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A Source of Joy and Practical Help

Some while ago I wrote an article for This Rock outlining an approach to marriage preparation in Catholic parishes that had proven successful in London. I say “successful” but of course I don’t really know — and no one will really know for several years to come — whether or not the thing has really proved its worth. So far, we haven’t kept tabs on all the young couples who attended the courses (it would have been odd and intrusive to do so), but a number have kept in touch because they still live in the neighborhood. They are not only still married and still Catholic, but in some cases have happily attended a young families day and similar events at the church.

I’m still doing marriage preparation talks and still sticking to the same formula, though I hope I’m getting better and learning things. However, a number of specific issues have cropped up that seem to reflect a widespread set of difficulties in this area. Listed in no particular order of importance, they are:

Many of the young people who present themselves for marriage in Church are themselves the offspring of divorced marriages, and while some may thus be very opposed to divorce and keen to make their own marriages work, some react differently and feel threatened by any implied criticism of their parents.

During times of general discussion you inevitably get questions about annulments. These days everyone knows some one who has had one. It’s a complex area and not really suitable for a session aimed at preparing couples for marriage.

Young people bring to all discussions the received wisdom of their generation, so you get sudden questions about “gay rights” and chunks of feminist jargon that clutter up all attempts to communicate information on basic Church teachings.

Most marriages I deal with these days are “mixed marriages,” i.e., between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic. Among the Catholics there is so little knowledge of the faith that basic information is lacking — common prayers, the notion of an obligation to attend Sunday Mass, any sense of a need for regular confession, even concepts such as the seven sacraments. But general catchesis, for which there is an urgent need, cannot become the focus of a pre-marriage talk.

Expectations of how life is lived (good housing, holidays, health, regular meals out, and pleasant entertainment) and a general perception that suffering is largely avoidable and — if it comes — valueless, make it difficult to communicate the truths about marriage. Even if you say with great sincerity that in fifty years of married life a couple will inevitably face the realities of death (at least that of parents and other relatives), illness, job problems, etc., young couples simply don’t believe you. My generation, growing up in the 1960s, at least had a sort of folk memory passed on by parents who had known war and the Depression and life before most folk had cars and central heating. The generation raised in the 1980s and trained in the jargon of the 1990s thinks that any sort of hardship is impossible to manage and that it’s probably wrong even to try.

Some of this may sound a little bitter. It isn’t. A roomful of young engaged couples is a happy place, and there is a great sense of dedication and seriousness as they settle down to a marriage preparation talk. It has been my experience that young couples — especially the non-Catholics among them — are keen to find out what the Church is saying and genuinely want to learn something that will help them to avoid the pitfalls of marriage breakdown and divorce that they see all around them. The problems they bring with them are largely not of their own making, and they certainly don’t involve a deliberate abandonment of goodwill on their part. On the contrary, theirs are open minds into which has been poured a great deal of silly jargon — hence all the “gay rights” talk and son — and which have also received from everyday life a vision of the world wholly at odds with the Catholic vision.

So what are we to do about it? The Catholic evangelist must see marriage preparation work as a piece of work done for the Church. He or she (and women are more likely to offend in this area) must resist the temptation to intrude themselves into young people’s lives and attempt either to “sort out” their problems or to get them to divulge personal stories or secrets. Our task is simply and only to communicate what the Church teaches about marriage and to do so with a love and sense of purpose that enables them to understand that this will be a source of joy and practical help to them all their lives. We must have a genuinely unbiased approach and a genuinely unselfish one. We want them to know that a lifelong love is achievable, that it is God’s plan for us in marriage, and that it has been the lived reality of millions of Christians down the centuries and across the globe.

Answering the specific points raised above has required me to think things through, to study again the Church’s teachings (the Catechism of the Catholic Church really is a very good read and offers in many instances useful language with which to tackle many of these topics) and to talk with people who have had experience in these areas.

