EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth article in an occasional series addressing current procedures for preparation and administration of the church’s seven sacraments.
Book a reception hall. Order flowers and a cake. Find the perfect wedding dress. Line up groomsmen and bridesmaids.
An engaged couple has a lot to take care of in the months leading up to the wedding. And, if the prospective bride and groom are Catholic, they’ll need to add marriage-preparation sessions to their to-do list.
Every couple planning to be married in the Catholic Church must go through an approved program of marriage preparation, sometimes called pre-Cana classes, according to Sister of St. Joseph Karen Dietz, coordinator of sacramental catechesis for the Diocese of Rochester. Diocesan couples can choose to take marriage-preparation programs at their parishes or participate in sessions offered by the diocese. In the past, engaged couples also had the option of participating in Engaged Encounter weekends — a nondiocesan program — but organizers said a shortage of volunteers has precluded the scheduling of anymore sessions in the diocese this year.
Each diocesan couple must also complete the Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study marriage-preparation inventory, better known as FOCCUS. The inventory consists of more than 100 questions about lifestyle expectations, friends and interests, religion and values, and parenting and family issues, among other matters.
Although marriage-preparation programs offered by parishes differ from each other and from sessions offered by the diocese, FOCCUS has been a constant for all couples getting married in the diocese in the past six years. The inventory takes the form of a standardized test, and prospective brides and grooms complete the inventory separately, marking their individual answers by filling in bubbles on an answer sheet.
Unlike other standardized tests, however, FOCCUS has no right or wrong answers. The individuals completing the inventory choose “agree,” “disagree” or “uncertain” in response to a number of statements related to the FOCCUS categories.
The completed inventories are then sent away to be scored. When the results come back, a parish representative goes over the results with the couple. Together, they look at patterns in the couple’s responses and identify potential problem areas.
“FOCCUS gives a snapshot of the relationship; where the couple is really strong and where they need some more work,” Sister Dietz said.
The diocese offers marriage-preparation sessions a handful of times throughout the year. Usually lasting six or seven hours, these sessions feature married couples giving talks on a number of different topics, including finances, intimacy, interfaith marriages and the sacramental nature of marriage.
After the talk, engaged couples are given time to discuss and respond to what they’ve heard. The couples also receive textbooks they can use to continue their discussions and preparation at home.
It’s important for couples to continue their preparation outside the sessions, said Jane Doolittle, who with her husband, Jim, coordinates the marriage-preparation program for the South Seneca Planning Group: St. James the Apostle Parish in Trumansburg, Holy Cross Parish in Ovid and St. Francis Solanus Parish in Interlaken. The Doolittles, working with another couple from St. James and two couples from each of the other two parishes, lead two pre-Cana sessions each year.
Like those offered by many other parishes, these sessions follow the same basic format as the diocesan programs. Volunteer couples give talks throughout the day on such topics as communication, the spirituality of marriage and balancing practical issues in relationships. Although a session only lasts a few hours, the dialogue generated that day must continue even after the session is over, Doolittle said.
Prayer is a key component of pre-Cana, Doolittle added, noting that members of the three parishes begin praying for engaged couples as soon as they sign up for pre-Cana. Each session begins and ends with prayer, and participants pray throughout the day, she said.
“Prayer is just the bedrock of the program. God has to be at the center of your relationship. He has to be on top, because when those hard times hit — and they will hit — that’s when things can go down quickly in a marriage,” Doolittle said.
The Doolittles’ program also emphasizes church teachings about marriage. These teachings likewise are the cornerstone of the marriage-preparation program offered by the Western Livingston County Catholic Community, according to Diane Knittle, pastoral associate at St. Mary’s Parish in Geneseo.
“I do a lot of education on the sacrament,” Knittle said.
She said she often has to explain the meaning of covenant and how the sacrament of marriage is different than a civil marriage. She recalled with a laugh meeting with one future bride who said she wanted to have a “Mass-lite” wedding, which the bride defined as a Mass-like service without Communion. After telling her there was no such thing as a “Mass-lite” wedding, Knittle took the opportunity to explain to the bride the various components of the Mass. Marriage preparation is an ideal opportunity to clear up misconceptions about the sacraments, Knittle said.
Tools for success
Marriage preparation is not simply a technicality or another hoop through which a couple must jump before getting married, area experts noted. Instead, Sister Dietz observed, it is a way for the church to fulfill its responsibility in witnessing the marriage.
“The church’s desire is that this marriage succeed,” she said. “Through marriage preparation, the church can give the couples the tools they need to succeed.”
The marriage-preparation process helps couples demonstrate readiness for marriage to themselves and to the church, she said. And, although the diocese and its parishes have long offered marriage-preparation and pre-Cana programs, the addition of FOCCUS has helped make the process more objective, Sister Dietz said.
Going over the results of the inventory can help the priest, deacon or parish representative get to know the engaged couple and help him or her look at the couple objectively, Sister Dietz said.
“With the introduction of FOCCUS, the couples have the opportunity to be more intentional in their preparation,” she said.
Three years ago the diocese also implemented a marriage-preparation program specifically for couples entering their second marriages. Couples in this program complete FOCCUS, but also are paired with one of 12 specially trained mentor couples who are themselves in second marriages.
Sister Dietz explained the need for this program by noting that the failure rate for second marriages is even higher than for first marriages, 38 percent of which end in divorce, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
After a couple approaching a second marriage completes FOCCUS, the mentor couple helps the pair understand the results and put together a work plan, which details how each individual needs to grow in order for the marriage to succeed. People don’t often change their behaviors, so there’s a good chance they’ll bring to the second marriage any factors or behaviors that contributed to the demise of the first marriage, Sister Dietz noted.
“The mentoring interrupts this and helps them learn skills,” she said.
Part of the information packet the diocese distributes to each couple participating in marriage preparation is a brochure titled “Building Stronger Relationships and Preventing Domestic Violence.” The brochure presents statistics about domestic violence and offers strategies couples can use to build healthy, nonabusive relationships. Disseminating this information lets couples know that the church will be there for anyone finding himself or herself in an abusive situation, Sister Dietz said.
The information packet also includes a brochure on natural family planning and fertility-care awareness, and a copy of the diocesan guidelines for wedding music.