Q: Archbishop J, why must we spend 12 weeks in Marriage Preparation?
Marriage is the most significant decision you will take in your adult life. It is more important than your career, the job you do, the university you attend, or the car you drive.
Marriage is the decision that changes all the other decisions you will make from that point on. As such, it requires significant preparation, prayer, reflection, and consciousness.
Many see marriage as something you do at a certain stage of a relationship. I disagree. Marriage is a vocation, as such it is a response to the divine initiative that requires discernment.
When someone believes they have a vocation to the priesthood, their formation is six years, full-time. So, 12 weeks is very short for the most important decision you will make in your life.
Pope St John Paul II says: “Marriage preparation has to be seen and put into practice as a gradual and continuous process. It includes three main stages: remote, proximate, and immediate preparation” (§66, Familiaris Consortio).
If we see marriage as a vocation, then we begin preparation from birth (§208, Amoris Laetitia). The first preparation is to teach the child the ways of God and to be a disciple.
The young person is prepared to discern and live his or her vocation through an active engagement in the life of grace, listening to the Lord and finding our identity in Him. This stage of discernment is conscious and intentional. It is about actively seeking God’s will and a willingness to respond to whatever God asks.
The 1996 Vatican document Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage (PSM) spells out the stages and expectations. It states: “Remote preparation includes infancy, childhood and adolescence and takes place, first of all, in the family and also in the school and formation groups, as a valid assistance to the family” (§22).
It continues: “In this period, a faithful and courageous education in chastity and love as self-giving must not be lacking. Chastity is not a mortification of love but rather a condition for real love. In fact, if the vocation to married love is a vocation to self-giving in marriage, one must succeed in possessing oneself in order to be able to truly give oneself” (§24, PSM).
In this regard, the sexual education received from parents in the first years of childhood and adolescence is important. So also, is the support of the Catholic school and the parish. They work together to shape a world view where God is in the centre of all human interaction as its cause and highest good; where the human body is a gift from God which one gives back to God and, if you are called to marriage, a gift given to your spouse.
The goal of this stage is a well-rounded Christian discipleship where the person is immersed in the life of grace and the life of the parish as a disciple of Christ. The individual has an active prayer life, participates in the liturgy and prayer of the family and the parish.
He or she learns to live in obedience to God and to give generously to those in need. The family, youth ministers, catechists, and the priest work as a team in this formation process.
Remember marriage is a vocation. Every relationship needs to be seen from this perspective.
Up until the moment of marriage, the persons are in discernment mode. They are asking two questions: (1) What is my vocation? (2) Is this the person that God has asked me to marry?
This means that through the early dating, the courtship and the engagement, there is a single purpose for the relationship—discernment of God’s will.
If discernment is the purpose, then you need to live as God asks. Then, chastity needs to be a virtue, and purity of heart a way of life. If you are going to listen to God, then you need to live right with God.
Marriage is the biggest decision in your life, it is worth the sacrifice. It is worth the wait. Too often young people begin living as if they are married and rather than building the foundations of a great friendship, they get distracted by sex and do not do the work of deep human formation for relationship.
The proximate stage should have rituals to focus on vocation and discernment. When a couple become serious, parents should bestow a blessing on them. This should be accompanied with an expectation and a reminder that vocational discernment is the purpose of this stage of their journey.
Important here is catechesis on the Church’s teaching on marriage and the human capacity required to live that vocation. Most marriages fail because the human capacity to offer the self as gift has not grown to maturity.
At this stage, it is vital for the couple to have the opportunity to evaluate their capacity for true meaningful friendship and the ability to give themselves to each other emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically.
Growth in giving oneself on these three levels is the work that is most pressing during this stage. Human and spiritual growth should be at the fore, so each person is intentionally growing their capacity for relationship with God, their family, Church community and their chosen partner (See PSM 33–37).
Engagement should also include a ritual where the couple comes to church on the Sunday after being engaged and asks the priest to bless them and their rings, as they enter the immediate preparation for marriage.
This stage needs to be at least six months. During this stage, the couple should be exposed to a synthesis of the previous preparation, especially its doctrinal, moral, and spiritual content, should there be any gaps in basic formation.
In our Archdiocese, we use the 12-week Joy Filled Marriage programme, which offers a comprehensive approach to marriage preparation that covers not only the sacramentality and theology of marriage, but the practical life skills necessary to live out the rich Catholic vision of marriage.
You are preparing to be domestic Church, to love each other for the rest of your lives. You are preparing to bring children into the world and bring them up in the mind and love of Christ and His Church. This is your vocation. If the first two stages of preparation were not done well, 12 weeks is very short.
Marriage is a vocation for the whole of life; it is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring. It needs long and intentional preparation.
If you believe you have a vocation to marriage, sit with your significant other and read through this article and have a robust conversation of the necessary steps.