It never fails... As Director of Adult Faith Formation and RCIA, every year I can count on getting at least several telephone calls, or have at least 2 or 3 interviews with couples who are looking to get married in the Church. Why are that calling me? Because one of them hasn't received their Confirmation or is not Catholic, and because the priest they're working with has told them that they needed to take care of this before they could get married
Pardon me, that's just bull!
There is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation that couples have when it comes to this issue, and unfortunately much of that comes from some of our own priests. Now don't get me wrong... I know quite a number of priests who do know how to address these situation (I've never had to deal with this problem with my pastor nor the other priests in my parish), but when a couple comes to me during an already anxious time to tell me their priest said they needed to do this, it tells me there's a severe lack of catechesis going on in our marriage preparation circles. Further, it causes me great concern that some of our ordained ministers (of which I am not) are not better trained in these issues than I am. Though to be fair to our priests and deacons, there are some couples who just assume this will be a problem before even talking with a priest (usually because they thought this was an issue, or someone in the family told them that this is what was needed).
I have two major problems:
First is a practical issue... that they are not being catechized as to the requirements for getting married in the Church.
Second is a pastoral issue... that by connecting Confirmation or Initiation with marriage, they are lessening the individual grace of these individual Sacraments. Allow me to explain:
The practical issue:
First to the practical issue. And let me be very clear on this. Both parties do not need to be Confirmed Catholics to get married in the Church. Let me say that again... both parties do NOT need to be fully initiated in the Church in order to get married in the Church. As long as one of them is a Confirmed Catholic, they can get married in the Church. The wedding does not need to be cancelled because one of them hasn't been Confirmed or is hasn't yet completed the RCIA process.
So called "mixed marriages" (where one is Catholic and one is not) have been witnessed and approved by the Church for centuries. And when the technically "non-Catholic" or "non-Confirmed Catholic" seeks to marry a fully initiated Catholic, there is some additional paperwork and permissions to deal with, but it doesn't stop the wedding. In fact, if the non-Catholic/non-Confirmed party is in the process of formation or sacramental preparation, there are provisions where the presiding priest can allow them to participate more fully in the Mass.
Yes, it is a lot less hassle when both parties are fully Confirmed Catholics. And yes, I believe it does make for a much stronger marriage when both parties can share in the same faith tradition, but the fact remains that a Church wedding isn't out of the question should one of them not be Confirmed or fully Initiated... and the priests who are counseling these couples need to set the record straight.
The pastoral issue:
And that takes me to the second issue... the pastoral problem with connecting Initiation or Confirmation with Marriage. As I said, I do believe that a marriage can be made stronger when both parties share the same faith tradition. But I have to be honest, I also believe that the decision to become Catholic, or to receive Confirmation, needs to be considered independently of their desire to be married in the Church. By linking the two, they are blurring the lines between the unique journey of Confirmation and Initiation with the other unique journey of getting married.
The journey toward full Initiation in the Church, whether through the RCIA process, preparing for the Profession of Faith, or preparing for Confirmation, is a unique and personal one. This individual has stood up and said "I want to be Catholic." They have made a decision to join the Church (or fully embrace their faith through Confirmation). That needs to be an individual experience, a personal choice that isn't burdened by any other external forces (like saying you need to do this in order to get married). As we know, the first requirement for any Sacrament is that you are there of your own free will. By insisting these Sacraments be administered as a requirement for marriage (without any other counseling and catechesis), I believe, calls that freedom into question.
I always council couples in this situation to recognize that regardless of what happens to this marriage, the non-Catholic/non-Confirmed party is still going to be Catholic. It would be naive to ignore the fact that 45% of Catholic marriages in the US still fail. Should something happen to that marriage (God forbid), that other party is still going to be a member of the Church. I have to ask, is that what you want? Outside of this pending marriage, is this what you want? Remember, we need to be taking on this invitation to join the Church of our own free will. How much free will is involved if your fiancee and their priest is telling you that you need to do this?
