National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage

Diocesan Focus Groups with Priests

In the fall of 2006, focus groups with priests were conducted in the arch/dioceses of Knoxville, Denver, Savannah, Steubenville, Kansas City (KS), and the Military Services. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe held focus groups in 2007.

The USCCB's Committee on Marriage and Family asked participants to respond to several questions about their ministry with engaged and married couples. Participants also offered suggestions for the National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage and the pastoral letter on marriage. Below is a compilation of their responses.

What is the most important role/responsibility you see for priests in the ministry of marriage preparation? What opportunities and problems do you encounter in this ministry and how do you respond?

Priests see themselves as catechists and guides who teach couples about the sacramental nature of marriage. They help couples to deepen their spirituality, to discover God on a deeper level. They evangelize. They can be role models by faithfully living out their own vocation. They are not simply liturgy planners, although many couples perceive them as such. Priests can help couples to build a good foundation by teaching healthy relationship skills and providing counseling when needed.

Participants identified several major problems in this ministry:

Priests identified a need for more marriage preparation resources, especially those directed towards Spanish-speaking couples and couples entering a second marriage. Remote preparation should be stressed since the immediate preparation period is so short (even a year is not enough). Marriage preparation programs often rely on volunteers, but they can be hard to recruit. It can also be difficult to choose among the many programs and materials that are available. Finally, priests observed that many newly-married couples disappear from church life. They have no ongoing connection to the parish.

  1. Many couples lack a religious background; they are basically unchurched. They do not understand the meaning of sacrament and vocation.
  2. Many couples are cohabiting. This turns marriage from a sacred event into a "sham."
  3. The culture has instilled in people certain values that can be hard to undo. For example, people want to do things fast. ("Couples are primarily interested in getting through things quickly and checking the necessary boxes.") Sometimes they seek out another faith tradition that doesn't require as much as the Catholic Church.
  4. Priests do not really know the couples who are coming for marriage preparation. It can be hard to find time to see them and to meet their individual needs.
  5. Some previously-married couples do not understand church teaching on annulments. If one is needed, they are unhappily surprised.

What is the most important role/responsibility you see for priests in the ministry of sustaining marriages? What opportunities and problems do you encounter and how do you respond?

One group stressed that the priest's role is to provide education. Married couples need continuing education, but most do not want to devote time to it. Several participants noted that people do not approach priests for help. Priests may not find out about a problem until it is too late. Priests should build up trusting relationships that encourage people to talk about their marriage. Individual pastoral counseling can help to heal marriages.

Priests should recognize marriage in the liturgies and preach about it. They should use family-based examples from Scripture. Priests mentioned specific activities such as REFOCCUS and "Tables for Two." More generally, parishes need to be "family-friendly."

Parishes need to emphasize marital spirituality. Retreats, renewal of vows ceremonies and diocesan programs can support married couples, but not all dioceses have marriage support programs, or there may be a limited number. Take-home materials are helpful, but resources will not reach couples who are absent from church ("You must be present to win.") Priests again mentioned the challenge of staying connected with newly-married couples.

Last year, at the request of the Bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family, 64 dioceses sponsored focus groups with married couples, single young adults, and divorced persons. A large number of focus group participants pointed to the key role played by parish priests in ministry to marriages. Specifically, they mentioned three areas: counseling and referral, preaching and celebration, and enabling of peer ministries.

  • As you read these expectations, do they strike you as accurate? If so, how would you help priests to make a better response to them? Are there other areas, besides the three mentioned, in which priests have a major opportunity to provide ministry to marriages?

In general, participants agreed that these expectations are accurate, although a couple of priests thought they are too impersonal and functional. Priests should present themselves as co-disciples and share their own joys and struggles.

Some priests do not feel adequately prepared to counsel couples. More effort is needed to identify good marriage counselors. Counseling is too expensive for some couples, or they see a stigma attached to it. Peer counseling might be an alternative for these couples. Experienced couples should be encouraged to mentor younger couples.

Participants agreed that preaching about marriage could be done more frequently. Some pointed out, however, that priests are not seen as credible or knowledgeable about marriage. When celebrating weddings, priests need to make sure that the meaning of the sacrament comes through clearly.

Some priests emphasized that young people need to be formed in grade school and high school. They pointed out that most Catholic young people attend public school and can be hard to reach.

The National Directory for Catechesis envisions that "catechesis for the Sacrament of Matrimony is addressed to the whole parish community" (p. 142). What is the role/responsibility of the parish priest in seeing to this? What is your experience in trying to carry it out?

Participants agreed that normal parish activities and programs offer many ways to teach about marriage, e.g., RCIA, confirmation classes, youth programs, and liturgy. Priests can preach to the whole community about the meaning of marriage. They can teach people to make informed choices. One pointed out that a shift in focus is needed to include the entire parish in catechesis about marriage. Young adult ministry is critical in helping men and women to prepare for marriage.

Some suggested the retrieval of traditional practices such as Banns of Marriage and the celebration of family customs and devotions.

Family members could be enlisted to catechize other family members. For example, grandparents might pass on materials about marriage to their grandchildren. One priest suggested that family customs and devotions be brought back. Multi-generational catechesis should be encouraged.

Some noted the difficulty of connecting couples to the parish when one or both are not active.

Priests often get involved in special ministries to marriage, e.g., Engaged Encounter, Marriage Encounter, Teams of Our Lady, Retrouvaille. What opportunities and problems are encountered in such ministries?

Participants respect these ministries but noted that their presence in dioceses is spotty. Priests become suspicious if local communities "water down" the program. Participants noted the difficulty of recruiting priests and presenting couples. It can also be hard to get couples to attend. Many enjoy it once they get there, but the weekends do not appeal to all couples. Several priests said that these ministries offer great support to their own vocation.

One challenge is to integrate the special ministries and the larger parish ("We affirm these groups but are concerned with keeping them connected to the community"). Parishes should also provide follow-up support to people who have participated in the programs.

What specific situations, opportunities, and problems have you encountered in marriage ministry with different cultural groups in parishes? How have you responded to them?

Some noted that popular culture poses the greatest challenges. Others discussed the challenge of religiously mixed marriages; priests need to make couples aware of the potential difficulties.

Priests are generally happy to learn about the cultural practices of non-Anglo ethnic groups. Some have encountered a problem with traditions and practices that are non-liturgical. They make an effort to incorporate them into the wedding liturgy.

Some participants commented specifically about ministry with Hispanics. There is a lack of Spanish-speaking ministers and materials in Spanish. Hispanics are often devout but need catechesis. Many Hispanic couples marry civilly but postpone a church wedding for various reasons, including financial. One Hispanic priest noted problems with out-of-wedlock births and cohabitation. Undocumented immigration has legal ramifications. In the African-American community, the absence of men is a problem. Programs need strong lead couples.

What suggestions do you have for the U.S. Bishops as they develop the National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage and a pastoral letter on marriage? How can the bishops make them effective?

The Letter offers an opportunity to present the sacrament clearly. We need more emphasis on the sacramental meaning of marriage.

Some participants expressed skepticism about a pastoral letter. They believe that few people, including clergy, will read it. If done, it should be written in simple, non-theological language. A positive approach, one that is "more concerned with evangelization that Canon Law," is needed. If bishops are serious about getting the message out, they should consider CDs, DVDs, web resources, TV, and radio. Bishops should keep in mind that adults learn in different ways.

Participants said that practical materials and more effective resources would be helpful. They suggested various points of emphasis, many of which have been raised during the consultative process.