by Joanna Bogle
If you mention “marriage preparation” in a Catholic context, the image that is conjured up at any rate in Britain, where I live is not always a very attractive one. Some young couples have described to me the talks given by counselors who use a lot of language about communication and “sharing your feelings” and seem to suggest that the Church’s role in marriage is to provide an opportunity for a celebration with any mention of God, or of marriage as a sacrament, strictly relegated to the sidelines.
Others have described well-intentioned but not very informative chats with clergy (“I thought he would tell me something about the Catholic faith, as my wife is Catholic and was very keen that I should learn about it, but he just waffled and didn’t say anything very specific”); and still others have admitted attending various sessions but not paying much attention as their own thoughts were much too preoccupied with the minutiae of the wedding arrangements and sorting out the necessary paperwork.
So when I was first invited, some years ago, to participate in some marriage-preparation talks for young couples, I was well aware that it wasn’t going to be easy. The course was launched by a priest who was unsatisfied with the program of marriage preparation presented in the diocese and decided to offer something better, something that would introduce young couples to the richness of the Church’s teachings, and offer a vision of the glory of Christian marriage and the beauty of this sacrament.
I was invited to speak, as a Catholic married woman and a journalist, at a marriage preparation day that focused on the theme of communication. This theme has actually proved a useful one: it has a neutral and non-threatening tone to it most people do feel that it’s important to communicate properly with a spouse and there is a general feeling that perhaps a lack of good communication can contribute to marriage breakdown.
In fact, over the course of the years that the project has been running, what has tended to happen is that “communication” has become a general theme into which a good many useful messages about the Church’s teaching on marriage and family can be explored. After all, marriage is not merely about communication between husband and wife, but also about God’s communication with us, about our bond with the Church, with our wider families (including parents, in-laws, future children) and with the community of which each family is a part.
I learned, over the years, to include these things that could reinforce messages that were taught in other parts of the course, including the challenging ones about chastity, faithfulness to the Church’s teaching, and openness to life.
I’d like to pass on some of what I have discovered, as it seems that there is a general recognition of the need for marriage preparation, and it is worth noting what works well and what doesn’t.
The “Communications Day” is part of a lengthier course and brings together couples who, ideally, have been attending other talks and discussions over a period of weeks. Things don’t always work quite like that but, at least for some couples, there has been an opportunity to discover in some depth the Church’s message on marriage, with sessions looking at God, prayer, children, and the whole idea of marriage as a sacrament, along with opportunities to explore their own understanding of marriage and to tackle issues that matter to them. They also attend, privately, a session with a Natural Family Planning practitioner.
Among the things that work well in these classes is that it is enjoyable and interesting for young engaged couples to get to know others, and to build up informal networks. Many most of the young couples who approach a priest about marriage are not fully practicing their faith. Most will already be living together, and have only a tenuous link with the Church.
Those that are truly committed to the Catholic faith are in the minority but in mixing and forming friendships with others these faithful couples may have a positive influence which they neither plan in advance nor realize.
Even if this doesn’t occur, the simple friendships formed, the swapping of chat about weddings, the conversation and laughter, all help to reinforce a culture of marriage a sense that this is all happening under the wing of the Church, and that this is natural and good. This is healthy. (If you should think that this seems rather vague and not worth mentioning or celebrating, then you are probably not aware of the reality of life in modern Britain, where male/female marriage is too often derided as being an outmoded way of life, and no longer worthy of being supported by public policy.)
More important, though, is that in a planned and structured series of presentations, it is possible to talk about things that really matter. In the program with which I have been involved, the young couples are presented with the fullness of the Church’s teaching including, yes, the truth about human sexuality and the fact that sexual union belongs only in the bond of marriage, and is intrinsically and in principle connected to the gift of new life, to children. This is not something they are likely to have heard elsewhere.
For many engaged couples, any mention of the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality will also raise the matter of previous sexual involvements. When speaking about all of this, we have found that what works is a generalized approach and an emphasis on themes of prayer and God’s forgiveness including the sacrament of confession.