On the subject of divorce, we need a language that combines tact, courtesy, and a genuine honor for the feelings of love and respect that people have — and ought to have — for their parents. We need to emphasize our recognition and the Church’s recognition that people don’t go around getting divorced and remarried just for the fun of it. There are huge amounts of anguish and webs of complex relationships bound up in our society’s current divorce patterns. Sometimes people cope with their own situation by saying things that aren’t necessarily true but seem to make things easier socially — “Well, my parents’ divorce came as a relief after years of having them argue” — because that helps them to come to terms with something that was actually traumatic. Or they might say, “I didn’t much like my mum’s new husband, but that may have been because I was a teenager and it was all awkward age,” when in fact they had a natural right to resent the man whose arrival had spelled the end of having their own dad at home.

Sometimes young people say what society expects them to say. Part of the anguish of marriage break-up today is that youngsters are expected to accept that their parents have a right to divorce and remarry. The secular counseling and guidance they have been given assume this and give children of divorce a vocabulary with which they are expected to express it. We don’t need to agree with the statements that people make in coming to terms with their own situation, and we don’t need to imply that the Church has accepted them as true, either.

We must emphasize God’s continuing love for everyone and our own need to seek him out when we are lonely or unhappy. These are neutral areas that often don’t require a comment about the situation of a particular marriage. Sometimes too we need to understand that a generation that has been taught to “share” anger and so on isn’t necessarily looking for a specific, detailed solution but simply for a word of sympathy and understanding. So attempts to work things out (e.g., “Maybe your parents’ marriage wasn’t valid anyway”) are not only doomed but also unnecessary. All that is required is an expression of solidarity and understanding that conveys the message that the person who will best understand and help will be God, to whom it is worth talking about everything, always.

It is important to keep in mind the thought that anyone who has experienced divorce at near-hand has a twofold attitude. First, “I don’t want this to happen to me,” and, second, “Maybe it will happen to me, because statistics show that children of divorced parents are more likely to experience divorce themselves.” We need to show that a simple determination about the first sentence will not mean the successful resolution of the worries expressed in the second. But “with God all things are possible,” and he simply delights in renewal, healing, and restoration and will lovingly rebuild with future generations things that were destroyed by earlier ones. He also offers love, encouragement, mercy, and forgiveness in boundless measure.

Annulment? That’s a topic that always gets raised in Catholic marriage preparation classes. We need to be emphatic: A declaration of nullity (and we should emphasize that this is the correct term-the idea of “getting an annulment” expresses the wrong concept) is a finding of fact that a marriage never existed in the first place. This may be because the marriage was undertaken with a lack of due discretion (pregnant bride and her boyfriend hurrying to the altar in a panic) or there was some other impediment. 

Of course someone will frequently have a garbled version of the situation and say, “Oh, but my cousin/sister/friend got an annulment on the grounds of ‘immaturity’ and somehow it all seemed so silly — I had been their bridesmaid” or something like that. We need to emphasize that there will always be whole areas of people’s married life about which we know nothing, and that because of the confidentiality of the whole proceedings we likely will never find out all of what occurred in any particular case, nor should we. We would do well to emphasize that there has been confusion in the language used to describe the process of obtaining a declaration of nullity. What is vital is a recognition that a declaration of nullity is not “Catholic divorce.”

What about the “gay rights” question raised by the cheery youngster, jabbing into the comfortable glow left by our carefully prepared talk on the beauty of lifelong marriage, fruitfulness, etc.? Probably the person concerned doesn’t care very much about homosexuality as such. The question is a way of saying, “The Catholic Church sounds awfully judgmental and I know we’re not meant to be like that.” Equally probably, others in the room will be a little bored by this and will dislike a lengthy argument on a topic not of their choosing. Again, we need tact and an ability to see behind the immediate question.

The Church teaches — and the audience has a right to know that this is an outrageous concept to many in the present age — that male-female love plays an important and irreplaceable part in God’s plan. This is no arbitrary set of rules, and Catholic morality should not be taught that way. Rather, bring them to understand that God’s revelation to us, his Son being born among us as a man, and his constitution of the Church have a male-female spiritual reality that is reflected in our own physical make-up and in marriage. From the beginning, the relationship between God and Israel — and later the relationship between Christ and his Church — is that of Bridegroom and Bride. 

