Faith and Life

Family is the Permanent Catechumenate that the Sacrament of Marriage Needs

Pope Francis, in union with the overwhelming majority of Catholic bishops, priests, deacons, and lay faithful, has a deeply pastoral concern about the current state of marriage. In a recent address to students at a marriage and family life course in Rome, the Holy Father called for a permanent catechumenate for the sacrament of marriage, noting that “marriage is not just a ‘social’ event, but a true sacrament that involves an adequate preparation and a conscious celebration…the marriage bond, in fact, requires an engaged choice on the part of the engaged couple, which focuses on the will to build together something that must never be betrayed or abandoned.”

By calling for a permanent catechumenate, Pope Francis rightly recognizes that, for whatever reasons, couples are not being adequately prepared for marriage. In the short weeks or months that couples are required to meet with their pastor and take the required marriage preparation program, they receive crash courses in Sacramental Theology, practical “adulting” habits (basic finances and interpersonal skills, for example), and the moral and mechanical aspects of the human reproductive system. This is a lot to expect two people to understand and permanently incorporate into their worldview during a brief period of instruction.

It is interesting to note that the Holy Father appears to emphasize the instructional nature of a potentially permanent catechumenate on marriage:

So many times the ultimate root of the problems that come to light after the celebration of the sacrament of marriage is to be found not only in a hidden and remote immaturity suddenly exploded, but above all in the weakness of the Christian faith…the more the journey of preparation is deepened and extended in time, the sooner the couples will learn to correspond to the grace and strength of God and will also develop the ‘antibodies’ to face the inevitable moments of difficulty and fatigue of married and family life.

Taking his words at face value it is reasonable to conclude that the Pope’s vision for a permanent catechumenate of the sacrament of marriage would look something like a subject-specific RCIA program: robust pre-sacramental instruction and a period of post-sacramental mystagogia.

If that is the intention, it is, in all charity, a misguided solution. In the US, the general consensus among lay faithful about the Church’s marriage preparation programs is one of aggravated tolerance: bureaucratic red-tape and hoop-jumping are common descriptors. Certain outside-the-box initiatives, such as pairing engaged couples with long-time married couples for formation, seem to meet with some success, but have the double effect of accentuating the deficiencies of the predominant programmatic models.

But his use of the word “catechumenate” is curious, and worth careful consideration. In Church history, the catechumenate was an extended period of formation before admittance to the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion. Once initiated, the faithful supported each other in living out their witness to the faith they were formed in. Following that model, a catechumenate for the Sacrament of Marriage would include the same elements: a long period of formation before admittance to the sacrament, and post-sacramental communal support to live in witness to the theological, pastoral, and practical realities of the initiated.

That sounds a lot like the role of family.  holyfamily

Family is the primary formative environment. Our earliest and deepest impressions of marriage come from watching our parents, our aunts and uncles, and our grandparents. The significant theological connections between marriage, Christ and the Church, and the communion of Persons in the Holy Trinity are either cemented or contradicted in our sub-conscious depending on how early and often these things are spoken of and embodied in family life.

In Familiaris consortio, Saint John Paul II contemplated the immense value of the family to the Church and a life of faith. Calling it the “Domestic Church,” the saint expanded on his own profound declaration to the Church in Australia that “as the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Whether intentional or not, Pope Francis’ call for a permanent catechumenate for the sacrament of marriage circles back to the unique role of the family in the life of the Church and her long tradition of defending and articulating that irreplaceable value.

That brings us to the reality of the current crisis in marriage. The Church does have a long and beautifully articulated tradition in regards to marriage and the family, but somewhere along the line the natural family unit drifted from the larger parish family, and ceased to authentically imitate the divine image. In short, what is preached ceased to be practiced. We could call it a spiritual divorce of sorts; the mutual gifts of natural- and community-family ceased to reciprocate in imitation of God himself. The family, at every Christian level, is not acting in conformity with the truth of Divine Revelation.

What can the Church do to reconcile herself as a family and address the crisis surrounding the Sacrament of Marriage? She can prioritize the following:

Consistency of theological instruction: For those involved in marriage preparation, does the program or personal counsel prioritize the theological richness of marriage? Is the majority of a participant’s time spent contemplating how his or her participation in the sacrament will manifest the truth about God himself? Is the joy and excitement of this reality consistently infused into the formal preparations?

