In a 2014 address to engaged couples, Pope Francis said many
couples are more concerned with the "exterior details" of their
wedding planning such as the banquet, photographs, clothes and flowers. Those,
he said, are "important for a celebration, but only if they point to the
real reason for your joy: the Lord's blessing on your love."
Weddings are big deals, no doubt about it. But as the pope points
out, it is easy for couples to lose sight of the bigger picture — the marriage —
if their focus is on a single day's celebration.
That's where church-sponsored programs come in, to provide
"Our main challenge, as a church, is addressing a lack of
understanding in what marriage is," said Mimi Streett, director of family
life ministry for the Diocese of Oakland, California.
That is why marriage ministry leaders at the diocesan and parish
level emphasize the need for solid, faith-based preparation process that can
— Engaged Encounter weekends to focus on relationships.
— Single-day or multiple-evening classes that address practical
— Ongoing mentor connections with married couples who can share
Each of these preparation tools emphasizes marriage as a
sacrament in the Catholic Church, something quite different from what engaged
couples may glean from watching reality TV shows or reading glamour magazines.
"There is so much awful promotion on some of these TV shows
where they make the bride out to be the star of an event, rather than a partner
in a marriage," said Mary Fay, associate director of marriage and family
life ministry in the Diocese of Albany, N.Y. "That's why faith-based
preparation is so important; it is a moment of evangelization for these
In the Albany Diocese, about 500 couples a year go through the
diocesan program that includes daylong sessions which address sacraments,
spirituality, family of origin, communication and conflict resolution skills,
finance management, career and family balance, couple's prayer, and the
benefits of being part of a Christian community.
"A significant number are unchurched or inactive in the
faith," added Fay. "So they need more serious preparation."
A married couple is present at each session to talk about and
answer questions on marriage. "By seeing a positive example, it gives the
engaged couples a sense of marriage as a shared life, and that's something they
don't get from the media's depictions of marriage," said Fay. "And by
the end of session, they are more attuned to marriage as sacrament. They see
that they're not just creating a one-time event."
In the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, a mandatory three-stage
preparation process includes a course in natural family planning, a retreat and
an on-going connection with a sponsor couple.
The process is a means to "lay out what the church believes
about the sacramental nature of marriage, and we help people discern what they
believe and why, so they can be better prepared to further explore their
relationship," said Jared Zimmerer, director of adult catechesis and
evangelization at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Grapevine, Texas.
"The preparation process allows couples the chance to find
out where they may have different ideas — perhaps on how to raise children, or
handle finances — so they can better understand and address those issues,"
As often as possible, priests or women religious are part of the
presenting teams, "and it can make a huge difference," said Streett.
"At our weekend retreats, we offer engaged couples the sacrament of
reconciliation, and many take advantage. And when they write to us afterward
and tell us they've stopped cohabiting, that's big."
The tone of the retreat is "serious yet joyful, with caring
and respect," she said. "Sure, some couples are there to get it
checked off, like a homework assignment, but we also see some beautiful things
happen. A lot of couples tell us their communication is better, they take this
commitment more seriously, many take steps to convert or return to
Still, even the best, most faith-centered preparation may not
drastically impact a couple's concerns over which flowers should decorate the
church, or what colors the bridal party should wear, or what they should serve
at their reception. Or, whether to incorporate "something cool they saw on
TV or Pinterest" into their wedding liturgy.
"It depends on how seriously couples take their faith,"
Zimmerer said, adding that in his experience couples who "go through the
preparation start to attend Mass and confession more regularly, and start to
accept that marriage is what the church wants" not what they want.
"That is a grace of the Holy Spirit," he added.