At a Catholic wedding we speak of this, using Paul’s words from Ephesians 5, and remind each other that the relationship between a man and his bride is like that of Christ and his Church. And the bond between Christ and his Bride was and is fruitful — we are all children of that union, born in baptism. So when Catholics speak of nuptial things, and of physical sexual communion, they are speaking of something that is not only a sacrament, but also one that, when we live it and treat it reverently, speaks to us of the essence of our salvation.

So, as far as marriage preparation, talk of “gay rights” is simply in a different category. It addresses our common difficulties experienced as a result of original sin — a tendency to disorder that runs not only through each individual heart but through us collectively and through society. People experience individual sexual confusion, and society offers sordid things like pornography. Individuals experience loneliness, and society offers opportunities for exploitation. Satan tempts with lust, and society offers derision of chastity. The homosexual rights lobby is caught up in all of this. In looking at male-female marriage and the centrality of God’s plan, we should not make the mistake of speaking in current topical jargon (like using the word “gay”). There is a depth and importance to our study of matrimony that transcends the cliches of the current age.

And finally, catechesis. The young people who come to be married in our Catholic churches may know words like “Eucharist,” and they may know what a church building looks like, and they may even have seen the inside of one pretty often. But they don’t know basic doctrines; they may even have been immunized against them by having had a grisly modernist version offered by Sister Silly in religion classes. How do we cope with this? A marriage preparation class isn’t the place to try to replace the lost years. We can only create an atmosphere in which, through marriage and the establishment of a new domestic church, something new can be rebuilt on God’s loving plan.

Weddings often make people feel traditional. They like the white dress, the sentimental trimmings, the use of a family heirloom or a special gift from Grandma, the sifting through old family albums as families get acquainted, the ritual and cake and the throwing of rice. They may want to do things their own way, but mostly this will be pretty tame stuff. (I’m not speaking here people wanting to be married as they parachute out of an airplane or something like that — you do have to recognize there are oddball cases, but they don’t fall into the category of Catholic marriage.)

We should work on this. Encourage people to read and study the beautiful words of the marriage service. Point out where these originate. You may have to do some liturgical research of your own, but it will repay you, especially the Scripture study. Get them to think seriously as they make their choice of Scripture readings from those listed by the Church, and help them to unpack some of the message of things like the wedding at Cana. Emphasize the meaning of the Church’s understanding of marriage as a sacrament and its link with the Eucharist.

This may be an opportunity to introduce other Catholic material. Some young people are actually rather embarrassed to think about receiving Communion at their nuptial Mass when they know that they have not been going to Mass regularly and may have been away from the sacraments for a long time. They may badly want a full nuptial Mass because they want the best the Church can offer and they are feeling rather religious about it all, and because they were brought up Catholic but feel awkward about receiving Communion and don’t know how to say so. 

They may express this in a slightly aggressive way — “Just because I’m not what you’d call a practicing Catholic doesn’t mean I’m not quite religious” — but they might want a reaffirmation of the Church’s teaching about the need to go to confession and be fully reconciled before going to Communion. They must have the information they need, given in a factual way.

Part of the poor catechesis in Catholic schools has been a terrible introduction to the sacrament of penance: youngsters who as seven-year-olds were made to go face-to-face or who were never taught how to do so. It may sound crazy to older Catholics, especially devout ones, but children find something easier if there’s a formula. If they are taught to expect a confessional and a screen, and to start with “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” then confession is not too difficult. But faced with a beaming priest and an invitation to “share about times when you have not been caring,” confession can be confusing and hideously embarrassing.

Sometimes as adults they may find a whole new dimension to their lives — and their faith — by the discovery that this is a sacrament with its own liturgy, its own beautiful prayers (the words of absolution are, after all, magnificent), and its own reassurances, if desired, of anonymity. A marriage preparation class that hints this is something they can reclaim could be the best news they have heard in a long time.

Marriage preparation need not be filled with trauma. It does not need to be what it so often is — a silly, jargon-filled time when no Catholic doctrine is taught, no information about the Church’s beautiful message is given, and no hope is offered to people at a crucial time in their lives. It can be an opportunity for marvelous work to be done and good friendships forged. But where it is properly handled, where there is a good priest who is keen to enlist the support of older married people with an encouraging message to offer, where it is steeped in prayer and offered in a spirit of real service, it is an area where we can reach out to the generation who will be building our Church for the twenty-first century.

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