Similarly, the journey towards the Sacrament of Marriage needs to be seen as its own unique experience. It's a special time in a couple's life, with much planning and consideration. You want to make sure that they are being properly formed in the vocation of marriage, and that they can work through this formation and preparation process without the burden of having to deal with one of the parties making sure they get Confirmed or Initiated before the wedding.
Marriage is a tough enough business. So is becoming Catholic. Let's not diminish the importance of each of these journeys by making Confirmation or Initiation one more "check-box" on wedding preparation. More often than not, I council couples to not worry about the date of Confirmation or Initiation... celebrate that Sacrament fully when you are ready. And by the way, celebrate it fully. To not do so diminishes all those others who seek to join the Church without the consideration of marriage.
Example to consider:
I'd like to share the story of one particular couple who came to me. She was Catholic, he was not. They were engaged and the wedding was a year away. They hadn't yet talked to a priest (because most parishes say you need to see them at least 6 months ahead of time), but they were talking with me because they had believed he needed to become a Catholic before they could get married, and that this should only take about year to get done.
OK... two problems here: First, just because most parishes say they need at least six months notice for weddings, doesn't mean you have to wait until the 6 month mark to talk with them. In fact, most parishes and priests enjoy the opportunity to work with couples who are thinking a year ahead of time. That much more time for preparation. That much better opportunity that you can book the date you want. If you know you want to get married in the Church, step number one should always be having a meeting with your parish priest even if the wedding is more than 6 months away. Six months is a minimum... not a maximum.
The other problem was that they were assuming the RCIA process would take less than a year. While that may have been a safe assumption years ago, that's not necessarily the case today, especially for those parishes (like ours) that have embraced the recommended "two year" process (with spending a full Liturgical year in the Catechuminate). While there may be situations where we can shorten that process, especially for those who have been well catechized, that was not the case here. We were starting at ground zero.
After talking with them they went and talked with their priest, who told them exactly what I had told them. They could proceed with the wedding as planned, and in the meantime he could start the RCIA process.
So he began the process, and though he opted to have someone else be his sponsor, his fiancee still attended the sessions along side him. After several months it was time to evaluate his progress (I like to have discernment interviews at least twice a year). He was making progress, but it was pretty clear that it would be a disservice to have him go through initiation at the Easter Vigil before his wedding later that spring. He had come a long way, but clearly he would benefit by spending the full year in the Catechuminate. It's a decision that we work out together, and though he wasn't initially pleased with the idea that it would take another year, he was able to focus his efforts on his upcoming wedding, while continuing with his journey through the RCIA.
The wedding went off well, and after some time off for their honeymoon they came back to the RCIA, dare I say, somewhat more relaxed and invigorated. The instructions in the RCIA tell us we need to look for "signs of conversion." With the stress of the wedding behind him, I could genuinely see this young man embracing more fully the Christian life, and for the months leading up to the Easter Vigil, I could see him changing, embracing the Catholic life not necessarily because his wife wanted him to become a Catholic, but because he wanted to become a Catholic.
It was a joyous Easter Vigil that year, ahead of their first anniversary, they were able to celebrate fully his Baptism and full Initiation. He later confided in me that he wasn't initially happy with the decision to wait on his Initiation, but now, after having been through the full process, he felt it was the right decision, and he did in fact appreciate taking the time through the extended process, making the moment of his Initiation that much more special.
So pastors... PLEASE take the time to council couples and your communities about the requirements for marriage in the Church. Help us all address the misinformation that is out there so we can better serve each other.
And couples... PLEASE discuss with each other the state of your membership in the Church BEFORE you talk with a priest. If one of you is not Confirmed, or not fully Initiated, talk about it. Make sure that this is a path you want to seek, separate and outside of your desire to get married. Don't do it, or get talked into it JUST because your getting married. Yes, as couple, as we say in the Rite of Marriage, two become one. Well, start practicing this by having the conversation. And don't wait until the six-month mark to talk with a priest. The sooner you do this the better!
All our sacraments are special and unique, each deserving of careful preparation. Let's treat each of these Baptism/Confirmation/Marriage with equal dignity so that we don't diminish the importance of these very individual journeys.