Purchasing rings, choosing a venue, shopping for a wedding dress, deciding on the menu – the list of tasks to accomplish goes on and on for couples headed for the altar. The details are so endless that these couples often get so wrapped up in the wedding that they barely spare a thought for the marriage itself.
From the moment an engagement begins, couples dream of spending a lifetime together in wedded bliss. On Oct. 22, 1911, the day after his wedding to Empress Zita, Blessed Charles of Austria, Emperor of Austria-Hungary, said to his bride, “Now, we must help each other get to heaven.” This quote is a good reminder of a husband’s and wife’s duty in married life.
As marriage is a vocation, the Catholic Church believes that couples should go through a period to prepare themselves for the storms that sometimes roll through even the sunniest days of married life. In the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, a new marriage preparation program is being rolled out for engaged couples this year.
Deacon Robert Byrne has served as the coordinator for both marriage and baptismal preparation at Queen of Peace Parish in Mishawaka since his arrival in October of 2015. When he speaks to engaged couples, Deacon Byrne focuses on the sacramentality of marriage and the spiritual action they are seeking to undertake.
“When we talk about marriage, a lot of these kids aren’t spiritually prepared for it,” he commented. Around half of the couples that he sees seeking marriage within the Church do not regularly attend Mass.
Some couples struggle with the course because they “don’t have a strong faith basis,” he said.
But for those couples that do, “the ones with a relationship with Christ, those are the good ones to work with.”
And when he sees couples heading down an immoral path, such as living together before marriage, Deacon Byrne said, “I don’t mince words with them. I talk to them about their salvation.”
Queen of Peace has just begun rolling out the new marriage course and Deacon Byrne is becoming familiar with it. He explained that it has three separate but linked components: the pre-marriage course produced by Alpha International, the BELOVED – Finding Happiness in Marriage course from the Augustine Institute and a natural family planning overview. Deacon Byrne stated that the new program began at Queen of Peace only recently with the Alpha course.
This five-week course is an online series that utilizes The Pre-Marriage Course Study Journal to present different themes that will help a couple understand how marriage works and how to build a lifelong relationship.
BELOVED pairs engaged couples with a mentor couple who will work through a series of six videos together. The mentor couples Deacon Byrne uses have a long marriage history or are even on their second marriage, which is just as valuable as a decades-long relationship because of their firsthand knowledge and experience with the difficulties of marriage. Deacon Byrne has plenty of experience with the married life himself, approaching his 50th anniversary this summer.
Some parishes may not offer the mentorship aspect. In that case, the Office of Marriage and Family offers weekend retreats to fill this gap.
The natural family planning aspect, as Deacon Byrne explained, is not necessarily required in the previous marriage preparation program, but is very strongly encouraged in the new one. Even couples who are already married are welcome to join the online course, offered on the first Wednesday of every month on Zoom.
Deacon Byrne uses the FOCCUS pre-marriage inventory with his engaged couples, but he doesn’t start off with the test. “I want them to get through the initial stuff on their own before the FOCCUS exam,” he explained, because the exam can frequently “stimulate conversations on a variety of topics.”
Lisa Everett, director of Marriage and Family Ministry for the diocese, spoke on the importance of a good marriage preparation course. She said, “Helping couples prepare well for the vocation and sacrament of marriage is a high priority for the Church and for our diocese. We are excited about our new marriage preparation program and are confident that it will provide couples with the human formation, intellectual formation, spiritual formation and moral formation which will give them a solid foundation on which to build their lives together as husbands and wives.”
The new marriage preparation program is being rolled out in parishes this year in both English and Spanish. All couples seeking to be married in the Catholic Church will go through the program, and those couples who have already begun marriage preparation will transition to the new one.
Through these efforts, the diocese and the Church at large hopes to usher newlyweds all the way from the altar and – as Blessed Charles so aptly put it – into heaven, together.
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