When should marriage preparation begin?
Family life leaders and educators in the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas, looked at the needs of engaged and married couples and came up with an answer: in childhood. They've developed a comprehensive program that treats marriage preparation and education as a lifelong process, based on the teaching of Pope John Paul II in "Familiaris Consortio."
Winnie Honeywell, director of the diocesan Office of Family Life Ministry, said changes over the past 10 to 15 years prompted a close look at diocesan programs.
"What we were seeing," she said, "is that when couples come to us, they're not at the point where we can just put them into a program and have it work." Increasingly, couples were living together before marriage; some already had children. "Priests were saying, ‘What do we do with these cohabiting couples?' "
Her office began inviting speakers on family life issues to address clergy. Other diocesan department heads—in religious education, youth ministry, young adult and campus ministry—became involved and held discussions. They turned to "Familiaris Consortio," in which the pope writes that marriage preparation is a lifelong process with four stages: childhood (remote preparation); the teen and young adult years (proximate preparation); couples about to marry (immediate preparation); and pastoral care after marriage.
Mrs. Honeywell said that responsibility for marriage preparation and care belongs to the parish, and that parishes are doing a good job preparing engaged couples. But they need to cast a wider net.
"We tell the clergy, ‘Expand your vision. Here's what you can do in youth ministry, in religious education, with parents in baptismal preparation,'" she said.
Working with the religious education department, the Family Life Office has launched "Mother/Daughter" and "Father/Son," programs offered separately to provide sexual education for girls and boys ages 10 to 13. They're offered at the chancery on Sunday afternoons to 55 families at a time, and there is a long waiting list. Training is under way to present the program in some of the larger parishes.
Programs in youth ministry include workshops on dating that present "the dangers of cohabitation," Mrs. Honeywell said. She added: "We have good research—secular research—showing negative consequences," such as a higher divorce rate among couples who cohabit before marriage and a greater danger of abuse. Also typical is poor communication; couples tend not to deal with conflict because "there's no commitment."
In young adult and campus ministry, the most successful program has been Café Catholica, a summer series on topics related to dating and marriage. The get-togethers include food, music, speakers and discussion.
There are parish programs for engaged couples; Mrs. Honeywell and her husband, Wally, who have been married for 45 years and have four grown sons, run the program at their parish, St. Pius V in Pasadena, Texas.
One of the elements in every diocesan marriage preparation program is Natural Family Planning. The Honeywells bring in a young couple to talk about it.
"It's very interesting to us that it's one of the most popular classes," Mrs. Honeywell said. "If it's done well, it's amazing how open (couples) are to it."
The diocese offers the option of an Engaged Encounter weekend to couples about to marry. Among the recent participants were Vivian De Jesus and Aldo Ramos of Houston, who plan to marry in November. Ms. De Jesus is a marketing manager in the food industry; her fiancé is a firefighter. She also is a volunteer with diocesan youth ministry—she met her fiancé through one of its programs—and a wedding coordinator at her parish, St. John Vianney in Houston.
She called Engaged Encounter "a great program" and said she particularly liked the way it taught the importance of communication in marriage.
"I felt like it was a sharing, bonding weekend," she said.
She remarked that marriage preparation requires couples to discuss key issues such as the number of children they want and their financial situation.
"I've heard of people postponing their wedding after starting marriage preparation," she said.
Ms. De Jesus and Mr. Ramos are committed to the sacramental ideal of marriage, but what about couples who are cohabiting when they present themselves for marriage?
The idea, said Mrs. Honeywell, is "not to condone it, not to condemn them, but to invite them into a relationship where they'll learn more."
She added, "The pope says, ‘Don't turn them away because of their behavior. It's an evangelizing moment.' Too often we let the behavior get in the way of hospitality and welcome."
She remarked that pressures to cohabit are "tremendous."
It's widespread, she said. It's also talked about publicly, and that opens an avenue to reach couples. "Since we know about this, we can talk about it and tell why the Church is concerned," Mrs. Honeywell said. "When it's that public, we can more easily say, ‘We've got another way. You're adults now. We owe it to you to give you this information.' It's all the more important to begin young."
An important goal of programs for the engaged is to establish a relationship with couples so that they'll stay connected with marriage programs.
"Then we can help them; they'll come to us when they're having hard times," Mrs. Honeywell said. She added that she and her husband have found that if couples in parish programs receive a warm welcome and high-quality preparation, "they do take you up on it, and you can help them through some rough times."
She called the lack of postwedding marriage programs "a weakness in the Catholic Church."
"We prepare for the sacrament, but we forget the aftermath," she said. And it can be "a hard sell to clergy, who aren't married and don't realize what it takes" to keep a marriage strong and healthy. But "if we really, truly believe what we say about marriage, that it is the domestic Church, a covenant, a vocation," she added, that conviction has to be backed up with support for the already married.
"Marriage preparation has to keep going," Mrs. Honeywell said. "It's a lifelong process, and Pope John Paul II was a prophet in seeing that."
Programs offered by the Diocese of Galveston-Houston Office of Family life Ministry are listed at www.diocese-gal-hou.org/pastoral_family.