July 21, 2006

Fall Marriage Supplement

A time to discern: Engagement should focus
on marriage, not wedding

By Fr. Stephen Banet
Special to The Criterion

Most often, when a couple contacts the parish office, inquiring about getting married, they already have a date set for the ceremony and possibly have made a down-payment on a reception hall for their celebration.

Usually, the first words in response from someone hearing about a couple becoming engaged are, “What’s the date for your wedding?”

Getting married entails and presupposes a ceremony and reception, meaning there is a lot of planning happening, tending to details, etc.

However, preparing for marriage in the Catholic Church is more than planning a ceremony and preparing for the wedding day. It is a time set aside for the couple to discern if they are truly right for each other “for life” and if this is the right time to commit themselves to each other for life.

The reason for their call to the parish office is an affirmation that they feel and believe they are the right couple for each other, and they are ready to commit themselves forever.

The parish’s response is to assist the couple in verifying these feelings and intentions. The preparation process offers the couple opportunities to objectify their feelings and intentions.

Are they willing and able to live out a sacramental marriage in the eyes of the Church?

To paraphrase television talk show host Oprah Winfrey, “A couple can be the best of friends, faithful and lasting friends; however, they just can’t be married to each other!”

One of the requirements for a valid marriage in the Catholic Church is that the couple is “free” to be married. This means not only that there are no previous valid marriages, but also that the couple is not being forced or pressured in any way.

Often, this freedom is compromised when a down payment is already made for a reception hall, early on in the engagement period before the preparation process has been completed.

Going through the process, if a couple has some hesitation or question, they often feel they can’t change their minds because so much of a financial investment has been made.

Sadly, in today’s world it often seems much more disastrous to postpone or call off a wedding ceremony than to announce a separation or divorce.

So what can a couple do to allow for total freedom to discern their relationship and possible readiness for a life-long marriage without getting caught up in all the details and planning aspects for the ceremony that cause deadlines, deposits and financial repercussions?

My suggestion is that a change in concept and name take place. Since, in today’s world, the term “engagement” presupposes that a wedding day is going to happen, instead of “marriage preparation process” being used, the title and mentality becomes “engagement discernment process.”

This will enable the couple to separate the marriage-life preparation process totally from the ceremony planning process. Therefore, instead of calling the parish office to prepare for “marriage”—often implying they want to set a date for the church and ceremony—the couple sees their contact as a way to discern if they should become engaged at this time and publicly announce that they want to be married.

This procedure would free them from unnecessary pressure and needing to make financial commitments before completing the discernment process.

This was the intent by the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis for insisting upon a six-month preparation process. The first three months were to be a preparation-discernment process for assessing the capabilities to have life-long marriage, and only after that would a possible date be set for a ceremony.

While “on the books” this is what is said to each couple when we meet for the first time, most often this is not what happens. As the old saying goes, the cart gets placed before the horse.

Currently, the way we do things can’t prevent this from happening for most couples. However, changing the mentality to “engagement discernment” can help separate the two aspects of preparation properly. There would be a real freedom for discernment and a proper time to then do all the ceremony planning.

Therefore, couples seriously pondering the prospect of becoming engaged should consider calling the parish office to initiate our preparation process. This will help them to direct their future, make a good decision in their relationship and point them in the right direction for the next step in their lives.

The Church wants the best for all couples, and to do this, “time is of the essence.” And this time frame cannot be confused with ceremony details, which can jeopardize the couple from freely and without reservation giving themselves to each other.

An “engagement-discernment process” says much more about what we, as Church, want to offer couples in preparing for their future and possibly marriage.

The hope is that couples consider calling the parish office at this time in their relationship and not when they want to set a date for the Church and ceremony. The question then of “setting a date” for the wedding would come naturally from the outcome of their engagement discernment.

(Father Stephen Banet is pastor of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis. This article was originally published in the May-June 2006 issue of Ministering to Families, published by the archdiocesan Office of Family Ministries.) †


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