July 25, 2014

Marriage preparation: “Readying us for a sacrament”

Couples participating in the One in Christ marriage preparation program listen as Msgr. Joseph Schaedel, pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, explains the Mass in the parish’s chapel on April 13, 2013. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Couples participating in the One in Christ marriage preparation program listen as Msgr. Joseph Schaedel, pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, explains the Mass in the parish’s chapel on April 13, 2013. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

(Editor’s note: Marriage has become an even greater focus in the Church and the archdiocese this year. Noting that marriage and the family are “in crisis,” Pope Francis will lead a Synod of Bishops on the issue in October. And Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin has recently made it an archdiocesan goal to “strengthen marriage and family life.” With that greater focus in mind, The Criterion continues its series on marriage. This week, our story focuses on the subject of the importance and goal of Catholic marriage preparation.)

It’s just five weeks before Lynsey Daeger and Jeffrey Merritt exchange marriage vows on Aug. 30. The joy in their voices is almost tangible as the couple discusses their recent weekend away from wedding planning.

While the weekend was “fun and relaxing,” says Daeger, it was also “affirming that this is the right person for me to marry.”

Merritt agreed, adding, “We thought this would be a good place for us to start marriage—with God.”

The couple was not discussing a weekend camping trip or out-of-state excursion. They were describing their Tobit marriage preparation weekend at Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis.

“Marriage is a sacrament,” says Daeger. “There’s so much that goes into preparing for other sacraments. It should be the same with marriage.”

The Church happens to agree with Daeger—wholeheartedly. From the basics of how to communicate, to the importance of understanding the covenantal nature of the sacrament of marriage, archdiocesan preparation programs seek to give couples the tools, knowledge and understanding they need to live out their lifelong vocation.

‘Marriage prep ... starts within the family’

Preparing a couple for such a vocation is a vital yet daunting task. Now throw into the mix the phenomenon the Church refers to as the attack on marriage and the family.

This is not just a trendy phrase. Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin considers the matter so serious that he approved a new coordinator of marriage and family enrichment position for the archdiocesan Office of Pro-Life and Family Life. Among other areas, the coordinator is responsible for overseeing marriage preparation.

“You see divorce, cohabitation, broken families, a push for homosexual marriage,” says Scott Seibert, who was hired two months ago to fill the new position. “There’s all the messages that children are getting from the media, from culture and school. There’s just a lot of influence on marriage today, negatively.”

Seibert admits that no program can provide a couple with a complete understanding of how to live out a sacramental marriage.

One primary reason, he explained, is that, when done properly, marriage preparation begins at birth.

“St. John Paul the Great, in his letter to families, really talks about how marriage prep is something that shouldn’t start right before the couple gets married, but should really start at infancy within the family unit,” he says.

“The family is the first place we encounter God’s love. The love between husband and wife should especially mirror that of God’s love.

“So ideally, you want to see marriage prep begin from the very beginning through families, through formation, through school—an ongoing support in what love is, what marriage is, what a family is—so by the time they get to us and are engaged and ready to do more marriage prep, hopefully they have a really good foundation on marriage.”

A multi-layered approach

Seibert said the aim of good Catholic marriage preparation is to have a multi-layered approach with three essential components.

“The first is basic skills: communication, conflict resolution, understanding family of origin, understanding personality,” he explains. “Those are so important.

“But it’s easy to overemphasize that piece. Marriage is a sacrament. Sacramental preparation is necessary, just like for first Eucharist and baptism and confirmation. [Couples need an] understanding of the sacramentality of marriage, the beauty of God’s design in marriage, what those vows really mean.

That’s the second component—sacramentality of marriage.”

Seibert describes the third component as looking at sexuality and God’s design of human love.

“I think [God’s design for human love] is the one of the three that I’ve seen more people not fully understanding, or having many misconceptions about what the Church actually teaches on the subject,” he says.

There are three primary marriage preparation programs within the archdiocese—a one-afternoon Pre-Cana program, the overnight weekend Tobit retreat, and a three-day (two Saturdays and one Sunday) program called One in Christ.

Pre-Cana and Tobit are archdiocesan-sponsored. One in Christ, coordinated by Mark and Michelle Overholt of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis, is approved by the archdiocese as meeting the three components Seibert outlined.

