Sitting at a high-top table in Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, just a few blocks away from Pope Francis and the World Meeting of Families, a young priest friend leaned in and asked me what I wish had been different about my marriage prep. “Having been through it recently, what would you change?” This priest, recently stationed in a low-income diocese in the Midwest where his church roof is actually caving in, is trying to build a diocesan marriage prep program from scratch.
It’s a monumental challenge, and a challenge of monumental importance.
His question—how to better prepare couples for marriage—is supposedly one of questions the Synod fathers are grappling with in Rome. It's certainly a challenge several bishops and cardinals have alluded to in their interviews here at First Things during the course of the Synod. And it’s a concern that Pope Francis got at in his in-flight press conference returning from Philadelphia to Rome when he said:
I think so often that to become a priest there's a preparation for 8 years, and then, it’s not definite, the Church can take the clerical state away from you. But, for something lifelong, they do four courses! Four times… Something isn't right. It’s something the Synod has to deal with: how to do preparation for marriage. It’s one of the most difficult things.
Pope Francis spoke truth to something that so many of us have been thinking about, and no doubt many others had never thought of before but immediately understood. For most, marriage prep involves a chaotic weekend in a conference center with hundreds of other couples, only to be set loose into a relationship that completely alters your state of existence. Pope Francis is right; it is one of the most difficult things to prepare couples for marriage in a culture that has everything about it wrong and with a Church that is already so strained by the world’s problems.
But as I began rattling off ideas while my priest friend tapped notes into his iPhone, I was struck by the modern and youthful energy of the Church to tackle this issue, and the readiness of the laity to help. And so I offer five humble and low-cost things that the Church could do now to help married and engaged couples. No doubt, plenty of churches already have already implemented some of these ideas, but not in any kind of uniform way across the Church in America:
1. Advertise local natural planning courses in the bulletin or on materials easily found at the entrance. I’ve only ever seen this done in one church, and it cost the church nothing. That church actually hosts the course. In an ideal world, those courses would be made free, like annulments were just made, as opposed to the several hundred dollars they currently cost. But just seeing the advertisement is a reminder to the laity that the Church offers a natural and moral means by which to plan their families. When a contraceptive culture is at the root of so much marital strife, anything that makes the Church’s teaching and alternative option clearer and more accessible is good.
2. Require priests to preach about marriage. Many people from an entire generation will readily admit that catechesis about marriage from the pulpit was non-existent for decades. The reality is that for much of the laity, their only encounter with the Gospel is on Sundays, if they make it. Were bishops to require of priests that they make a commitment to touch on an aspect of marriage and the family once a month in their homilies, even if just to reinforce the basic tenets of marriage—a permanent commitment made freely with openness to life—that would help countless to grow in their understanding of the sacrament.
3. Require follow-up meetings or courses for couples post-wedding. The average marriage that ends in divorce does so after just eight years, which suggests that the first years are the hardest, no doubt because this is when the life-change is most dramatic. Complete independence is upended. Small children only reinforce the permanence of self-sacrifice. For couples that go straight from the honeymoon to morning sickness, the change can feel violent. As one First Things writer recently documented in “How the Church Saved My Marriage,” an open letter to the Synod Fathers:
Despite a lovely courtship and beautiful wedding, the first eighteen months of our marriage were terrible. Although we loved one another, we were unprepared for the daily compromises, negotiations and renunciations of self that a loving and successful marriage requires. Independent and extremely willful, we fought. We fought so ferociously and so often that after we entered couples therapy, our therapist told my husband that he should leave me.
The author documents how therapists encouraged them to divorce, while the Church kept them together. But so many couples never turn to the Church to begin with. The Church should build that support into a marriage plan, either by requiring enrollment in post-wedding marriage enrichment classes prior to the ceremony, or by requiring priests to follow-up personally with couples they have married on a scheduled basis for the first months or years of marriage.
4. Appoint a volunteer in every parish to coordinate a marriage mentoring program in which newlyweds and young, married couples are paired off with older married couples. Those couples can decide how to proceed. It could be as simple as scheduling occasional coffees or home visits or dinners out. I’d love nothing more than an older married couple my husband and I could meet with from time to time, if not just for the reminder of what the long-term result of the day-to-day struggles looks like when permitted to grow and deepen. A quick scan of the lay volunteer gender ratio in American dioceses suggests there are plenty of potential female candidates who could manage such a program.
5. Look for low-cost ways to accommodate nursing mothers and parents with small children. I recently played with my children on a church playground in downtown D.C. while waiting for Mass to begin. My husband was out of town. Another mother with children the same age joined us. She seemed sad as she told me that she and her husband, who was also away on business, used to go to Mass with one child, but with two it just got too hard. I know countless couples that married in the Church, but fell away when children came. Every church I have ever been to has a room that with some toys, books, a comfortable chair, and a simple audio system, could start to bring those families back.
As lay Catholics, it is insufficient to sit back and expect the Synod fathers to solve the marriage crisis on their own. It is especially unproductive to huddle and criticize and conspiracy theorize. Rather, we are as much the agents of change as they, and coming up with concrete and constructive ways to be helpful is what the Church is asking of us. And as Cardinal Erdo pointed out in his opening Synod remarks, listening to the challenges of married couples is supposed to be one of the major themes of the instrumentum laboris. The Church, he points out, wants to hear from us. I think of my friend with his clerical collar and iPhone, intently listening amid the bustle of a busy market, and I know this to be true.
So while we anticipate the fruit of work of the Synod Fathers in Rome, the lay faithful can begin laying the brickwork on the ground. And that work starts today.
Ashley McGuire is a Senior Fellow with The Catholic Association. Ashley writes and speaks widely about religious freedom, Catholicism, and women.