One year ago, Bishop Strickland signed the decree that established the new marriage formation norms for engaged couples in the Diocese of Tyler. The time of formation before the wedding was expanded from 6 months to a 9- to 12-month formation period. During that time, engaged couples choose mentors whom they know and trust and who are in a valid, sacramental marriage to accompany them before and after the wedding day. They attend a retreat called Three to Get Married, an introductory class on Natural Family Planning, and sessions with their pastor.
Bishop Strickland says that “support for married couples cannot end on their wedding day” (Constitution on Teaching, 3.22). This is why he has been intentional about calling this marriage formation as opposed to “marriage prep.” Marriage formation accompanies a couple to the altar and continues walking with them into the many adventures of family life. Ongoing marriage formation means that as both the joys and challenges of family life arise, the Church is there as source of strength and support. In this way, the Church helps to build up the “basic building block of our Church and human society” (ibid., 3.15).
It is helpful if we expand our understanding of marriage formation on both ends of the spectrum. Formation for the sacrament begins long before an engaged couple shows up in the pastor’s office. In fact, if we think in terms of “remote, proximate, and immediate [formation]” (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio [Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, 1981], 66), we enter a school of marriage the moment we leave the womb. Ideally, in the remote formation of childhood we are growing in character and virtue. We learn what it means to be a male or female created in the image of God, and this is also when we would receive “solid spiritual and catechetical formation that will show that marriage is a true vocation and mission, without excluding the possibility of the total gift of self to God in the vocation to the priestly or religious life” (ibid.).
Proximate formation builds on that foundation, and as children move into adolescence and young adulthood, they learn more about the sacraments and the significance of God’s plan for marriage and the gift of our sexuality; and at the same time they grow in their understanding of the spiritual and moral life. This is also a time when young adults are preparing for the very practical aspects of being ready for marriage: having a stable income, being financially responsible, and learning how to be a functioning adult.
Finally, immediate formation “should take place in the months and weeks immediately preceding the wedding” (ibid.). This is where the mentor couples, retreats, and other courses can be especially helpful to the engaged couple. There are hopefully opportunities for deeper conversion, a strengthening of their relationship with one another and with Christ, and an understanding of their responsibilities in the vocation of married life.
This premarriage formation has many layers, and improving the quality of the remote, proximate, and immediate formation will continue to be crucial. At the same time, the Church cannot stop her pastoral care of couples after they have processed out of the Church on their wedding day. Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “there appears in all its urgency the need for evangelization and catechesis before and after marriage, effected by the whole Christian community, so that every man and woman that gets married celebrates the sacrament of Matrimony not only validly but also fruitfully” (ibid., 68).
It is no mystery that married life can be challenging. Currently, the average length of a first marriage is seven and a half years, and in a recent national survey 74 percent of divorced couples indicated “lack of commitment” as a reason for the divorce. Sadly, our culture seems to push the idea that if married life is hard you need to deal with it alone and not share your mess with others, while at the same time telling couples that if you are married to someone who no longer makes you happy it is time to move on and find someone (or something) who will.
A Christian, sacramental marriage, by its very nature should be different. As a sacrament of service, holy matrimony is not about the couple going it alone; rather, the spouses are called to be an icon of God’s love in the world. We witness God’s free, total, faithful, and life-giving love to the world by responding to and participating in the gift of God’s grace. But saying “I do” and “till death do us part” is not something that we say one time on our wedding day. Married couples are called to say this and to live this on a daily basis.
We should treat the ongoing formation for the sacrament of marriage in the same way that some professions require ongoing formation as part of the job. There are many professions where “continuing education” is not only expected but required. It ensures that people are aware of the latest advancements in their field, and it also recognizes that there is always more to learn and always room for improvement. What would happen if we approached marriage and family life in the same way?
I think all married couples would agree that life is different now than it was when we were newlyweds. As someone who has been married for almost six years, I can tell you, without a doubt, that our life now looks very different than it did in 2013. My husband and I sometimes laugh at how “busy” we were back then, when the primary concerns we had were balancing work with our final semester of grad school. There are a lot more diapers, Cheerios, sticky surfaces, and sleepless nights as parents of three young children. Going to Mass is different. Praying as a family is different. Our lives have changed significantly the past six years, and we know that there are more changes to come as our children get older and our family grows. One of the greatest blessings we’ve received as a family is being connected to other Catholic families who are further along the journey and can share their wisdom and experience (a.k.a. survival skills) with us.
Pope St. John Paul II talks about this idea of couples learning from one another and specifically the pastoral care that young families need in Familiaris Consortio. Young families “finding themselves in a context of new values and responsibilities, are more vulnerable, especially in the first years of marriage, to possible difficulties, such as those created by adaptation to life together or by the birth of children” (ibid., 69). This is where the involvement of mentor couples and a connection to the parish community before the wedding continue to play such an important role in the lives of married couples. John Paul II emphasizes the great blessing young married couples have in the “generous help offered by other couples that already have more experience of married and family life,” and he says that this creates a community of Christian families that become a source of strength and encouragement for one another. In section 69 he writes:
Animated by a true apostolic spirit, this assistance from family to family will constitute one of the simplest, most effective and most accessible means for transmitting from one to another those Christian values which are both the starting point and goal of all pastoral care. Thus, young families will not limit themselves merely to receiving, but in their turn, having been helped in this way, will become a source of enrichment for other longer established families, through their witness of life and practical contribution (ibid.).
This is why marriage formation before and after the wedding has the power to transform our parish communities and all of society! The Church wants to help married couples to live their vocations with joy in every season of life, whether you’ve been married five months, five years or five decades! The Church wants to accompany couples through the many adventures of married life because she wants to help us to become saints.
Over the next year, the Office of Family Life is going to focus more on marriage formation and marriage enrichment opportunities for couples in the Diocese of Tyler. Our diocese is blessed to have movements such as the Worldwide Marriage Encounter (Encuentro Matrimonial Mundial) and other ministries for couples and their families. We want to continue to build on those by offering things like the Together in Holiness marriage enrichment conference this fall. We’d also like to hear from you. What would help you to have a healthy, happy, and holy marriage? How can the Church support you in your vocation? Visit this link to give us your feedback: http://bit.ly/tylermarriage.