Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the release of a Vatican document, marriage preparation looks different now than it did a few years ago.
In 2022, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life released a document to provide new principles for approaching marriage preparation. Pope Francis said in the document’s preface that the reason for the document was to “prevent the increase of invalid or inconsistent marriage celebrations.”
The document indicates a shift from the pastoral care approach to an evangelization approach instead. The Vatican document, "Catechumenal Pathways for Married Life," provides guidelines that local churches can use to approach marriage preparation within the context of evangelization. According to the Vatican’s Dicastery, marriage preparation begins long before engagement and instead begins with education during childhood on human dignity and sexuality.
This document follows studies released in 2021 from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate that shows valid Catholic sacramental marriages have plummeted 69 percent since 1970. Further research from the Pew Research Center shows that nearly 25 percent of U.S. Catholics have gone through a divorce, with 26 percent of that number requesting an annulment.
These social factors all played a role in the creation of the document.
Elizabeth Reha, director of family life for the Diocese of Little Rock, said the catechumenal document expands on many things the family life office does in the diocese.
“Good marriage preparation is about teaching the couples or helping the couples more appropriately center their marriage on Christ and how to pray together and their spirituality,” Reha said.
She said this document signals an evolution toward meeting couples where they are and helping them navigate married life.
“I tell people, especially in our pre-Cana day class, you’re choosing this over going to the courthouse and getting married or getting married in the backyard, so you obviously want something more. And I think that’s what Pope Francis is alluding to, that these couples want more.”
The document isn’t the only thing leading to changes in marriage preparation. Another proponent of change was the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reha said pandemic weddings in 2020-2021 were downsized or rescheduled, while marriage preparation was moved until after the pandemic began to subside. Additionally, moving some facets of the marriage preparation program online allowed couples a break from the stresses that come with planning a wedding.
“The adjustment that we made in this office was about doing it online,” Reha said. “I discovered when I moved all of the Anglo classes online that it became a mini-retreat day for them. They’ve been so busy, they have not stopped worrying about all the pieces of the puzzle of getting married, and the stresses of that … and when they come to this class, they have to stop and take the issues and the questions that we give them to a deeper level.”
For Reha, the pandemic and the Vatican document have emphasized the importance of relationships and community in marriage preparation.
“The changes in the days before the pandemic and now are that we’ve found new ways of imparting information (about different programs and opportunities) and the sharing of couples with other couples,” Reha said. “I think the best marriage preparation is a couple-to-couple experience. I think they get a lot out of their discussions in a class or with their pastor or deacon, but being able to talk to somebody and hear their own experience is crucial. You recognize it’s not just you that’s struggling.”
As Reha wraps up this year’s series of marriage preparation classes, she is diving into the “Catechumenal Pathways for Married Life” document and figuring out how to incorporate its teachings into her classes for the spring.
“As we continue on, we’re looking at the model that Pope Francis has suggested and applying it to our specific area, and that’s why he’s included a lot of flexibility in there,” Reha said. “Marriage preparation is a time of evangelization.”
Reha is also looking at other faith-based marriage organizations and programs, some of which she might incorporate into her recommended marriage preparation plans.
“I’m going in October to a national conference to hear from some of (the organizations) I already know of, and some of the new ones … so there’s lots to look at and see what’s a good fit. But because of our state, most of our areas (are rural) and the couples are so transitional. Sometimes it’s hard to do some programs because they’re parish-based.”
Even though there are more online options to learning than ever before because of the pandemic, Reha cautions couples that they have to be supplemented with in-person connections and community as well.
“You can learn pretty much anything on the internet,” Reha said. “The one thing you can’t learn on the internet alone is a relationship with Jesus Christ and making that the center of your marriage.”
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