“Marriage prep should inspire couples to see marriage as seeking God and the holiness and salvation of their spouse and children,” Mark Overholt explains. “Our hope is that they will discover that their vocation in marriage is to help each other get to heaven.”

Given the importance and scope of the topics covered, Michelle suggests couples consider “starting [preparation] sooner in their engagement, or even dating.

“The more time they can allow to absorb everything, it’s so much better for their relationship and bringing Christ into their relationship,” she says.

Many parishes also utilize a sponsor couple ministry, in which the engaged couple takes an inventory questionnaire then reviews the results over several sessions with a married couple trained in reading the results.

“I think a lot of people go into the inventories thinking that it’s an assessment to see if they’re compatible or if they should be getting married,” says Seibert. “That’s not at all the idea.

“The idea is creating those conversations, having the opportunity for the engaged couple to really sit down and talk about things they maybe never thought of before.

“It challenges the couple. This is a serious, lifelong commitment, a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute commitment. So being able to practice communicating about tough issues before they get married is one of the benefits of sponsor couples.

“And another benefit of a sponsor couple is the witness [of the married couple],” he says. “They’re living it. You get to learn their wisdom, their struggles.”

‘Take that time … for each other’

Generating conversation is one of the benefits that Jordan Snoddy found by participating in an archdiocesan marriage preparation program with her fiancé, Curt Bromm, whom she will wed on Aug. 2 at St. Anthony of Padua Church in St. Anthony in the Evansville, Ind., Diocese.

Snoddy particularly liked family-related worksheets that she and Bromm received during the Pre-Cana program.

“It looked at the differences in our families, and that opened up the door of the conversation for how those differences affect our relationship,” she says. “I thought that was really key. It was good that there was nothing to distract us to talk about some of the harder things.

“A lot of the [information] on the worksheets will help people get to know each other before they marry, and understand each other better so when times are tough or awkward at the beginning, they can think, ‘He thinks this because of this background’ or ‘she thinks this because of how she was raised.’ ”

Snoddy found the program to be welcoming, despite her not being Catholic.

“They talked to all of us as opposed to making [non-Catholics] feel excluded or not good enough,” she says. “They listened and respected me.”

Ashley Wells, a Methodist at the time of her wedding, had the same experience in the One in Christ program—but not before she overcame her negative attitude toward marriage preparation.

“I didn’t see what benefit there would be in doing any kind of marriage prep,” she says. “I didn’t want to do it, but I had to do it or we couldn’t get married.”

Her Catholic fiancé, Andrew Wells, was ambivalent.

“It was just another box to check off,” he admits.

The program proved to have a “profound” effect for the couple, who wed in July of 2011 at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis.

“It really gave us a better understanding of what marriage is and what the sacrament is and what it means,” says Andrew. “It definitely impacted the way I’ve gone about being a husband and father. For me, it was definitely a defining moment on how to live life after the wedding.”

As for Ashley, she went into the program with no desire for children and no desire to become Catholic. Now Ashley—who later became a Catholic—and Andrew have two children and are expecting their third child in December.

“[One in Christ] gave me a good foundation [of the Catholic faith] without being pushy about why Catholics believe the things they do,” she says. “There were a lot of things I’d never been told why they were important, and what God wants out of marriage, being that third element in your marriage.”

The couple recommends marriage preparation to engaged couples, particularly the One in Christ program, for which they are now a presenting couple.

“I feel like the way in which it guides you through different topics to talk about with your fiancé in a non-confrontational way is important to being successful in the future,” Andrew says.

As for Daeger and Merritt, they found their Tobit weekend to be a time to “get back to basics” of their relationship, a lesson they plan on applying to their future.

“We realized we have to take that time in the busy world to set for each other,” says Merritt. “We need to take time to slow down. This [marriage] is about us and our faith. That’s what we learned—to always set aside time for us and God.”

Daeger sees marriage preparation as the Church’s way of “readying us for a sacrament.”

“I view it from a practical standpoint, in that marriage is a lifelong commitment, ‘until death do us part,’ ” she says. “Why wouldn’t you want to prepare for that?”

(For information on the Pre-Cana or Tobit marriage preparation programs, log on to www.archindy.org/fatima/marriage. For information on the One in Christ marriage preparation program, log on to www.oicindy.com, call 317-826-0630 or email info@OICindy.com.)

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