Engagement: Preparing for marriage
In this issue:
Engaged couples should discuss and begin to form the habits and virtues they hope to carry into married life.
Focusing on spiritual preparation during engagement can be difficult.
Along with a diocese's marriage preparation program, newly married couples recommend prayer, confession and visiting a Catholic marriage counselor prior to the wedding day.
Pope Francis says a couple should prepare for their wedding by meditating on Scripture together.
By Amber Lapp/Catholic News Service
She sat in the passenger seat, pinning up her permed hair, fussing in the mirror. He was in the driver's seat thumbing through a magazine. The year was 1949 and my grandparents were on a date in small-town Iowa.
On other dates they went to the roller-skating rink, they visited each other's churches and families, they went fishing one hot day in August. Eventually they started to "talk serious" about things like religion and, eventually, marriage.
Their wedding preparations were simple by today's standards: dress and suit, rings, invitations, some flowers to decorate the church. Wedding planning was less time-intensive than it is today, when couples feel pressure to "personalize" their weddings and throw the perfect party for their guests.
But my grandparents' simple wedding preparations did not indicate lack of marriage preparation.
Almost 68 years after their wedding, my grandma lay in bed in a nursing home. My 92-year-old grandpa clasped her hand, whispering sweet words that brought the nurses to tears: "I need you. You are so pretty and your hair always looks so nice. I love you."
Not in the best health himself, he could not be convinced to leave her side to go to his room. He slept in his chair until they eventually rolled his bed in beside hers, holding her hand for days until her soul slipped away.
Many who knew them commented that my grandparents were witnesses to marriage as it was meant to be -- marriage as a sign of Christ's love for the church.
How did they prepare for this kind of love? And can engaged couples learn from their experience?
The secret to their success was the habits they formed together -- habits that prioritized their marriage.
It's not that they had an easy marriage. In the early years, they had to work through personality and denominational differences. (At that time my grandma was Lutheran while my grandpa was Baptist.) They had to make ends meet as farmers living in a small tenant house.
My grandma was often sick, and they mourned the loss of their first child, who was stillborn a few days after his due date and not long before Christmas. Christmas festivities that year were "a strain," my grandma wrote in her diary, and at times it was hard to keep from bawling in public.
These difficulties could have been enough to drive in a wedge of bitterness, as happens to many couples over time and trauma.
Growing up with my grandparents, what I noticed was not bitterness but a remarkable tenderness.
As Pope Francis notes in "Amoris Laetitia," tenderness is a virtue "often overlooked in our world of frenetic and superficial relationships."
My grandparents' tenderness was cultivated over time and given life through daily rhythms and routines -- it did not just happen like a wave or some natural force.
They woke up early each morning to read Scripture together and pray. They did this as newlyweds, as young parents, as empty nesters and retirees, and even in the nursing home.
They shared meals together every day, and once a week they would go into town to get groceries and a meal and coffee at McDonald's. My grandpa would bring Hershey's miniatures in his pocket, and they'd share a sweet treat and time together.
"Love needs time and space; everything else is secondary. Time is needed to talk things over, to embrace leisurely, to share plans, to listen to one another and gaze in each other's eyes, to appreciate one another and to build a stronger relationship," writes Pope Francis.
Once married, it is surprisingly difficult to find the time and space that love needs. What we prioritize in the abstract doesn't always translate into the way we live daily, and we find ourselves living out of sync with our most cherished values.
Too often, the important succumbs to the tyranny of the urgent, and as is the case for my husband David and me, eight years of marriage go by and we find ourselves asking, "How is it that we still don't pray together regularly when we say this is a priority of ours?"
Habits are difficult to form. But once formed, difficult to break -- and essential to deepening love.
Pope Francis writes: "Young married couples should be encouraged to develop a routine that gives a healthy sense of closeness and stability through shared daily rituals. These could include a morning kiss, an evening blessing, waiting at the door to welcome each other home, taking trips together and sharing household chores."
During our engagement, I wish David and I had talked seriously about the habits we hoped to form in our new life together; we dreamt about the future, describing in broad brushstrokes our long-term goals and wondering about the journey God would take us on. That was beautiful and worthwhile.
But I wish we had also thought about the corresponding habits and virtues that could take us closer to those dreams.
It's valuable to begin married life with a set of simple but intentional commitments to ensure that amid difficulties and busyness, couples can be guided by rhythms and routines that make time and space for the relationships that matter most.
(Lapp is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.)
By Maureen Pratt/Catholic News Service
For Catholic couples, the engagement period is about much more than the myriad details of planning a wedding. Beyond the guest list, dress and caterer, there is faith that abides and hopefully grows long after the flowers have dried and the photos are tucked away in albums.
But focusing on spiritual preparation during engagement can be difficult. The logistics leading up to the wedding day can seem all-consuming, and pressures and preconceived notions that today's society promotes are many. But Catholic couples who persevere say they are happy they shut out distractions and stayed a more spiritual course.
Chelsy and Ben Gomez from northern Virginia have been married for a year. From the start of their year-and-two-weeks engagement, they focused on faith and were determined not to be discouraged by the inevitable bumps on the road to their wedding.
"With social media," said Chelsy Gomez, "it seems like everyone else's engagement or wedding is going perfectly. But trying to strive for that creates unrealistic expectations."
Ben said, "Leading up to getting married, the most important thing to focus on is the sacrament. All the other ups and downs, everything is a gift and a blessing." Specific sacraments and prayer helped Chelsy and Ben stay focused on faith.
