Marriage preparation classes can be an important field of work for the Catholic evangelist. A large number of the marriages celebrated in our churches today are what used to be called “mixed marriages” — between a Catholic and a non-Catholic. Very often, the Catholic party is barely practicing the faith. Even more often, he or she is ignorant of some of its basic teachings.
Obviously, much of the marriage preparation work concerns discussion of ideas, skills, and information thought to be of practical use in married life. I say “thought to be” because I have some doubts about the value of much of what passes for “marriage preparation” in many Catholic parishes, at least in my own country, Britain. Too many role-play games and (worst of all) invitations to talk about private family matters at communal sessions, can prove fraught with danger. I am also nervous about the current enthusiasm for inviting an older married couple in to “talk about their life together.” This can be useful but may develop into a rather smug look-at-us-we-are-a-happy-loving-couple presentation by well-intentioned folk who indulge quite unintentionally in sentimental self-promotion.
It is also worrying to hear about the pre-marriage counseling offered by groups that do not fully support the Church’s teaching — for instance, giving information about artificial contraception. At one Catholic pre-marriage group attended by engaged couples, condoms and other devices were on display and literature about them was available.
No, what I am discussing here is the involvement of lay people, whether as a couple or individually, giving a structured talk, followed by questions, on the subject of Catholic marriage and running a Catholic home. It is done as part of a properly planned marriage preparation course where several engaged couples are brought together in addition to having their own sessions with a priest.
A talk by a lay person can and should involve a certain amount of personal anecdote and humor but is centered on communicating important and necessary information about what the Catholic Church teaches. The aim is to show that lifelong Catholic marriage, begun at the altar and centered on a Catholic understanding of the sacrament, is both achievable and beautiful, the source of uncountable blessings and an enormous amount of human happiness. Over the past year, working with a priest in a busy London parish where the population includes people from many different nationalities, races, and backgrounds, I have had the privilege of being part of such a program and would like to pass on what I have learnt about how it can be done.
A room of people who are about to be married is on the whole a happy place! There is an atmosphere of great goodwill. There is what one could describe as an “option for the Church,” a general presumption that they ought to hear what it has to say. People may well want to argue about some of the Church’s teachings, but on the whole they will do so in a friendly and civilized way. They are at a stage in their lives when they are unusually open to religious thoughts and ideas, even if only in a slightly sentimental way.
It’s best if the session is opened by a priest with prayer. This not only brings us into the presence of God right from the start but sets the tone and sends out a message about what we are all doing. As the talk opens, it’s important, obviously, to start with a word of congratulations to all present and of thanks at being invited to speak. This then moves easily into discussion of the nature and purpose of marriage itself.
If we are planning to marry in a Catholic church it may be for a variety of reasons. Clearly one of us must be, at least nominally, a Catholic. Sometimes people say, “Well, my mum’s a Catholic, and this is sort of our family church,” which can be roundabout way of saying, “Well, I was brought up a Catholic but I don’t go to church much now.” We may want to have a white wedding with lots of flowers and music and feel the right place for this is a church and feel a bit guilty that we haven’t fulfilled our Sunday Mass obligation for some while. A non-Catholic simply may be going along with something a Catholic future husband or wife feels is important. At any rate, a specific decision has been made to marry in a Catholic ceremony, and we now need to recognize that this carries important implications. We can’t just decide to use the church because it will look nice for the photographs. At this point I sometimes recall an incident that came my way as a journalist. A priest looked out of his study window and saw a wedding group gathering on the lawn outside his church. Had he made a mistake over dates? He hastily put on his cassock and rushed out to greet them. Were they waiting for the ceremony? No-they had married at the local Register Office but had come over to the church for the photographs, because they thought it would look so pretty as a backdrop!
If we hope to treat the Church like that, we may find a sense of unease and disappointment at our wedding. The church building we enter on the wedding day should not be a strange and uncomfortable place to us. Praying together, being in church together, going to Mass together, should be something with which we have become familiar and which is important to us. We are not playing at it, and the church is not a strange edifice we have borrowed for an hour or two-nor are we like those couples who choose an ancient Indian tribal chant as part of their ceremony, with no intention at all of living by the rules of that tribe.
With this preamble, we need to be open and honest about the wedding and what it means. In modern Western society, weddings, like Christmas, are getting more lavish while the original meaning seems to be disappearing. This, in terms of marriage, spells tragedy. A beautiful and memorable wedding day should be the start of a wonderful married life together, not an expensive one-off event that is videoed, only to be abandoned when the marriage ends. None of this means that a wonderful celebration isn’t important-quite the reverse. It is precisely church weddings that have set the pattern for all other wedding celebrations. In a Christian ceremony all the traditions come fully into their own and carry real joy and meaning. Music, white dress and veil, solemn vows, familiar words from Scripture-all come together and make a complete whole, finding their real place.
At this point the speaker can move quite swiftly and easily into Catholic teaching on marriage: that marriage is God’s plan, not man’s invention; it goes back to Creation itself (quote Genesis); it’s how new life is brought into the world; it’s a sacrament and a means of grace. It’s worth bringing in the message of Cana here, because it’s so rich in symbolism and full of things that can help people to “think with the mind of the Church.” We can see how the transformation of water into wine leads us to the Eucharist, where wine will be transformed into something of far greater importance. We can see how Christ can transform the “water” of courtship and love into the “wine” of married life, and so on.
