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Preparation For The Sacrament Of Marriage

January 27, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


When questioned by the Pharisees regarding the permanence of marriage and the possibility of divorce under the New Covenant, the response of our Lord Jesus Christ was unequivocal: “They [husband and wife] are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).
Therefore, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches, “the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved” (CCC, n. 1640).
As we saw last week, only the Church’s judgment that an essential element required to enter into marriage validly was lacking at the very time of the wedding can result in a declaration of matrimonial nullity — that a marriage did not exist from the beginning.
Reasons falling into three categories can result in a tribunal’s decision that a presumed marriage is invalid: 1) the existence of an impediment such that either party lacked capacity to marry at the time of the wedding; 2) that either party did not freely and voluntarily consent; or 3) that an undispensed deficiency in canonical form (for Catholics) was present.
Important to understand is that a declaration of nullity does not constitute a moral judgment of the persons, but rather a determination of the truth of the supposed marriage. The ecclesiastical judge, after careful examination of all evidence, must reach his decision with moral certitude.
The Catechism now considers a topic of utmost importance in a world where the institution of marriage — and the family in general — is in crisis, in a society where approximately half of all marriages end in divorce.
In an age when moral relativism and materialism reign, in which self-love predominates (as opposed to selfless-love), so many people do not understand the meaning of marriage or what the vocation of married life entails.
What is the solution? “So that the ‘I do’ of the spouses may be a free and responsible act and so that the marriage covenant may have solid and lasting human and Christian foundations,” affirms the Catechism, “preparation for marriage is of prime importance” (CCC, n. 1632).
Before examining the specific stages of marriage preparation, it would be good to say more about marriage and the family in general. The Vatican II fathers identified the crucial importance of marriage and family life in the council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World in poignant terms:
“The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family” (Gaudium et Spes [GS], n. 47 § 1).
Likewise, in his 1981 apostolic exhortation entitled “On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,” Pope St. John Paul II perceptively stated: “The future of humanity passes by way of the family” (Familiaris Consortio [FC], n. 86).
Candidly expressed, then, society cannot and will not flourish if family life does not thrive — and the starkness of this reality is evident to anyone who simply reads the headlines of any major metropolitan newspaper or tunes in the evening news on virtually any day of the week.
Using St. John Paul II and Familiaris Consortio as our guide, let us now look at the process of preparation for marriage, which should be “put into practice as a gradual and continuous process. It includes three main stages: remote, proximate, and immediate preparation” (FC, n. 66 § 3).
Ideally, remote preparation takes place within the family as a child grows and matures. In his 1994 Letter to Families, John Paul II states that this stage indirectly begins even while the unborn child is within the mother’s womb (cf. Gratissimam Sane, n. 16 § 2).
It is under the auspices of the family, the “domestic church,” where the child’s formation of character begins and self-control is learned. As “primary educators of their children,” parents have the awesome right and duty to provide their offspring with solid spiritual and catechetical formation that will prepare them to discern and faithfully live out whatever vocation God calls them to.
Parents must lead by their good example, strive mightily to instill in their children love for God and neighbor, and create an environment where prayer is an integral part of family life.
Unfortunately, as alluded to earlier, remote marriage preparation as just described is sadly lacking for much of our population. With a plethora of broken and/or fatherless homes and a culture that marginalizes the institution of marriage, remote preparation for the vast majority of our young people is either nonexistent or experienced negatively.
Then, with cohabitation and the enshrinement of no-fault divorce as the norm, the proximate stage of marriage preparation — which normally takes place over a period of 12-18 months (minimum of six months) during the engagement period — takes on crucial importance in determining the odds for success of an impending union in the Sacrament of Matrimony.
Pope St. John Paul II, in fact, extends the proximate period for marriage preparation back in time to the teenage years and describes it as involving “a more specific preparation for the sacraments, as it were, a rediscovery of them….This renewed catechesis of young people and others preparing for Christian marriage is absolutely necessary in order that the sacrament may be celebrated and lived with the right moral and spiritual dispositions” (FC, 66 § 5).
The 1983 Code obliges pastors of souls to offer assistance through such means as “preaching, catechesis adapted to minors, youth, and adults, and even the use of instruments of social communication, by which the Christian faithful are instructed about the meaning of Christian marriage and about the function of Christian spouses and parents” (CIC, canon 1063 1). What an ideal time this would be to introduce young people to John Paul II’s “theology of the body.”
The Catechism underscores the vital importance of the role of the pastor as well as the parish community at large in preparing young people to become responsible, loving spouses and parents in the following terms:
“The role of pastors and of the Christian community as the ‘family of God’ is indispensable for the transmission of the human and Christian values of marriage and family, and much more so in our era when many young people experience broken homes which no longer sufficiently assure this initiation” (CCC, n. 1632).
Preparation for marriage, of course, intensifies when a newly engaged couple approaches the pastor about marrying in the church. To begin the process, the priest meets with the couple on a face-to-face basis to get to know them better and to make sure no impediments exist that would prevent their nuptial union. Assuming both are free to marry and have the capacity to marry, most parishes recommend, or even require, that premarital inventories are completed.
It is also during this period that a couple should learn Natural Family Planning (NFP) and attend marriage preparation courses or workshops (e.g., Pre-Cana course).
On its website (www.usccb.org), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has posted the results of a multi-year collaborative effort that analyzes and summarizes marriage policy findings for 119 Latin Rite dioceses — it provides much useful information regarding effective marriage preparation programs. Suffice it to say, this is a time which presents an excellent opportunity for evangelization.
Practically speaking, sensitive moral issues will often be encountered as priests prepare people for marriage. Perhaps one of the most common is the unfortunate practice of cohabitation. Pope St. John Paul II gives the following counsel:
“Pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case. They should make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned, and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably, and show them the witness of Christian family life, in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation” (FC, n. 81 § 4).
Efforts should be made to help the couple understand the Church’s wisdom in her teaching on sexual intimacy within marriage and encourage them to live separately and chastely in the weeks and months leading up to their wedding day.

A Retreat

The final stage of marriage preparation, immediate, takes place during the last few weeks leading up to the ceremony. Any gaps that remain in doctrinal, moral, or spiritual aspects of the marriage covenant should be filled in and it is an excellent time to participate in a retreat.
It is highly recommended that the couple reads together and studies the Rite of Marriage — that they mutually choose the readings, prayers, and blessings which will be used in their ceremony. It is an excellent opportunity to experience the principle lex orandi, lex credendi (“the law of prayer is the law of faith”).
The Church, in her wisdom, also recommends that if a person has not been confirmed, the Sacrament of Confirmation should be received if possible: “Catholics who have not yet received the sacrament of confirmation are to receive it before they are admitted to marriage if it can be done without grave inconvenience” (CIC, canon 1065 § 1). What could be more beneficial than a strengthening of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit as one prepares to faithfully live out his or her marriage vows?
Finally, as mentioned in an earlier column, “To receive the sacrament of marriage fruitfully, spouses are urged especially to approach the sacraments of penance and of the Most Holy Eucharist” (CIC, canon 1065 § 2).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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