Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Preparing for Holy Matrimony

Preparing for Holy Matrimony

There was a heart-breaking call recently on Catholic Answers from a woman who wanted to get married, but she and her fiancĂ© had both had previous marriages.  As a practicing Catholic, she wanted to be married in the Church and fully participate in the sacramental life.  However, though her marriage had been annulled, her fiancĂ© was tired of the long and involved process and was unwilling to continue pursuing an annulment for his previous marriage.

The distress in this caller’s voice was clear, and it couldn’t help but elicit sympathy from the hosts or listeners.  It got me thinking about my own marriage preparation.  I knew very well what the sacrament of Matrimony is, and know that my marriage is sacramental, and unbreakable.  But I thought back to my engaged encounter weekend.

There was a lot of talk about communication, finances, conflict resolution, in-laws, etc., but there was almost no talk about what the sacrament of Matrimony is all about, none of the Church teaching on divorce, and nothing on artificial contraception.

Many of the couples were mixed, with one partner a non-Catholic, clearly there for the sake of the Catholic partner.  And yet the weekend did nothing to help them understand what the commitment they were about to make really means.  I wonder how many of the Catholic partners even knew.  They all hoped for a sacramental marriage, but did any understand that such a bond can not be dissolved?  Perhaps this is why there are so many annulments these days. 

I have a priest friend who tells me couples routinely get annoyed at him for the rigors of his marriage preparation.  Oftentimes people simply want to be married in a church.  He says, however, that if someone comes to him to be married in the Church, he is determined that they will have a sacramental marriage and understand what it means.  His goal is to never have any of his marriages annulled. 

That should be, and probably is, every priest’s goal.  And yet, people are routinely coming to the altar of God with no idea what they are really doing.  And often our marriage prep is little help to them.  I remember one couple, in a discussion period, asking about artificial contraception on my weekend, and being told that the discussion that session was about planning the wedding.  Apparently the marriage itself was of little importance.

Now please don’t misunderstand me.  I know there are many very good marriage prep programs.  And often these programs are run by lay people who are doing their best.  They may not really understand the Church’s position, or fear they won’t be able to defend it.  Often I think they fear they might drive a non-Catholic partner away from a Church wedding, and so leave such issues to be dealt with by the Catholic partner in the way he or she finds most prudent.  The intentions, I’m sure, are good, but I fear the results are often disastrous.

This of course brings me back to the caller.  She now, later in life and understanding the sacrament of Matrimony, wants to do it right, but faces a laborious annulment process, which can be very emotional if it brings up old wounds.

Thanks be to God the Church has such a process in order to defend the clear teaching of Christ on marriage (Mt. 5: 31, 32), and ensure people that their subsequent marriages are indeed sacramental.  It is a very difficult role for priests to have to play, though, both emotionally and pastorally, and I’m sure many Catholics are faced with the burden of finding their partner unwilling to persevere.

One should, of course, not get involved until it is clear that both parties are free to marry, but I certainly can not judge anyone on that point. 

As we are sidetracked by the issue of same-sex “marriage,” our attention must not be taken off the catechetical need in the Church to educate people, especially young couples, on the sacrament of Matrimony.  Once we as a Catholic culture reclaim that, we will be a much more powerful voice on the marriage issue to the rest of the world.