This past December, the United States bishops published a new pastoral letter on the topic of marriage, entitled "Marriage: Love & Life in the Divine Plan."
In the document, the bishops celebrate married life and express their conviction that marriage is especially a blessing to the couple, their families, and society overall. It's this conviction that the future of humanity depends on marriage and the family that led them to write the pastoral letter.
However, the bishops are troubled that "far too many people do not understand what it means to say that marriage -- both as a natural institution and a Christian sacrament -- is a blessing and gift from God."
They give the examples of the growing reluctance to get marred and rise of cohabitation; high divorce rate; decision of many couples not to have children and separation of marriage from procreation, especially through use of contraception and sterilization; misunderstanding that marriage is a private matter for achieving personal satisfaction rather than benefitting the common good; and continued attempts to redefine marriage.
These are serious challenges that undermine the foundational institution created by God.
Our call to evangelize
The bishops call upon the Catholic faithful "to stand against all attacks on marriage and to stand up for the meaning, dignity, and sanctity of marriage and family." It our responsibility and duty to call others to put God in the center of their marriage, turn to him, and find true happiness and meaning in their marriage.
This is the precise purpose of the Diocesan Marriage Preparation program. Under the auspices of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, the program lifts up the Church's beautiful vision of authentic married love to the many engaged couples planning to marry in our diocese.
We offer effective programming and utilize volunteers throughout the parishes of our diocese to teach over 550 engaged couples each year. In a recent article in Catechetical Leader, Brendan Murphy noted that "in many dioceses marriage preparation is probably the largest and most concerted adult faith formation initiative taking place."
The Diocese of Madison is no exception as the average engaged couple receives a blend of parish and diocesan-based instruction on a variety of topics from wedding liturgy to finances, human sexuality to theology.
Priests, pastoral ministers, deacons, and laity help prepare couples for a lifetime of love and propose an authentic vision of married love that Christ raised to the dignity of a sacrament.
Beyond the important parish-level preparation, the Marriage Preparation program offers instruction and couple dialogue time on a wide range of marital issues. The "Real Life, Real Love" seminar is a day of private couple dialogue and reflection from experienced married couples on the day to day living of marriage: family, communication, intimacy, and faith.
The "God's Plan for a Joy Filled Marriage" lays out God's plan for married life. Using Theology of the Body, couples are presented with a vision of life and love -- Church teaching on marriage and sexuality.
For many couples, marriage preparation is the first time they've heard (or been open to) a compelling presentation of the Church's vision of marriage.
The diocese also offers an array of Natural Family Planning (NFP) methods for engaged and married couples. Married couples are called to be open to the gift of life and recognize children as the crowning glory of marital love.
Sometimes, however, couples are in need of spacing children for serious and just reasons and God has blessed us with the scientific advances of NFP. We continue to see an increase in couples taking one of the five NFP methods offered in our diocese.
This April, the Marriage Prep program offered a MP weekend retreat that combined the Real Life, Real Love and God's Plan programs, NFP introduction, and time for dialogue, prayer, and the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist. Evaluations were overwhelmingly positive and confirmed that this is an effective tool.
Another important element of the marriage preparation process is the FOCCUS pre-marriage inventory tool. Engaged couples at many parishes take a questionnaire and are then assisted by clergy or lay "facilitators" to discuss topics important to their relationship. Our staff provide training and assistance to parishes and staff.
Beyond Marriage Preparation
The Marriage Prep program also promotes the message of life and love beyond our engaged couples, most effectively through John Paul II's Theology of the Body. We've hosted speakers such as Christopher West, Damon Owens, Dr. Bradford Wilcox, and Patty Schneier. We promote chastity and a proper understanding of human sexuality to teens through training and promotion of the Theology of the Body for Teens program and the Revolution of Love Chastity workshop series.
We support family life through our annual Diocesan Family Picnic and celebrate marriage through the annual 50th Wedding Anniversary Mass and Celebration.
Thanks for your support
We do great things in the Marriage Preparation program because of the awesome volunteers throughout the diocese. Marriage Prep program leaders and pastoral ministers, parish lunch volunteers, clergy, FOCCUS facilitators, office volunteers, and many more are the backbone of our success. It's their support and yours that allow us to lift up the message of Christ's love and his divine plan for marriage.
Thank you for your support of the Annual Catholic Appeal and through it the Marriage Preparation Program.
Andy Galvin is the coordinator of marriage preparation for the Diocese of Madison.