In 2014, the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth conducted a survey of Diocesan Marriage and Family Life Directors, Diocesan Youth and Young Adult Directors, and college Campus Ministers about the state of marriage in the Church. The goal was to identify current best practices among leaders for 1) promoting marriage in the Church and 2) helping those in irregular marital situations (couples married outside of the Church). In addition, the survey also sought to elicit the input of leaders on common reasons why Catholics choose to marry outside of the Church as well as particular challenges faced by the Church's cultural and ethnic families.
2100 surveys were distributed and 384 were returned, of which 355 had substantial responses to the open-ended questions about the landscape of marriage in the Church today and best practices and strategies.
Table of Contents (click headings to jump down)
The most cited reasons by leaders for why Catholics do not get married in the Church were a lack of knowledge about the faith and a lack of connection to Christ and the Church. Respondents reported that many couples do not see the value of marrying in the Church or understand the difference between a sacramental and civil marriage. Respondents also frequently noted a negative perception of the Church's marriage preparation process (and declaration of nullity process in some cases) as being restrictive, cumbersome, and expensive.
Many ministers also noted that couples often seek weddings in locations not permitted by the Church, such as outside. (While in canon law a bishop can allow a wedding "to be celebrated in another suitable place" other than the parish church [canon 1118], generally permission is not given for an outdoor wedding.) Other couples are unaware of the process regarding interchurch and interreligious marriages, when a Catholic marries a non-Catholic Christian or unbaptized person. Finances can also present an obstacle when couples dream of a big Church wedding.
The surveys indicated that members of the Church's many cultural families can face unique challenges when seeking to be married in the Church. Respondents noted that limited finances and/or a couple's immigration status may preclude them from celebrating the sacrament. Further, finding evidence of sacraments from parishes in other countries can also complicate the process. A lack of priests to lead marriage preparation and celebrate the sacrament in the couple's native language also presents a challenge. Leaders pointed to a need for greater intracultural competency as a way of understanding and incorporating cultural traditions into the Sacrament of Matrimony, but also to understand the couple's marriage culture and allow for appropriate and respectful marriage preparation.
Strategies and Best Practices
In Amoris Laetitia (AL), Pope Francis reminds the Church of the need to reach out, evangelize, accompany, and support marriages and families. In this vein, the best practices and strategies proposed by the leaders who were surveyed demonstrate a creative and enthusiastic response to encouraging and strengthening marriage in the Church. Their suggestions and ideas can help all Catholic leaders who work with youth, young adults, engaged couples, and those married outside of the Church.
Strategy #1: Strengthen Youth and Young Adult Ministry
Marriage preparation starts long before a couple's engagement. As Pope Francis says, it "begins at birth" in a person's family of origin (AL, no. 208). In their surveys, leaders noted that by reaching out to young people in the Church and inviting them into friendship with Christ, groundwork is laid for strong marriages. When people are invited into the life of the Church, and when they encounter Christ in the sacraments and in Scripture, they want to stay connected to these sources of grace.
"Help young people fall in love with Jesus. When [people] have an active prayer life, are focused on Jesus, [they] more naturally want to get married in the Church he founded." – Campus Minister
Practically speaking, youth and young adult ministers suggested that programming should include the implicit and explicit promotion of marriage. Ministry events for youth and young adults should actively work to include married role models as leaders and mentors. These couples stand as witnesses to the Sacrament of Matrimony and can offer a healthy ideal for individuals without examples of strong marriages in their life.
In addition, survey respondents recommended that catechetical formation for youth and young adults include St. John Paul II's teachings on the Theology of the Body. When appropriate, chastity, dating, relationships, fertility awareness, and marriage can also be discussed with young people. Some leaders described such sessions as taking the form of a youth night for high school students or theology on tap for young adults.
One college campus ministry hosts "You're Invited: A Night on the Sacrament of Marriage" for college students and other young adults in the community. The program includes a speaker on the theology of marriage and small group discussions with married couples in all stages of life to talk about the blessings and challenges of marriage. This event is then supplemented with smaller programs throughout the year to encourage the discussion and continue formation. For all programs, the choice of a faithful, dynamic speaker is crucial.
Strategy #2: Collaborate with Catholic Educators and Catechists
Respondents noted that religious education programs, Catholic school curriculums, and Confirmation preparation can be excellent avenues to further encourage and strengthen marriage in the Church and to educate students and parents. Echoing many of the recommendations for youth and young adult ministry, such classes can be a way to reach those who are uninterested in or unable to attend other ministry events.