I find that people want to know more about the sacramental nature of marriage, and this is turn ensures that the Catholic teaching about divorce and remarriage is seen in its real perspective-not as a set of “club rules” for Catholics but as the way things really are. In an important sense, we have somehow to convey that the civil law permitting divorce and remarriage simply doesn’t apply to those who marry a Catholic in a Catholic ceremony. Marriage is of its nature lifelong. It was not invented by the civil authority, but by God himself. The civil law permits and encourages many things that we know to be wrong. If the civil law permitted or encouraged cannibalism, it wouldn’t mean that cannibalism was acceptable-it would be just as wrong as before and just as contrary to God’s law. If cannibalism seems a bit far-fetched, substitute “abortion” and the parallel is exact.
There may be questions about annulments. Sadly, declarations of nullity seem to be obtained with considerable ease in some areas, so the teaching needs to be explained clearly. It is essential to emphasize that a statement of nullity is a statement that a marriage never existed. This will be clearly understood in the case of, for example, non-consummation or where someone was brought reluctantly to the altar when a teenager. Where people say, “Oh, but I know a case where the couple were keen Catholics, married for over twenty years. . . .” it is best simply to acknowledge that there are probably inevitably cases where the system is abused, perhaps especially if people are prepared to tell untruths in order to obtain the desired declaration of nullity.
In a culture where divorce is seen as utterly normal, the idea that “Catholics can’t divorce” is seen as intriguing. Just as fascinating is the Church’s teaching that we should remain chaste until marriage. It is worth pointing out some human realities here-for instance, that those who live together before marriage are much more likely to divorce later on than those who do not. Other purely human and social problems facing those who live together before marriage can be mentioned, too. But it is the Church’s teaching that matters most, and the catechism is useful here. Use the Scripture references suggested by the catechism itself, emphasizing the sacramental view of things.
It’s important never to sound priggish. It is not “me” telling “you,” with the assumption that “I” am right and “you” are wrong. It is all of us listening to the teaching of the Church. If we have lived in a way that we know to have been wrong and are trying to face the future as adults and with maturity, we may find the courage to talk to God about this openly. If we are even nominally Catholic, we need to think about this. If we can’t face the idea of going to confession-especially if it has perhaps been rather too long since we last went-it can make us wonder how adult and honest we really are! Put more positively, there is something rather exciting about the idea of entering marriage and making those vows when we are renewed and free from taints of the past. And there might be things we can say to God and a confessor that we could not, and should not, say even to a future spouse.
A marriage is the start of a new home and family. We need to have some idea of what the spirit and message of this home will be. How will we celebrate Christmas? Easter? An important anniversary? Spiritual life is at the core of things. We can’t ignore God and then suddenly switch on prayer when we need it-at the bed of a very sick child, for instance, or a dying parent. Marriage includes the giant moments of our lives-childbirth and financial crisis, glorious romance and sordid arguments about money, hilarious fun with children and ghastly arguments with anguished teenagers. This is a spiritual journey; we need not stagger blindly along without a light. Of course, God is always there when we need him, but we should not turn to him as embarrassed strangers-he should be someone we know and address as a loving friend. We need a language in which to do it. We can have favorite prayers and favorite places to pray. Courtship is a time when all sorts of special memories are being created. A visit to a shrine or old church, talks together about God and faith, could be part of this.
When question time comes, it helps if a priest is present and can back up what has been said or add more specific information. During the talk, it is useful to tell anecdotes and make personal allusions to illustrate a point, but never to sound cloying or boastful. On the other hand, I found that engaged couples liked stories of hardships (for example, financial ones) overcome or difficulties sorted out, if told briefly and with humor. They like the idea of marriage as a sacrament, a thing of God lived out in a real and everyday way. They like to be told that they will be ministers of the sacrament to one another.
In this parish, each couple had had talks with the priest over the preceding weeks, concentrating on basic doctrinal issues (“We start with things like the existence of God,” he told me. “You chat a bit to find out how much they know and then go on from there”). This Saturday was a blazing hot day, and we were meeting in a school classroom. There must have been many more enjoyable things to do in London on that day, but I was impressed to see that there was nevertheless a nearly one hundred percent attendance rate of those who had been asked to come.
An enormous amount depends on the priest. This one had initiated this whole venture as an alternative to other forms of marriage preparation that he had seen in action and found unimpressive. He is orthodox, cheerful and prayerful-we need more such priests and they need our enthusiastic support.
I found that people recognized and understood that I was making a contribution as a laywoman, with no pretensions to any quasi–clergy role. They liked this. I spoke about marriage as the basis of society: A happy childhood in a family with two parents married to one another is the best preparation. This is what we will be passing on to our own children, who one day will be awaiting marriage in their turn. The Catholic Church always takes everyday things-water, bread, oil, wine-and uses them for sacred purposes. Marriage is like that, too. God uses us and through our bodies brings new life into the world.
Young couples getting married in our churches need and deserve to know the fullness of the Church’s teaching, including the fact that marriage is open to life and designed to be a channel of life. Proper marriage preparation should include a specific talk on this, given by a qualified teacher of natural family planning. Couples also need to have a familiarity with the marriage service and nuptial Mass, and be encouraged to choose from the list of appropriate Scripture readings. A talk on this should come from a priest.
They have a right to know, too, that the Church is with them all the way as they marry, that all of us who are members of the Church will be slightly in awe of them for a moment as they stand at the altar to make those promises and minister this great sacrament to one another. That’s why people cry at weddings. It’s a sudden realization that we are back at the beginning, back where God started it all in the Garden. And any pre-marriage talk must end by wishing them every blessing and letting them all know that God will never let them down on this great adventure.