Christopher is 25 and believes he is called to the priesthood. After a rigorous application process he is accepted to a seminary where he will receive seven years training before his ordination. Throughout the Church will support him spiritually, psychologically and emotionally and he will have to demonstrate a real understanding of Church teaching and the solemn commitment that he is preparing to undertake.
Now, imagine a man and a woman who are the same age as Christopher who also have a vocation – to marriage. They are due to receive the sacrament in six months, when they will exchange sacred vows, promising to be faithful to one another and to love each other for the rest of their lives, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer. The Church in England and Wales requires that they attend a one-day course with several other couples to prepare them for the sacrament. Once the day is over they will be allowed to marry in a Catholic church.
When a friend of mine accepted her boyfriend’s proposal two years ago, she and her fiancée did not realise their relationship would change significantly even before their wedding day. Adam had proposed to Rachel in classic romantic style (on a winter’s evening during a city break) and they set the date for six months later.
Rachel admits that she found the marriage preparation the Church had to offer them “woefully inadequate”.
“When you get engaged you have no idea what will happen,” she tells me. “Little things surface, but maybe big anxieties as well. I think it’s important to have a bit of time to reflect on these things. It’s very difficult to reflect on everything in just one day of marriage preparation.”
Aside from feeling disappointed with the limitations of what the Church had to offer Rachel also came away from the course feeling “seriously worried” about some of the other couples in attendance, whose knowledge of Church teaching proved patchy, to say the least. One particular exercise stood out in Rachel’s mind where couples were asked to state whether they disagreed or agreed with certain behaviours. When wives-to-be were asked if they would accept their husbands viewing pornography, several women said that they would have no objection and resigned themselves to the thought that it was inevitable.
So Rachel and Adam decided to supplement their day-long course with monthly one-on-one preparation meetings with their parish priest which proved invaluable.
“We thought that we really knew each other,” she says, “but that one-on-one time was extremely important for us in learning about each other’s histories, any fears or anxieties and bringing us closer together. We realised: ‘We’re no longer just boyfriend and girlfriend. This is serious stuff now.’ ”
But Bridie Collins tells me that she regularly sees engaged couples reach an intimate understanding of each other and of what the Church teaches on marriage in the space of one day. She is the director of relationship education and support at of Marriage Care, the main provider of marriage preparation for the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
“You can imagine they are steeped in the wedding preparation, they haven’t thought much about the day after the wedding,” she explains. “But they’ve suddenly been challenged: ‘Have you discussed this? What might you do about this? Have you got shared beliefs? Have you got shared valued systems?’ And they’re talking about really important things and they walk away feeling that their relationship is stronger as a result.”
The one-day course Marriage Care provides and Bridie helps to run involves a series of relationship exercises such as exploring, for example, how each person deals with anger. It also addresses the significance of the marriage vows they are preparing to exchange, which is an exercise Collins finds most moving.
“We go into the meaning and then we do a little reflection on the vows,” she says. “It’s so touching, as for most of them it’s the first time they have actually considered those words, the promises they’re going to make to each other and it’s just lovely, and you can sometimes see tears running down someone’s cheek. It’s all very moving because they’re so busy with all the things associated with the wedding that they hardly know some of them what vows they’re going to be making.
“Sure, they rattle off the words but the meaning, a lot of them don’t know that they are ministers of the sacrament. They’re quite surprised. There is that gap in formation for some of them.”
But when should formation begin? Surely for couples to be a prepared as possible this process should start as early as possible. But how can it before they have met Mr or Mrs Right?
Fr Edward van den Bergh, parish priest at the London Oratory, who regularly prepares couples for marriage, points out that the Church marriage preparation should, in theory, begin from childhood. “Most Catholics assume that marriage preparation is something they have to undergo when they’re engaged,” he says. “In fact, the Church in Her prudence teaches that marriage preparation should actually take place in three stages: remote, proximate and immediate, with the remote preparation starting in childhood in the family and the lived example of a good marriage from the parents.
“The preparation should continue at school, being integrated into schools in an age-appropriate way and be part of Confirmation preparation. The diocesan office for marriage and family life has various resources for schools and parishes. Preparation for marriage is too serious to be left until the last minute.
“Young Catholics should be so prepared that they make the right choices before engagement. Sadly, the stratospheric figures for cohabitation amongst engaged Catholics, even among practising Catholics, certainly indicate that in practice this remote preparation is something of a dead letter. Increasingly young Catholics and even their parents are unaware that cohabitation is sinful or that it leads to an increased chance of divorce. We also have to ask ourselves: if remote marriage preparation were taken more seriously at home and in schools, would so many young Catholics still see no problem with same-sex marriage?”
Fr van den Bergh also expressed concern about compulsory marriage preparation only lasting one day.
“Preparing for a wedding celebration itself takes time, planning, and effort. Why should a couple then be given anything less when preparing for life-long marriage? The danger of a one-day course is that it doesn’t seem to take couples’ desire to give that time and effort seriously.”
Like Rachel and Adam’s parish, the London Oratory is able to offer couples individual marriage preparation, one-on-one with a priest, six to eight times over the course of an engagement.
“It takes a significant amount of our time,” Fr van den Bergh tells me. “But it’s certainly time well spent. There are many advantages to this longer approach. One of them is that it’s good for a priest that he spend time with his flock. As the Holy Father has said, ‘shepherds living with the smell of the sheep’. It is a great opportunity for a priest to give his time and attention to Christ in these sheep. Couples are always really grateful and don’t forget the attention paid to them and their spiritual needs, and I’ve not ceased to be surprised when a couple ask if they can continue to meet even once the course has finished.”
Pope Francis is expected to greet a flock of 17,000 today, following his invitation to engaged Catholics to an audience in St Peter’s Square. Although Francis has chosen Valentine’s Day for his talk – the one day of the year where it is supposed to be “all hearts and flowers” – he is likely to say that the reality of marriage can be far from this ideal and involves great sacrifice and great Faith.
Given that engaged couples, relative to seminarians, receive so little of the Church’s attention it is encouraging to see the Holy Father setting an example in this way to priests across the world, reminding them that couples need the Church’s pastoral and spiritual support. Of course, seminarians require this too, but at least for them there is one guarantee that engaged couples do not enjoy: that the priest makes promises to God, who will always remain constant and faithful. Aspiring to replicate such love takes more than a day’s preparation.