The institutional Church making an authentic reinvestment in families: Prioritize funds for family programs and activities like schools, sports, and clubs. Many families want to donate their time, talent, and treasure to support parish sports and a parochial school. A lack of personal funds are a detriment for some lay faithful, but for many, seeing the institutional Church prioritize funding for institutional needs over family-focused initiatives is a painful blow that encourages personal disengagement.

Prioritize a familial environment in small ways as well. Make it a point to highlight important milestones in the life of parish families: births, baptisms, weddings, and anniversaries (include Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders!). Welcome newcomers and visitors personally. Publicly support the presence of small children and special needs persons in all aspects of parish activity.

Co-dependent with this is a revitalization of the institutional Church to her apostolic and pastoral roots. The lay faithful yearn for shepherds who are simple, honest, joyful, and trustworthy, as Christ himself is. Be that for us.

The lay faithful making an authentic reinvestment in the Catholic faith and the Church as a second home and family: Go to Mass every Sunday. Get involved in parish groups and activities. If there is a need, fill it. Get to know the priests and fellow parishioners. Attend formation classes and Bible studies. Be the family that the larger Church family needs us to be.

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The Banal Evil of the Broken Love Story

Imagine my great surprise when, a few years ago, I was told that my marriage was an anomaly. I don’t remember much of the exact wording, but I think the phrases “not normal” and “freakishly harmonious” sum it up well. I was frankly dumbfounded that the love my husband and I have for each other was being summarily dismissed as an aberrant example of a untenable ideal.

I hadn’t thought of my marriage that way before. I was blessed to grow up in a family filled with strong, happy marriages. I never thought that marriage was effortless. Neither did I have the illusion that a happy marriage required perfect people. The examples that I grew up with taught me that marriage is supposed to be an easy union between two people who are perfect together. I just thought that’s how it was supposed to be.

Hence my marriage never felt like something strange. Even as I came to know people who had difficult relationships and failed marriages, I didn’t consider my experience of marriage anything other than normal. I was moved for the broken-hearted because they were getting less than my normal, and I knew they deserved, at the very least, what I had. I still believe this. I’m very vocal in this belief, too. One of the few things I will run my mouth off about, actually.

I’ve come to find that I am a part of a very small minority who holds this belief. Most people believe that there is no such thing as the “perfect-for-me” soulmate. There is no “happily-ever-after.” A relationship that doesn’t involve at least a weekly fight isn’t a healthy one. The best people expect is “good-enough” and “happy-ish.” Forever is replaced with “for now.” Is this really what normal is supposed to look like? Is this all happiness amounts to?

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I don’t think so. An “ideal” marriage, like the one I describe above, should not be dismissed because not everybody has one. In fact, why do we call this an “ideal” and not a “norm?” I argue that difficult “norms” have been relabeled as “ideals” to ease the sting of our failures. Kind of a I couldn’t do it, so it’s an unreasonable standard type of mentality. You could apply this argument to many other topics. The Christian faith is a classic victim of this line of thinking.

I don’t mean to impugn any of the suffering that is experienced by a bad situation. Whether its in love, politics, religion, or what-have-you, the infliction of pain and suffering is disgusting and wrong. But is it fair to say that a singularity of failure, or even many singularities, proves the failure of an entire “norm” or “ideal?”

I think it’s exactly the opposite. A norm or ideal wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t proof that it can and does exist. In the case of marriage, a freakishly harmonious marriage can also be called a complete one. There is nothing that is missing in the marriage. There is nothing you could add to make it better. Anything less means that there is something missing. Depending on how dysfunctional, maybe many things are missing. The point is, less-than-whole is a ridiculous standard to start with.

Think about it in terms of faith. Adam and Eve started out whole. They were in complete harmony with each other, God, and nature. Then they broke. Pieces fell away, and the rest of human existence has been about picking up our missing pieces. Humans didn’t start broken. We aren’t meant to stay broken. That is why we have Christian norms and ideals, like the 10 Commandments and the reality of the Incarnation. These norms and ideals were created to fix our brokenness. Do these lose their fundamental purpose and power because people failed to get it right the first time and twisted these creations into their own personal Frankenstein?

Let me ask another question. Is your worth as a person lessened by those who treat you badly? The answer, to both questions, is NO.