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It's About Time: Marriage Formation

File this under "It's About Time!"

I was reading through the daily email I get from the Angelus, our updated Archdiocesan newspaper and multi-media platform.  In today's email there was a link to an article entitled, "Why Does Catholic Marriage Prep Fail?"

This article, discussing how our current process of Marriage preparation falls far short of forming young couples for the vocation of a Sacramental marriage, referenced another very good article entitled, "Synod Fathers Call for Ending Pre-Cana in Favor of More Intensive Marriage Preparation."

Finally!  Our Church leaders are speaking out about the sorry state of marriage preparation!

If you follow this blog, you no doubt came across my posting from this past September:

In the months since, however, I've come to realize that the problem is even worse than I thought.  By way of example, let me walk you through a recent experience:  A young couple came to me one evening during one of our regular Adult Faith Formation sessions.  "Joe" was a Baptized Catholic who wanted to get Confirmed.  His fiance "Beth" was already fully initiated in the Church.  Let's forget for the moment that they just dropped in without calling ahead or making an appointment (file this under "these kids today...").  Beth wanted to make sure Joe could receive Confirmation before their wedding.  "OK," I ask, "so when is the wedding?"  I figured it was likely a date in the Spring that likely was before the Bishop was due to come, but Beth tells me that they didn't yet have a date.  I think to myself, "how refreshing... no worry about perceived deadlines" (see my previous blog post on Marriage and Confirmation).

Since they didn't yet have a date, I asked them where they were going to get married.  Beth (who did most of the talking) said they didn't know.  "So," I ask, "you haven't talked with a priest yet?"  Beth said, "No," but that they weren't in any rush to do the Church wedding."  Not in a rush... how refreshing, I'm thinking.  But then she continues telling me that they weren't in any rush because they've "already scheduled the civil ceremony."  Wait... what?  Then out loud I said, "Wait... what?" Beth then explained to me how (they thought) they needed to do a civil marriage ceremony before doing the church ceremony.

Now let me pause for a moment.  Is this true?  NO.  At least, not any more.  Today all you need to get is a civil marriage LICENSE (typically from the County or the State offices), but you do not need to have a civil marriage ceremony.  But that wasn't always the case.  I remember my mother telling me about how she and my dad needed to do their civil wedding just before their Marriage in the Church.  In the State of New York, in the year 1960, in order to be considered a valid marriage, it needed to take place in the presence of a judge.  Apparently a church minister did not have the authority at that time to preside over a licensed marriage ceremony.  It's not something my parents ever talked about regularly... just one of those things my mom would mention when we were young kids looking through their wedding album.  So on the face of it, Beth's statement wasn't a complete shocker.  On the other hand, ordained ministers have had the authority to perform marriages in the State of New York and just about anywhere else in the United States for the past 40-50 years. 

So back to Beth and Joe.  Apparently the plans for this civil marriage have all been made and was going to happen in three weeks.  OK... forget about Confirmation for Joe, now we've got an even bigger issue...

This young couple, Beth, a Confirmed Catholic, and Joe, a Baptized Catholic, planned to get married, but had not thought to talk with a priest before making any other plans.  The thought never even crossed their minds.  This isn't just a matter of a young couple's ignorance, or of the ignorance of these two families, this is a failure on the part of the entire Church! Here a young couple has decided to get married in the Church, but neither they nor anyone around them was knowledgeable enough about the marriage process to know what needed to be done.  After all, on the cover of just about every Church bulletin I've ever read says that anyone looking for Marriage needs to contact a priest at least 6 months before hand and before anything else is planned.  Clearly there are a lot of people here who haven't been to Church in a while.  They knew enough that Joe should be Confirmed (preferred, but not required... again, see my previous post), but they didn't know that the first thing they should do before making any marriage plans was to talk with a priest.

I was stunned.  Literally stunned.  I didn't know what to tell them other than they needed to talk with a priest, any priest, as soon as possible. Not only was this couple misinformed about how marriage works within the Church, but their plans for Joe's Confirmation are also at risk.

