LEVITTOWN, Pa. — In the
effort to promote Catholic marriages, which have been on the decline in recent
years, some U.S. parishes are making conscious efforts to reach out not only to
engaged couples but to a much younger audience — children and youths — about
the church's teaching on marriage.
The declining number of marriages is "not simply a Catholic
issue but a cultural phenomenon," said Father Richard Kramer, director of
the Office of Family Life for the Archdiocese of Washington.
"What we're really talking about is evangelization,"
about building a different kind of culture, he said. "We have to teach
(young people) what marriage is."
He suggested finding ways to make marriage a celebration of the
whole parish and showing couples: "Look, we want you to have what Jesus wants
you to have." For example, honoring couples who are celebrating jubilee
anniversaries — 25 or 30 or more years of marriage — says to young people,
"So can you."
Parish young adult ministries also should remind people that each
of them is made to give their love away to someone else, whether to a parent, a
sibling, a spouse or children of one's own.
The priest stressed that parishes need to be intentional about
their efforts to build the culture this way and to focus on "being a
marriage-building parish" where newly married couples are immediately
integrated into the life of the parish.
"Encouraging marriages isn't going to come through quick
fixes," he added.
While the number of Catholics in the U.S. continues to increase,
the number of Catholic marriages has been steadily declining.
According to 2014 data from the Center for Applied Research in
the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the number of Catholic marriages
reported — 148,134 — was less than half the number in 1964 — 352,458 — despite
the number of self-identified Catholics having grown from 48.5 million to 81.6
million between 1965 and 2015.
Many dioceses and parishes concerned about marriage have their
hands full focusing on marriage enrichment and the immediate preparation of
couples who present themselves requesting marriage in the church.
In 1981, in his apostolic exhortation "Familiaris
Consortio," St. John Paul II identified three stages of marriage
preparation: remote, proximate and immediate.
Steve Patton of the Diocese of Sacramento, Calif., said remote
preparation begins in the family at birth, as a growing child sees those around
him or her and how they relate to each other. Proximate preparation begins
around puberty and continues through the dating years until a couple finds each
other and decides to marry. "That's the audience" that is not
typically being addressed, Patton said.
But efforts to reach larger groups are spreading. The Sacramento
Diocese, for example, attempts to reach young people with its message on
marriage through a program created and launched in the Diocese of Memphis, Tenn.,
that has gatherings for mothers and daughters and for fathers and sons.
Patton said the "evaporation of the sacramental
understanding of marriage" has been influenced by no-fault divorce policies,
the widespread acceptance of artificial contraception and the recent trend
toward acceptance of same-sex marriage. Marriage is seen as a vehicle for
individual satisfaction, he said, something that is easily abandoned if it
ceases to bring happiness not only to the couple but to the individual.
Steve Bozza of the Office for Life and Family at the Archdiocese
of Philadelphia similarly said: "It's no secret that the decline of
marriage is a decline in faith practice." He looks at marriage promotion
as a matter of evangelization, and cited the possibilities of the Year of Mercy
as a time to bring back people who have "self-selected" themselves
out of the church.
"We're not going to change this overnight," he said,
echoing Father Kramer's point.
Bozza emphasized the need "to speak of marriage and its
truth," noting that it's not serving anybody to loosen up on church
teaching on marriage in an effort to attract more people.
The Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, which
sends teams of trained recent college graduates to college campuses to
evangelize, puts a lot of emphasis on the idea of vocation and helping students
see both marriage or religious life as a calling, said Kevin Cotter of Denver,
the organization's senior director of curriculum.
He said the group calls on married couples to serve as models
demonstrating what married life looks like, "how it's possible and