The plain fact is that most of us feel uncomfortable about sexual encounters that are not part of a life-long matrimonial bond, even if society constantly tells us that we shouldn’t be concerned. So talking about this in a delicate but clear way can actually be a relief. What doesn’t work is sounding old-fashioned, priggish or pompous. (That doesn’t mean the speaker has to pretend to have committed a whole range of sexual sins it’s just a matter of sounding ordinary, and straightforward, and, frankly, humble.)
A Clean Slate
Sometimes you could almost hear a pin drop when confession is mentioned. I am not sure that this means that everyone feels a sudden need to get right with God. Everyone is on a journey everyone is different. But there is an interest in the notion of making a fresh start of starting the great adventure of marriage with a “clean slate”, as it were. Of course our mention of confession is not chiefly in connection with sexual sins but about all sin, and there is a general recognition of the beauty of starting marriage free from old resentments, bad behavior, lies, and so on.
What I have discovered is that when these subjects are mentioned which incidentally is only fairly briefly there isn’t resentment or anger at what is being said. To be honest, it is more a sense of “Wow! Somebody’s actually saying this!” It would be too much to say that the atmosphere is one of relief but it’s very nearly like that.
The reality is that people are sometimes intimidated not by the great act of confessing sins but by something surprisingly trivial. I learned this when, in informal discussion, one young woman, pushing her hands through her hair several times, and shrugging a lot, and looking deliberately unconcerned, blurted out, “If a person ... um ... if a person hadn’t been to confession for, like, maybe ten years or something … um … how does she, or her, whatever … um … sort of begin?”
Often, people simply want to know the formula it sounds absurd, but when the simple “Bless me Father ...” wording was given, and the basic structure was explained, it became clear that it was this information that was useful.
This is also true of prayer in general it just sounds pompous to tell a couple that they should pray together. But they are often interested in specifics: for example, a suggestion that they say the Our Father together, or visit a church and light a candle, or say a prayer to the saint after whom the church where they are marrying is named. It sounds slightly absurd but people like information, not exhortation. Non-Catholics, especially, are often attracted by some small Catholic devotion of the kind mentioned.
Joy and Hope
Sometimes you learn a lot from the young people, who frequently astonish with their sincerity and their commitment to the future. There is joy and hope and expectation of good things and this is all very encouraging in a jaded and cynical world. There can also be some absurdities: an over-emphasis on the trimmings of the wedding-day (all those wedding-planners and organizers of elaborate parties are actually responsible for a lot of heartache and expense); exalted expectations of mutual emotional support down the years (“To me, marriage is all about knowing someone will always be there for me, supporting me.” Hmm. Sometimes real love is a bit more sacrificial than that!); or unrealistic ideas about how easily problems will be overcome (“If you always talk things through, there can’t be many problems.” Ah, if only it were this simple!)
Many of today’s young couples grew up in broken families, victims of divorce. They love their parents, but they desperately want to avoid divorce for themselves. They seek something that will magically guarantee this, and of course they know there is no such thing. Everything in this world is damaged and broken and messy because of Original Sin the Sacrament of Marriage offers new hope and God’s glorious strength, but it is given to our ordinary human hands and we can mess it up only too easily. We need daily prayer and daily strength. We also need the prayers of the whole Church including the prayers of those who, messy and broken themselves, are trying to help with marriage preparation.
And that is the main thing I have learned. I can’t pass on a simple key to marriage. I can only teach what I have been given, and that is the truth that comes from Christ and His Church. I cannot rely on my own strength to do this. In the end, I will fail: I’ve had some extremely unsuccessful sessions (I recall with horror one that developed into an argument about gay-rights, with everyone denouncing the Church for being oppressive and me struggling to cope and losing my cool in the process).
My best gift to these young people who are preparing for marriage is not the encouragement I can give them, nor the tips I can pass on, nor even the truth I can convey to them. My best gift is something thing they cannot see. It is something I must do privately offer my prayers for them. I have learned that I must pray, must deepen my own prayer-life, must learn that we are all members of one another, and that these young people deserve my prayers and the prayers of others whose help I can enlist. I owe this to them.
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.
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