It’s never too early for engaged couples to start talking about marriage preparation in the Catholic Church, noted Father Jim Fennessy, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Waterloo and St. Patrick Parish in Seneca Falls.
Engaged couples often have already started to plan the details of their wedding day when they make their first contact with the church, which must be done at least six months prior to the wedding. That can be problematic in cases where the diocesan marriage-preparation programs of pre-Cana and remarriage preparation uncover underlying issues that could lead to additional counseling sessions or a postponement of the wedding date.
"When we do pre-Cana, the reception place has been booked," Father Fennessy noted. "Everything is getting ready to go."
A new marriage-preparation initiative in the Diocese of Rochester is attempting to get couples to think first about the lifetime commitment of marriage rather than concentrating on the one-day celebration of their wedding, said Mary Dundas, diocesan coordinator of evangelization and sacramental catechesis. To do so, the diocese is encouraging families and faith communities to prepare young children, youth and young adults for marriage by modeling strong marriages, by blessing and recognizing couples, and by teaching about the theology and spirituality of marriage in religious-education classes and the home.
A couple "could get married with a justice of the peace, but they have chosen to come into the Catholic Church, and that’s a wonderful moment," Dundas said. "We want to give people a full understanding of what a Catholic marriage entails."
The diocese changed its marriage-preparation guidelines in July 2008 to emphasize that preparing for marriage is a lifetime process and that marriages should last a lifetime. Although people may change, their commitment to staying married should not, Dundas said. The diocese’s revised guidelines ask couples in pre-Cana and remarriage preparation to look to their own lives to see the traits of strong marriages.
"Couples are asked to identify in their own experience married couples who also reflect these teachings, so they are immediately making this circle of support for themselves," Dundas said.
The new guidelines were written because diocesan officials wanted to ensure that couples had successful marriages, Dundas said. The guidelines also coincide with the National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops began in 2004. As part of the initiative, the bishops’ conference commissioned a study on marriage among U.S. Catholics; funded a pro-marriage advertising campaign; and created the Web site www.foryourmarriage.orgto help couples strengthen their marriages. The USCCB also is drafting a pastoral letter on marriage.
Among the factors necessitating the U.S. bishops’ initiative are the declining marriage rate in the U.S. and the corresponding decline in the rate of Catholics who marry in the church; the delay of marriage by young adults to an older age or even indefinitely; the rise in cohabitation (see related story on page B4) and its use by some as a preparation or alternative to marriage; and decades of high divorce rates and their affect on people’s attitudes toward commitment.
To counteract those trends, since 2001 the Diocese of Rochester has given couples the Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study inventory — known as FOCCUS — a series of more than 150 questions intended to help couples identify their strengths and areas where they may have disagreement.
The FOCCUS instrument addresses religion and values, parenting issues, readiness for marriage, extended-family issues, the marriage covenant, financial issues, friends and interests, personality match, commitment, sexuality issues, family of origin, communication, problem solving, lifestyle expectations, personal issues, and dual careers. Special sections also can be used to deal with interfaith issues, previous marriages and cohabitation.
"The purpose is to give (couples) a better foundation," Dundas said. "What our hope is is that their marriage will be successful."
The results are then used in group or individual pre-Cana discussions or, in the instance of remarriage, in one-on-one discussions with mentoring couples. In July 2008, the diocese also launched online pre-Cana as an option for couples who are separated geographically prior to their weddings. However, a group setting for pre-Cana is preferred to online pre-Cana, because the online setting lacks the benefits of group interaction, Dundas said.
"The first choice is in a group with other people," she said.
Under the prior diocesan guidelines, marriage-preparation sessions stressed communication and other life skills that couples need for their marriage. Although that information is still included, the new guidelines also stress what it means to be married in the Catholic Church, including the theology and spirituality of marriage, and church teachings on marriage, family and the rite of marriage. For example, couples explore the difference between a marriage contract that is binding under civil law and a Catholic marriage covenant, which is a loving and lifelong public commitment sealed by God, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Dundas noted that a covenant may have deeper ramifications for couples than would a contract. She cited the example of fidelity as meaning more than just monogamy. An unfaithful spouse could be one who chooses to spend more time on the Internet than with a spouse, she said.
"Do you choose to stay longer at work than go home, because you have an issue you don’t want to deal with?" Dundas said. "A covenant calls you to a deeper level of accountability to each other, even when it’s difficult."
If couples are honest, marriage-preparation discussions can be of great benefit to them, Father Fennessy said. He noted that some couples are initially ambivalent about marriage-preparation programs, but some of their attitudes may be based on outdated program descriptions.
"What I tell people when we meet is that pre-Cana is really for their benefit," Father Fennessy said. "It’s not a hoop they have to jump through; it’s there to help you. I think if you are open to it, it can be a great help."
Lisa Coia, who married Alan Bubel on Dec. 20, 2008, at Our Mother of Sorrows Church in Greece, said although she was initially skeptical of how useful marriage preparation would be, she said she found it to be a straightforward process that raised issues the couple needed to discuss prior to marriage.
The marriage is Coia’s first and Bubel’s second, so the couple met with a mentoring couple to discuss such remarriage issues as creating a new relationship and the adjustments Bubel’s two children would need to make to deal with their union. Coia said the chance to examine such issues prior to getting married gave the couple a fresh start.
"I expect to have a lifelong partnership with Al with shared joys and shared sorrows," Coia said. "Everything I do, I want it to be with him, and I want to be with him for the rest of my life."
Susan McDermott, who is to marry Tim Cassarino May 22 at Sacred Heart Cathedral, said she is looking forward to pre-Cana, in which the couple plans to participate during the next several months.
"We’ve never done anything formal," McDermott said of preparing for marriage. "We’ve picked up a book from the library listing questions you should ask each other before getting married."
Cassarino said the couple is eager to be sure they can fulfill all the marriage-preparation criteria that the Catholic Church requires, especially since they are working to coordinate the details of the wedding day.
"I think the biggest thing we’ve seen to this point is there’s a lot to a wedding," he said. "There’s a lot to coordinate: photographers, music, limos, flowers."
Dundas noted that couples may need to consult with their parishes about some wedding decisions. For example, canon law specifies that a marriage should occur in a sacred place, but Dundas noted that some options may still exist if a couple is interested in an outdoor or untraditional location.
"You could have a ceremony in church and then go to the beach or forest and have a blessing there," Dundas said.
Couples also can find many ways to personalize their ceremonies, including tithing part of the wedding expense to the poor, lighting a unity candle or carrying flowers to a statue of Mary in the church, she said.
"The key elements to consider when planning your liturgy should be sacrament — planning Scripture readings, music and prayers that reflect the holiness of marriage, and hospitality — creating a sense of welcome that invites the full participation of the assembly," according to diocesan wedding-music guidelines, which are available on the diocesan Web site, www.dor.org.
Jen East, who was married Aug. 23, 2008, at Sacred Heart Cathedral, said she found the Cathedral Community’s wedding-music workshop and parish staff very helpful in planning her music and ceremony. East, daughter of Cathedral Community music minister Ginny Miller, also suggested that couples take a breather from wedding planning when it gets to be overwhelming.
"While you are going through the whole process of planning the wedding, it might get stressful, but have fun with it," East advised.
Diocesan officials likewise encouraged couples to keep spirituality in mind during the wedding-planning process. The new marriage-preparation guidelines suggest couples discover God in their daily activities and pray together.
"The marriage journey and the faith journey need to be the same journey," Father Fennessy said.