discussions. The cardinal noted that, with so many couples poorly formed in marriage, the Church might instead offer them a “prolonged catechumenate” for marriage “if they wish to celebrate their marriage covenant in a Christian way.”

“Marriage catechumenate” is not a technical term. The “catechumenate” is technically a period of formation in the Christian faith for those approaching baptism.

But the concept of a post-baptismal catechumen experience of ongoing catechesis is a reality lived by Catholics who belong to the Neocatechumenal Way.

“It has helped me live out my marriage in a Christian way,” said Andrew Malone, a married father of eight who is part of a “Neocat” community at St. Benedict Joseph Labre parish in Queens, N.Y. While the Neocatechumenal Way has no formal marriage-preparation program, its catechumen-like catechesis involves two key important elements: sound, ongoing formation in the faith and a supportive community at every step of a person’s journey deeper into the faith, so he or she does not get lost or discouraged.

“It’s a lifetime apprenticeship,” said Malone, pointing out that many members in this context grow from “an infantile faith to a more mature faith that is trying to deal with all the difficulties of life.”

Marriage Like RCIA

Some dioceses are already drawing inspiration from the catechumen-model in order to rethink how they can form engaged couples who have little grasp of their faith and an understanding of marriage shaped largely by secular culture.

“The goal of marriage preparation is spiritual encounter with Jesus Christ,” said Mike Phelan, director of parish leadership support in the Office of Marriage and Respect Life for the Diocese of Phoenix, who told the Register that the diocese revamped marriage preparation to “imitate the catechumenate.”

In Phoenix, couples go through a nine-month formation process intended to help bring about conversion. The groundwork consists in completing the pre-marital inventory and typical education about basic marriage and communication skills.

“The goal of that is to do pre-evangelization, so we can begin evangelization,” Phelan said. The next steps are a day-long program following the DVD-based God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage (Ascension Press), that immerses the couple in the Scriptures, the kerygma (proclamation of the Gospel), canon law and theology of the body. The couple is later taught natural family planning and goes to confession before celebrating the sacrament of matrimony.

“It completes a good amount of catechesis,” he said of the program. The anonymous feedback they have received shows close to half of their sexually active couples decided to abstain until marriage — as the Church teaches — after going through the program, and up to 60% said they were committed to using NFP.

One of the areas Phelan said that needs more work is helping couples to reconnect to the parish after the wedding. He said the diocese is hoping the synod on the family can give them concrete ideas in how to bring these couples into the parish and ongoing formation, especially during the first five years of marriage when couples go through early crises. The diocese is trying to get parishes to connect engaged couples with older mentor couples they can relate to, and this could provide an existing relationship to invite the newly married to take an active part in parish life.

“It’s growing as a pastoral concern,” he said. Phelan added that 20% of their parishes now have hired staff focused on marriage and family life, and they are seeking to expand their network of marriage and family counselors.

Ongoing Formation Needed

The Archdiocese of Chicago is known as the birthplace of pre-Cana, but since the 2000s, under the leadership of the late Cardinal Francis George’s leadership, it moved away from a marriage-preparation model to a “marriage ministry” model.

Frank Hannigan, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Marriage and Family Ministries, said a comprehensive formation process for couples before and after the wedding was “absolutely the way to go.”

“For too long, parishes in the Catholic Church have done a ‘one and done’ [approach]. … Once the couple is married, there is nothing for them afterward,” he said. “It’s not helpful, and it doesn’t seem to work.”

Instead, the archdiocese’s marriage-formation strategy now has four components: age-appropriate education in relationships and marriage, ranging from grade school to college years; personal preparation of the engaged; preparation for the marriage celebration; and ongoing education for the newly married.

Hannigan said that marriage preparation for the engaged includes a series of videos that speak to different couples’ situations, e.g., cohabiting, stepfamilies or deployed military; can be worked through by the couple at their own pace; and also education in natural family planning. They are also available online and can be reviewed for a year and a half after getting married.

“What we’re doing is a personalized marriage-prep experience,” he said.

But he said few dioceses have concrete programs for what to do with the newly married, but they see providing ongoing formation as a necessary “ministry of accompaniment” for the family that Pope Francis has called for. The archdiocese offers five workshops for the newly married — they are working to make them available online for those unable to attend — sends out regular e-newsletters on marriage to 10,000 couples, and sends a calendar to married couples that has daily ways to invite them to think about their marriage. They also offer a day-long retreat for married couples that involves short talks with time for a couple to take a walk, reflect and discuss what they learned.

“We felt we had to put our efforts into continuing education, because that’s the longest part of the sacrament,” Hannigan said.

Chicago is not alone in developing new methods: The Augustine Institute developed a marriage-preparation and ministry resource called Beloved. And other dioceses and archdioceses have been re-evaluating their programs and reformatting ongoing outreach.

Canon Law

Expanding the process of marriage formation could be helpful, or it could backfire, if it becomes merely perceived as “more hoops” that could discourage people from looking to the Church for marriage preparation, according to Benedict Nguyen, a canon lawyer who serves as canonical counsel and theological adviser for the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas.

Nguyen said expanding the process would have to be done right and that canon law actually provides a beautiful vision for marriage formation in Canon 1063. It involves ongoing catechesis of youth and young adults before they are dating or engaged, personal preparation for the engaged and ongoing formation for the couple after the wedding.

But Nguyen said all the components need to be put in place together, or any strengthening of marriage prep will achieve “mixed results, at best.” The status quo is also not an option either.

“I don’t think that marriage preparation as it is done today will ever achieve the results we would like to see,” he said, adding that trying to provide marriage preparation at the engaged phase is “almost too late.”

Nguyen said canon lawyers on tribunals “see on a daily basis the trends that cause marital relationships to break up.” He recommended that parish and diocesan family-life offices dialogue with them and then “collaborate closely with directors of catechesis and those in youth ministry to see how formation in Christian vocation, especially marriage, can be integrated appropriately at all catechetical stages.”

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