"Frequent confession was really helpful," said Chelsy. "And even when we were struggling to find daily prayer time or time for silent adoration, Sunday Mass together was a real respite."
Justin and Annemarie Watson were 21-years-old when they married in 2015, and they now have an 18-month-old son. Their engagement was short -- eight months -- and it was a challenge to plan for 300 wedding guests.
"It was hard not to get swept up in wedding planning," said Annemarie. "But the engagement period is preparation for a lifetime. The faith that we built then helps us now to get through struggles, sleep exhaustion after you have a baby or small money problems."
Prayer and other practices helped shape their faith life.
"The rosary is fabulous," said Justin, "And if you make the sacraments a habit while you're engaged and keep going through marriage, the graces are just spectacular."
Time spent with family, clergy and other people of faith as well as an in-depth marriage preparation program (catholicmarriageprep.com) reinforced effective, faith-centered interpersonal coping skills, including a healthy attitude toward sex, and helped them get to know one another well.
"The foundation of our dating lifestyle was church events," said Justin. "We were always finding new things to do, things to talk about."
It was good preparation for realistic married life, Annemarie said. "Abstinence helps develop self-control, which is important during a marriage (for example, in natural family planning or when one spouse is ill)."
In Austin, Texas, Christina, a theology teacher and Catholic blogger (theevangelista.com), and Kristian Jaloway, a former priest who was laicized in 2016, were 33- and 41-years-old, respectively, when they married in December 2016.
With a strong Catholic background, "the spiritual element never felt like it got lost to me," said Christina.
But the couple discovered differences in their approaches to religious practice.
"Christina's background is much more charismatic," said Kristian. "It was new to me." Viewing the differences as opportunities helped them build a solid foundation for their own family's spiritual expression.
"Kristian really stepped up to the plate," said Christina, "During the engagement, we started a prayer routine that we still do."
The Jaloways also supplemented their diocese's required marriage prep with additional reading and prayer and saw a Catholic marriage counselor prior to the wedding.
"You're about to run a marathon that's going to last your whole life," Kristian said. "The more you prepare, the better you're going to do." Better? Or, perfect?
Chelsy said, "God's grace in the sacrament is the only thing that can be perfect. But when things go wrong, those challenges are truly gifts." "And if they don't seem like gifts," says Ben, with a laugh, "think of it as training for married life!"
(Pratt's website is www.maureenpratt.com.)
By Shemaiah Gonzalez/Catholic News Service
As engaged couples prepare themselves for marriage, they look for advice for a rich and loving union. The best advice for engaged couples comes from Pope Francis himself in his apostolic exhortation "Amoris Laetitia" ("The Joy of Love").
He says a couple should prepare for their wedding by meditating on Scripture together, saying it would not be good "for them to arrive at the wedding without ever having prayed together." Couples should ask the Lord "what he wants of them."
For engaged couples unsure where to begin, start with the Scripture readings for your wedding Mass. One of the most popular readings comes from St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians 5:25-33.
St. Paul writes that Christ's union with us, the church, is a great mystery and that marriage is a human reflection of this intimate loving relationship. When a couple is married, that too is a mystical union.
Think how in marriage, the couple complements each other, bringing a strength to balance the other's weakness. And how through encouragement from each other, a spouse grows into fullness as the person God created them to be. In marriage, the couple is stronger than any one of them alone.
St. Paul urges husbands to "love their wives as their own bodies," for this is what happens when the two are joined in marriage, they "become one flesh." "No one hates his own flesh," he says, reminding us to "nourish and cherish" each other.
We are to look to Christ as our model in marriage. St. Paul tells husbands to "love your wives, even as Christ loved the church." The sacrament of marriage, as a reflection of Christ's mystical union with the church, should never be broken, for Christ's love for the church will never fail.
The gift of the mystery of marriage was given to us so that we might more fully understand Christ's love and union with us. This is what is astounding about marriage; it has been given so we can glimpse into Christ's perfect love for us.
As we enter the mystery of Christ's love, surrendering ourselves to it, we draw closer to him. His love shows us how to be loving partners in marriage.
Prayer for engaged couples:
Lord, as we prepare for the sacrament of marriage, we come to ask what you desire from us.
Guide us to know your will.
May we look to your love for us as our model of how we are to love each other.
Show us how to nourish and cherish each other as we would our own bodies.
Bring your strength to our weakness so that we might help each other grow into people you created us to be.
Enable us to grow in our intimacy with you and with each other so that we might experience the fullness of your love.
Thank you for the gift of marriage so that we can more fully understand your love for us.
(Gonzalez is a freelance writer. Her website is www.shemaiahgonzalez.com.)
Engagement is a time to prepare for a lifelong marriage, not just a wedding day, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington writes in a pastoral plan implementing Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation "Amoris Laetitia."
Engaged couples should "discuss together how you can begin to put into practice the qualities you want to live out as a married couple," the cardinal said.
Gathering data and advice from couples in the Archdiocese of Washington, the pastoral plan suggests that engaged couples attend Mass and pray together "to establish a spiritual bond that will endure."
To enrich their wedding-planning process, couples can "read a book together about marriage and take part in Catholic marriage preparation," the document says.
Couples can also find a married mentor couple and ask them about their experience or ask a priest to recommend a mentor couple.
The pastoral plan recommends that couples start "marriage off by being generous. Make a donation to the poor as a part of your wedding budget or in lieu of party favors."
Finally, the plan advises couples to learn about natural family planning to discuss "fertility, intimacy and planning for children."