The Deacon's Bench

The Church is always looking for ways to strengthen marriages — and, according to the Catholic News Service, one diocese is taking it very seriously, even before marriage begins:

Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of Richmond has approved a new diocesanwide marriage preparation process that will require engaged couples to take a premarital inventory, a full course in natural family planning and an educational program on Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body.”

The changes came at the urging of a committee formed to review and recommend enhancements to the diocese’s existing marriage preparation process. Engaged couples still will begin their marriage preparation process by meeting with their parish priest or deacon.

Under the new structure, however, that meeting will be followed by a premarital inventory to assess the couple’s strengths and areas that need further exploration. Additional components of the marriage preparation process will include a new catechetical program on marriage and sexuality called “God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage” and instruction in one of the many natural family planning methods taught in the diocese.

“Marriage preparation was an area in our diocese that needed to be strengthened and updated, and this program does that,” Bishop DiLorenzo said in announcing the program this summer.

The bishop convened a committee of marriage preparation leaders, laity and clergy in January 2006, asking the group to create a demographic, psychological and sociological portrait of modern engaged couples and develop a standardized but flexible marriage preparation curriculum appropriate for that group.

He also charged the committee with recruiting and training competent marriage preparation facilitators and implementing the program across the diocese.

Committee members found that modern engaged couples seeking marriage in the church are more likely to describe themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious.”

“Young people today have no problem cutting out the ‘middle man’ when it comes to faith, and we’re the middle man,” said Bishop DiLorenzo. As a result, many of them feel little connection to the institutional church and pay little attention to the sacraments.

In addition, an alarmingly high number of engaged couples are living at odds with the faith before they approach the altar. Premarital sexual activity, cohabitation and contraception are normative for many couples.

After studying this portrait of engaged couples, committee members decided to take a multidisciplinary approach and include theological, interpersonal and practical training.

Jim and Sandy Dyk, a Richmond couple involved with Catholic Engaged Encounter, said the committee “wanted to prepare couples not just for marriage, but for a sacramental, Catholic marriage.”

All well and good, of course.

But when I mentioned this to several people in my diocese, both clergy and laity, they all had the same reaction: watch the number of church weddings in Richmond plummet. Reasons: too demanding, too time-consuming, too involved.

From what I’ve seen, most people coming to a priest or deacon to arrange a Catholic wedding are already living together. Many have pre-nuptial investigations that are, to put it politely, complicated: previous marriages, or annulments that need finalizing, or marriage and baptismal records that are locked in a vault in another country. Couples have wildly varying work schedules, sometimes working multiple jobs. It’s not uncommon for children to be involved, so there are child care issues. It’s a major achievement just getting these couples to show up for the rehearsal on time.

But maybe Richmond is different. We’ll see. The article goes on to explain that the program will take three years to be fully implemented. Stay tuned.

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