In many U.S. dioceses, marriage education ends with the wedding. But the Archdiocese of Chicago is about to change that, with new guidelines that urge "continuing education" for couples, long after the honeymoon is over.
"In the Spirit of Cana: Guidelines for Pastoral Outreach to Christian Marriage --Formation, Preparation, Celebration and Continuing Education" may not take effect until at least January 2005, but the archdiocese's Family Ministries Office is eagerly awaiting that deadline.
"If we really believe marriage is important, we can't just stop at marriage preparation," said director Frank Hannigan.
Dioceses must spread the message about what makes a Christian marriage, prepare couples for the wedding, make that ceremony more a parish celebration than "the bride's day," he said, and provide workshops on issues that arise in married life.
The Chicago Archdiocese has a solid history of pre-Cana programs, having created initial guidelines on the subject in 1979. Hannigan's office sends out an e-mail newsletter to couples with articles and questions to ponder. The archdiocese also sponsors "Discovery" weekends (similar to Engaged Encounter) for engaged couples and Spanish-language preparation.
In addition, some parishes in the archdiocese offer their own preparation programs, often using the "FOCCUS" inventory ("Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study"), a questionnaire for couples.
The 1979 marriage preparation guidelines, Hannigan said, were only 13 pages long and simply advised couples to meet with their priest or deacon, attend a marriage preparation program and meet again with clergy before their wedding. A parish survey in 2000 demonstrated that preparation efforts in the archdiocese were falling short of what was needed.
"Marriage preparation is an important issue in our parishes," Hannigan said. "Many have 50 or 100 weddings per year."
Ongoing education is needed, he said, because challenges arise for today's couples sooner than they did for previous generations.
"I've heard of the ‘seven-year itch," he said; but "because couples are living together, are involved sexually, issues are being faced more quickly. They also may not be as committed to making the marriage work -or they don't know how to do that."
Hannigan gave the example of a couple he met during a Discovery weekend: Married less than a year, they were struggling with unemployment, starting a business and spending time apart while the wife helped her parents. The couple were sleeping in separate beds and didn't know how to save their relationship.
That tornado of issues is often typical, said Hannigan. When he encounters newly-married couples, he said, "some are still batting their eyes at each other, and some look like they've been hit by a two-by-four!"
Lack of time is another common complaint: As couples work longer hours, their free time and time alone together dwindles.
In current marriage preparation programs, "I try to normalize the situations," he said. "If a couple says, ‘We're not managing money very well,' I say, ‘That's not that unusual.'"
Hannigan called the new guidelines a crucial resource.
"If we say, ‘Here are some tools to assist you,' then we're really helping that couple, [as opposed to] getting people married and saying, ‘Good luck; hope to see you at the golden wedding ceremony in 50 years,'" he stated.
The improved guidelines run to more than 100 pages, including appendices on terms used in preparation programs, Natural Family Planning (NFP), prayers for couples and even "helpful quotes."
The educational program encouraged by the new guidelines lists ten steps for couples: meeting with a priest or deacon, taking the FOCCUS (or another) premarital inventory, discussing the results at a follow-up session, attending a marriage preparation weekend or parish program, attending a Christian sexuality or NFP seminar, meeting again with a priest or deacon, having the wedding rehearsal and ceremony, and attending two follow-up workshops during the first year of marriage.
Hannigan noted that most couples who divorce do so in the first three to four years of marriage: "Couples are struggling from the get-go."
The post-wedding workshops, he said, will deal with topics like adjustments, financial decisions, debt, sexuality and developing a faith life as a couple.
After instituting the guidelines, the archdiocese will gauge their success through feedback from parishes and watching for a surge in the number of couples attending workshops.
Hannigan wishes guidelines like "In the Spirit of Cana" were available when he and his wife, Marilyn, were wed in 1975.
"We made a commitment that we'd stay married no matter what, and I'm glad we did," he remarked. "Marriage takes faith and skills - and that's what we can offer in the Catholic Church. The Church in Chicago is making a commitment because we believe so strongly in the sacrament of marriage."
The Archdiocese of Chicago marriage education guidelines can be found at www.inthespiritofcana.org.