Leaders noted the importance of ensuring that all educational and catechetical leaders are well-formed and well-versed in the Church's teaching on marriage. One diocese hosts an in-service day for leaders to deepen their understanding of marriage and encourage Catholic education as a way of guiding youth toward marriage.
To reach individuals and couples later in life, some pointed to RCIA programs as an opportunity for outreach, education, and evangelization, particularly in regard to the Sacrament of Marriage. Preparation to receive the sacraments can also include catechesis on marriage. Both RCIA and sacramental preparation for children offer opportunities to identify couples in irregular situations and invite them to regularize their union.
Strategy #3: Raise Awareness of the Vocation of Marriage
"Promoting the vocation of [the] family would naturally alleviate much of the burden of the vocational crisis. It is not an option in our times to assume that the family will take care of itself. Let's match our theology with spirit, energy, and resources!" – Director of Marriage and Family Life
Pope Francis reminds us that "marriage is a vocation" and that family life is "a true path to daily sanctification and mystical growth, a means for deeper union with God" (AL, nos. 72, 316). Many survey respondents noted that they promote marriage as the vocation it is, but that this understanding is not widespread. By emphasizing marriage as a beautiful sacrament with its own spirituality and mission in the Church and society, more young people and couples may fully realize their call to marriage in the Church.
A practical suggestion offered in this regard is to include marriage in the promotion of vocations, in collaboration with local vocations offices for priestly and religious vocations. For example, when holding vocations talks, witness talks about marriage could be included alongside talks about vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The remark was also made that for those without the example of a healthy and faith-filled marriage in their background, this can be a chance to show them what a vocation to marriage looks like. In addition, when pastors and youth ministers encourage young people to discern their vocation, they could include marriage in that discernment process.
Strategy #4: Make Marriage Prep Supportive, Engaging, and Accessible
The leaders who were surveyed point out that although couples who attend marriage preparation programs have already decided to be married in the Church, a high-quality program can attract others by word of mouth. Marriage prep can also be an important place of evangelization and catechesis for the engaged couple, as well as a "refresher" on the sacrament.
In addition, surveys reported, high-quality and engaging programs can challenge the pervasive view that marriage prep in the Church is simply a series of boxes to check and hoops to jump through. Many respondents cited the need for Theology of the Body and Natural Family Planning courses in marriage prep to awaken the faith and change hearts. Many also suggested making marriage prep more relational by including sponsor couples or mentor priests.
For couples separated by work or military deployment, online options for marriage prep would benefit them, noted some leaders. Online marriage prep was also recognized as an effective way to reach couples who move frequently for work or who live abroad, situations that make the traditional parish-based marriage preparation program difficult to complete. Some online options are listed on the Marriage Prep Resources page on the For Your Marriage site.
Ensuring access to marriage preparation options for non-English speaking couples is also of high importance. Many respondents noted a lack of materials, leaders, and celebrants in languages besides English as a major obstacle to marriage in the Church for many members of the Church's cultural families. To remedy this, it was suggested that programs in other languages should be researched and implemented, and that language classes for catechetical leaders and priests should be considered.
A final comment on this topic is that mentorship of couples should continue past their wedding day, whether through guidance from the pastor or another couple.
Strategy #5: Support Couples Regularizing their Marriage
"The most effective [program] we have is ongoing spiritual and moral formation in small groups or communities... Compassionate pastors who are part of the community reach out constantly to encourage regularization, and make it a beautiful celebration when it happens. Celebrating anniversaries of couples whose valid and regular marriages demonstrate perseverance, encourages awareness in the community of the beauty and value of sacramental marriage." – Campus Minister
Leaders shared that couples going through the convalidation process (to bring a civil marriage into the Church) or the declaration of nullity process need extra support and accompaniment. Some suggested strategies included providing language options for non-English speakers going through these processes and offering specialized marriage preparation classes for couples regularizing their marriage, in some places called "Cana II." Another increasingly common approach is to celebrate regularized unions with group weddings (recognizing numerous convalidations in one celebration), which can also lessen the financial burden for couples. Other leaders suggested, similarly to Pope Francis, that if possible, fees associated with the declaration of nullity process be reduced or even eliminated.
One parish offers periodic Masses and blessings for all couples who are moving towards sacramental marriage or regularizing their union. This is one way to invite couples into the life of the Church and continue to bless them on their journey.
Strategy #6: Reach out
For those in irregular marital situations, Pope Francis' words come to mind, "Nowadays, pastoral care for families has to be fundamentally missionary, going out to where people are" (AL, no. 230).
