[Brenden Thompson] It’s great timing. The Pope’s apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (‘The Joy of Love’) comes out just as I am preparing to get married. In the midst of all the practical decisions before the great date in August, this document is both a challenge and encouragement to make our marriage a “living icon” of the love of God.
As Francis points out in the wise Chapter Four, marriage is now expected to last much longer than previous generations, which means that love has to be transformed by passing through different stages. Couples, he says, need to “come up with a shared and lasting life project”.
We’re aware of what happens if we don’t. Like most Catholics, my fiancé and I do not need to look far to see the effects of marriage breakdown in our own families and among our friends.
We can’t help asking: what makes a marriage last? We are keen to foster habits now that will help build a fruitful marriage and family. But how to prepare for the unforeseen — illness, death, money worries, raising children?
So we’re reading Amoris Laetitia not as an abstract document, but in search of answers for us, now. The Pope starts in Scripture, because he wants us to look with the eyes of disciples. He offers us the biblical experiences of families — particularly that of the Holy Family — as the place to learn how to be family. That’s where we need to start too – and continue.
But the question I find myself wondering is: what might marriage preparation look like in the light of AL? Chapter 6 (Some Pastoral Perspectives) offers some answers.
First, it sees the parish as the nucleus of iniatives that will strengthen the family: for the parish is the “family of families”.
Equipping the parish to better prepare couples getting married is imagined in a number of concrete ways. Recognising that priests “often lacked the training needed to deal with the complex currently facing families”, AL suggests improving the training seminarians receive. It also looks to the training of “lay leaders who can assist in the pastoral care of families”.
Marriage should be seen in light of baptism and the other sacraments, calling for “specific programmes of marriage preparation aimed at giving couples a genuine experience of participation in ecclesial life and a complete introduction to various aspects of family life”.
Here the document suggests a pastoral change of approach. Rather than seeing couples as passive recipients of something we have to offer, it suggests that we ought to see the couples themselves as a valuable resource for the parish. Preparing them for marriage means their being schooled “in love and self-giving”. Their love as a couple “can help renew the fabric of the whole ecclesial body.”
Many parishes already benefit from having couples within the parish involved in some way in the process. But the document seeks a greater emphasis on “proclamation of the kyrgma“. Marriage preparation becomes a means of catechesis, a “helpful presentation of information that can help couples to live the rest of their lives together ‘with great courage and generosity'”.
Paragraph 208 speaks of the ‘remote’ preparation for marriage, that one is not simply taught to love by a short course prior to marriage, for “marriage preparation begins at birth”.
It urges the use of discussion groups and talks (the caveat given that the topics should be of genuine interest to young people, not just what we want to tell them) as well as missionary families — all form a part of the remote preparation which is geared towards helping couples love grow and mature.
I love the idea of missionary families. What might the impact be of including, as part of a couple’s preparation, inviting an older couple either to their home or go out for a meal on a few occasions? This is the kind of imaginative thinking that will change the nature of marriage prep as a course to an ongoing process based on relationships.
The end of the paragraph, in a typically colloquial Francis fashion, gives the example of how we might better make use of opportunities such as St Valentine’s Day to engage couples in the life of the Church. “In some countries,” Francis shrewdly observes, “commercial interests are quicker to see the potential of this celebration than are we in the Church.”
AL imagines marriage prep as a time whereby couples are asked to reflect and see whether anything more than desire unites them. It may be for this reason that a couple might be led “to realize the wisdom of breaking off a relationship whose failure and painful aftermath can be foreseen.”
In other words, marriage prep is not just a box to tick or a hoop to jump through. It is a time of vocational discernment, for examining our motives and our relationship in the light of the Gospel and God’s will for us. Some will find they are not called to marriage, or to marriage with that person, while others will find a new honesty in their communication and a deep sense of vocation – that this marriage is what God wants for us.
Ultimately, the decision to go ahead with a marriage will be made on the basis not of what we alone want, but what God wants of us – in other words, the lifelong plan the Pope says we need.
At the moment, says the Pope, “sadly, many couples marry without really knowing one another.” My hope is that marriage prep in the future, because of AL, will teach couples that building the solid foundations of a marriage is not just about having “enjoyed each other’s company and done things together” but “facing the challenge of revealing themselves and coming to know who the other person truly is.”
The Church should, from the treasure of its teaching, teach couples to consciously spend time during engagement getting to know their future spouse. Marriage is then seen not as the end of the road of prep but a “life- long calling based on a firm and realistic decision to face all trials and difficult moments together”.
Doing marriage prep with Pope Francis is a call to something dynamic, exciting — a vocation. We’ve realised, reading it, that what is at stake in our marriage is not just our wellbeing but that of Church and society. We’re not just getting married. We’re being called to a mission.
[Brenden Thompson is coordinator of the Catholic Voices’ Public Speaker Programme]