Diocesan Focus Groups On Marriage
Between the fall of 2005 and January, 2006, sixty-four dioceses and one eparchy conducted nearly 200 focus groups. These focus groups involved more than 1,500 participants. Focus groups were held with newly married, middle years, and older couples; Spanish-speaking couples; remarried couples; divorced and separated persons; and single young adults who are open to marriage. In addition, some dioceses conducted focus groups with a mix of people. Separate reports are available for each grouping except the mixed groups. Below is a summary of the overall results.
(1) Reflecting on their marriage
Married couples were asked to reflect on the positives and negatives of their marriage at this stage. The positives tended to be similar: companionship, trust, good communication, and shared faith. Many mentioned children.
The negatives were more diverse. Time is a major issue for people at all stages. Children, including adult children, are a major concern, with issues around discipline and handing on faith and values. Some Spanish-speaking couples worry about the effect of secular values and the culture on their children. Other negatives included differences over religious beliefs and practices, health and finances, addictions, and abuse.
(2) Church teaching and marriage
Couples were asked how church teaching on marriage has supported and challenged them.
Many said that the church’s teaching on permanence and commitment is very helpful. Others cited the teaching on marriage as a sacrament and a vocation. The teaching on sexuality in general and contraception and Natural Family Planning in particular drew a mixed response. Some cited it as helpful in their marriage, but most who mentioned it saw it as a challenge.
Those who had gone through the annulment process had mixed experiences. For many who attempted it, the process brought healing and closure, even though it was often painful. Others did not even begin the process. They did not see the point, especially if they had no plans to re-marry, or they had heard that it was lengthy or costly (neither is necessarily true). Many people do not know, or are misinformed, about church teaching on divorce and annulments.
(3) Diocesan and parish support for marriage
Focus group participants were asked how their parish and diocese support married couples and what more could be done.
In general, participants did not see the parish as a source of direct support for marriage; that is, their parishes do not sponsor marriage enrichment activities on a regular and ongoing basis (e.g., retreats for married couples, support groups, workshops). Some had participated in, or knew about, diocesan-sponsored activities to celebrate milestone anniversaries. Many people believed that more was available but they simply did not know about it. They wanted more publicity for marriage enrichment activities.
Many people pointed out that parish activities can promote marriage even though that is not their direct intention. For example, people who were involved in RCIA, liturgy, or religious education often said that these kinds of activities helped their marriage. Virtually any well-done adult faith formation opportunity can support marriage.
People praised Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, Christian Family Movement and similar movements and organizations, although these are not parish-based.
Participants asked for more opportunities for adult faith formation, small groups/support groups, retreats, mentoring, more preaching about marriage, and helpful resources and referrals for troubled couples. Some suggested that parishes collaborate with each other around marriage enrichment; this could improve the quality and quantity of what is offered.
Many participants discussed the key role played by pastors. They identified the influence of the priest in three areas. First, people who are experiencing marital difficulties may approach their pastor. They do not expect priests to be counselors, but they want someone to listen and to support them. Many also want referrals to resources, including counselors who support their desire to save the marriage. Focus group participants praised those priests who took the time to listen and to provide helpful referrals.
Some participants reported that they approached the priest or parish staff and received no help. There were no lists of resources or counselors. Priests and pastoral staff lacked the necessary training, and participants suggested that clergy receive ongoing training in marriage-related issues.
Second, participants said that priests can raise awareness about marriage. A major example is preaching on Sunday. Many said that they rarely heard a homily about marriage, although they acknowledged the difficulty of preaching on the topic when so many in the congregation have been affected by divorce. They also suggested that pastors include renewal of vows at a Sunday Mass and publicly recognize those couples who are celebrating major anniversaries.
Third, much of marriage ministry is peer ministry. Some married couples mentor engaged and newly married couples, while others facilitate support groups and faith sharing groups. The priest’s role is not to do the ministry himself but to support and encourage those people who are willing to become involved.