Respondents noted that one such time to be a missionary is when couples return to the parish for sacraments or religious education for their children. One diocese trains parish leaders to identify couples in irregular marital situations and then has the pastor reach out in person or with a personalized form letter to invite them to regularize their union. Having an identifiable point person in the parish who couples can reach out to is another way of approaching this.
Strategy #7: Make Information Accessible
Many respondents noted that young couples are likely to do internet research before calling a parish or diocese about marriage preparation. A strong web presence is necessary, then, to answer questions about Church teaching on marriage, the declaration of nullity process, and convalidation. When couples do call about getting married at a parish, the parish staff should be prepared to warmly welcome and congratulate them as they begin marriage preparation.
It was suggested that information about Catholic marriage should also be easily accessible at the parish level. Many dioceses have started offering information sessions on the declaration of nullity, some including witness talks from couples or individuals who went through the process. These sessions can be accompanied by healing Masses, Holy Hours, or short retreats to offer support for people in a difficult situation.
Spiritual support and pastoral care are also needed, said survey respondents, in keeping with Pope Francis' teaching on the need for mercy in addressing difficult situations. Some dioceses have ministries dedicated specifically to care for civilly married, separated, divorced, and/or remarried Catholics. Others are considering hosting healing Masses, Holy Hours, and retreats specifically for divorced and remarried Catholics to offer support, as well as information about the declaration of nullity process.
Leaders advised that the same principles should also be applied to interchurch and interfaith couples. Parishes should reach out and provide couples with correct information on options for the wedding liturgy, petitioning for a dispensation (for example, to hold the wedding at the non-Catholic party's place of worship), or seeking convalidation for a civil marriage.
Strategy #8: Remove Financial Barriers
"We have been sponsoring some group weddings in order to provide the opportunity to those couples who can't 'afford' an individual wedding to receive the sacrament. Each family is asked to bring a dish for the potluck dinner in the parish hall…it truly becomes a community celebration." – Diocesan marriage and family life director
A number of respondents indicated that for many couples, the cost of a wedding can be prohibitive to getting married. While a bare minimum celebration can be affordable, sometimes even that is too much for people struggling financially. One suggestion on this point is for parishes and dioceses to re-examine the cost of marriage preparation programs, renting Church facilities, and other related services. Another suggestion is to work with couples who are struggling financially so that a lack of resources does not impede a truly joyous celebration. One parish reported a creative approach: hosting group weddings with parish-sponsored receptions.
Another financial barrier to marriage in the Church can be the cost of the declaration of nullity process. Some dioceses have had great success with eliminating costs for the marriage tribunal to encourage couples to regularize their union. If eliminating costs is not possible, another option might be lowering them significantly or providing a pay-what-you-can option for the process.
"I would like to underline that the Sacraments are freely given; the Sacraments give us grace; a matrimonial process touches upon the Sacrament of marriage. How I would like all processes to be free!" - Pope Francis, 2015 Address to the Roman Rota
Strategy #9: Celebrate Marriage!
"Send a general prayer petition out to the parishes that they can use for a few weeks before a couple is to be married in their church. They fill in their names for each new couple and the parish community joins together to pray for the couple. " – Diocesan family life coordinator
As the saying goes, "a wedding is for a day, but a marriage is for life." Happily, many parish and diocesan leaders reported that they have taken on the challenge of supporting marriage in all of its stages. Many dioceses host an annual wedding anniversary Mass at the cathedral to honor and celebrate couples who continue to live out the Sacrament of Matrimony. This can be done at a parish or diocesan level or incorporated into weekly Mass by inviting couples to receive a blessing from the priest on the occasion of their anniversary. Other dioceses offer marriage enrichment retreats throughout the year, in different lengths and locations to accommodate as many people as possible. Visit the For Your Marriage website for resources to strengthen marriage and help marriages in trouble.
Ideas suggested by some respondents were to host events in conjunction with National Marriage Week (Feb. 7-14) or to hold a distinct diocesan marriage awareness week. If a week is too short, a diocesan year for marriage could be held to celebrate those living the sacrament and to expand outreach to others.
Strategy #10: Continue Promoting Marriage to All Catholics
To come full circle, a final suggestion offered by leaders was that strengthening and promoting marriage in the Church needs to include outreach to the entire Church, not only engaged couples and young people. This outreach could include a well-developed web presence, multimedia campaigns, and diocesan and parish level ministry. By continually seeking to deepen the understanding and appreciation of marriage by all Catholics, marriages – and the Church – are strengthened.