As someone who has been working with the RCIA for almost 20 years, I'm well aware of the issues that can present themselves when people who are already married, or have a previous marriage, seek to receive the Sacraments.  It is complication that needs special attention.  Sometimes it's just a matter of bringing their existing marriage into the Church.  Sometimes, however, they need to go through an annulment process, which in the best of cases can take a year or more.

So here's the problem we have with Joe wanting to get Confirmed.  If he goes through with the civil wedding, that act creates a "sacramental impediment."  A Catholic getting married outside the Church becomes a "grave matter."  In essence, a mortal sin.  While the Church, technically, does not recognize the civil marriage, the fact that Joe entered into this civil marriage prevents him from being in a "state of grace" sufficient to receive Confirmation (or any other Sacrament).  How does Joe fix this?  He needs to bring his civil marriage into the Church before he can receive Confirmation.  It's ironic... Beth and Joe came to me thinking that Joe had to be Confirmed before they could get married in the Church.  But now, if they proceed with a civil wedding, Joe won't be able to be Confirmed until their marriage is brought into the Church.

But that's not the saddest part of this whole story.  The saddest part is that this is a story at all.  We as Church have done a very poor job of catechizing the world about what Marriage in the Church really means.  This isn't a lesson just for Catholics, but a lesson for everyone.  The whole world needs to understand that Marriage in the Church is a life-long vocation, just like Holy Orders, and needs the same level of discernment and a more comprehensive formation process.  At the very least, both Catholics and non-Catholics need to learn that anyone who intends to get married in the Church MUST talk first with their parish priest... or any priest or deacon, BEFORE making any other plans.

Young Catholics today don't understand the medieval structure of the body Church.  Our highly mobile and connected society lets them think that they can just go to any Catholic Church to address Sacramental issues.  The idea of the "cafeteria Catholic" has now morphed into a false understanding of a "cafeteria Church."  That they can go to any parish and receive whatever Sacrament they want.  What they don't understand is the communal nature of our faith and how the parish plays in integral role.

A parish is first and foremost a community of believers, and it is the Pastor's duty to serve and form that community.  The pastor owes the community his service, and in turn the community owes him their fealty (in true medieval fashion).  There is no such thing as a "lone Catholic."  As I am fond to point out during our Adult Formation sessions, there is a dual nature to our faith.  It is both personal and communal.  You cannot be Catholic without having a personal relationship with God, nor can you be a Catholic without celebrating that relationship in community with others.  This dual nature lives in the Mass itself, where we gather as community to give thanks and praise to God, but wherein also we individually receive the grace of the Eucharist.  The Mass requires both the priest and the assembly to be valid.

This communal aspect of our faith goes all the way back to Abraham.  Like tribal Israel, we belong to group of believers.  Our parish is our Christian family.  And like a family, our Pastor is our chief shepherd.  In days past people were born, raised, and lived their lives in the same parish.  In some communities that's still the case.  And all our Sacramental needs were taken care of by that community and that pastor.  But here in the United States and other parts of the developed world, our modern society tends to value individualism over community, and our highly mobile and migratory population lessens our connection to a particular parish community.  Be that as it may, in our spirit of community, it remains the duty of our pastors to make sure his community's members are all properly catechized, prepared, and formed to receive the Sacraments... any Sacrament.  Even though it is the Bishop who is the ordinary minister for Confirmation, the pastor still must attest to their preparation and readiness.  This isn't unusual... even candidates for the seminary must have a recommendation from their pastor.

When we live our lives outside of community, outside of the parish, we miss the opportunity to be formed by that community.  Even important lessons that we should be learning from our immediate family can be supplemented through the larger parish community.  It really does take a village.  But that's not happening.  With tools like the internet, people have developed not only a false sense of community, but very often a false sense of informed knowledge.  Social graces and facts have given way to raves and unverified assertions.  But I digress...

I'm relieved that our Church fathers have seen fit to reexamine how we are forming young people for marriage in the Church.  And we the Church need to make our voices heard as to how best to accomplish this in our communities.  At the very least people need to recognize that a Sacramental Marriage in the Church is something that needs serious discernment.  Coupling and marriage in our secular society has become something that is selfish and convenient.  We Catholics see it as something much more and much greater.  And we need to make sure everyone understands what that means.


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