Couples preparing for marriage or who are newly married in the Catholic Church will soon encounter new preparation programs and enrichment resources.
In light of Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), the apostolic exhortation that Pope Francis wrote after two assemblies of the Synods of Bishops on the topic of the family, dioceses across the United States are revamping their marriage preparation ministries. Several are establishing catechumenate models of “marriage prep” where married couples accompany engaged men and women and help them to understand the vocation they are entering while also working to integrate them into the life of the Church.
“We will never be the same again in the way we look at things because of this document,” said Deacon Stephen Bowling, director of the Family Ministries Office for the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky.
Deacon Bowling told Our Sunday Visitor that he believes Amoris Laetitia will soon inform all sacramental preparation programs.
“I would like it to be a game-changer. I hope it is,” said Father Gerald Dennis Gill, director of the Office for Divine Worship of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Surveying the local scene
At the request of Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Vatican Office of the Synod of Bishops, a survey was sent to diocesan bishops and leaders of national Catholic organizations in the United States to gauge how Amoris Laetitia is being received and implemented.
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 59 dioceses and 18 national organizations from across the country responded by late August. Among the major initiatives dioceses indicated they have launched include a revaluation and strengthening of their marriage-related ministries.
“We’re using marriage preparation inventories and using the best of the psychological sciences to prepare couples, which was an important insight of Pope Francis in the document,” said Edward P. Herrera, director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Herrera told OSV that marriage preparation was a major topic of discussion in a series of town hall meetings his office held across the archdiocese after the post-synodal apostolic exhortation was released in early April. He said conversations at those meetings often focused on the need to better prepare couples for marriage and to support young married couples.
“The archbishop had asked us to take a serious look at marriage preparation and how we were doing it,” Herrera said. “And Amoris Laetitia gave us a blueprint for things we should be thinking about when creating or changing the marriage preparatory program in the archdiocese.”
Herrera said the archdiocese is using a new program called “Witness to Love,” which incorporates a virtues-based, catechumenate model of marriage renewal and preparation that integrates modern principles of psychology and virtues to help couples enter into authentic dialogue about their relationship. Herrera added that diocesan seminarians also are being trained for when they will have to prepare couples for marriage.
Julie Bostick, executive director of the Office of Laity and Family Life for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, described Pope Francis as “a beacon of hope for the future of the family in our Church and in our culture.”
Said Bostick, “Although we have been working on these ministry priorities for the last several years, his exhortation, ‘The Joy of Love,’ provided the Office of Laity and Family Life with great encouragement and affirmation that we are moving in the correct direction.”
Father Gill said the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will soon begin a comprehensive three-year catechetical program on marriage and family called “Remain in My Love.” He said the program will inform diocesan and parish-based marriage preparation efforts.
“The program we’re developing is a sound initiative to highlight the Christian dimensions of family and marriage,” Father Gill said. “To christen married and family life in an authentic way is something we need to do moving forward, so we intend to strengthen our programs of marriage preparation, of celebration and of follow-up.”
Deacon Bowling said the Archdiocese of Louisville trains sponsor couples to work with engaged couples. The couples meet for four or five sessions over the usual six-month preparation period leading up to the wedding. He said new programs such as small-group sharing are also being developed at the diocesan and parish levels to give engaged couples opportunities for growth and reflection, and a sense of connection with their parish.
“One of the fruits of Amoris Laetitia is our attempt to take seriously Pope Francis’ exhortation of accompaniment throughout the entire marriage preparation process,” said Deacon Bowling, adding that the pope is calling Church leaders to stay engaged with those couples after their wedding day.
“We find that we’re really good at catching people at those points in their lives where they are sacramentally connected, such as marriages, first communions, and baptisms. But what Pope Francis asks is, ‘How are we making that more of a continuum?’”
The Archdiocese of Boston uses a marriage prep program called “Transformed in Love.” While calling it an “excellent program,” Craig Dyke, director of family life in the archdiocesan Office of Lifelong Faith Formation and Parish Support, told OSV that more must be done to evangelize couples seeking marriage in the Catholic Church, particularly in accompanying the couple via marriage mentors and overall hospitality at the parish level.
“Before the close of the Synod on the Family, our office had begun to incorporate and introduce the catechumenal model as applied to marriage ministry in our trainings for marriage prep teams, seminarians and our ongoing diaconate formation classes,” Dyke said. “The Synod and Amoris Laetitia have given us an even greater boost to promote the use of the Catechumenal Model for marriage ministry.”
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles created a study guide inspired by Amoris Laetitia and is set to launch a new website for its Office of Family Life that will contain resources for marriage preparation and other related resources. Joan Vienna, director of the archdiocesan Office of Family Life, told OSV that the marriage enrichment ministry will feature five new programs. She said the archdiocese also helps prepare couples for marriage by appointing mentor couples who invite the engaged couples to Mass and have a blessing said for them.
“Parishes can do many different things in six months to enrich the couple and to make them part of the community when they are married,” Vienna said.
Susan Timoney, STD, the secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns at the Archdiocese of Washington, told OSV that it is impossible to provide all the necessary marriage-related catechesis for engaged couples in a six-month period. She said the archdiocese also is linking engaged couples with married mentor couples before and after the wedding day, and is offering retreats and other enrichment opportunities for newly married couples.
“Amoris Laetitia is one of those documents that has longterm staying power in the sense that it has created a new vision,” Timoney said. “And so our responsibility now is to help our parishes begin to respond to that vision, and that’s going to take some time.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.