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Byron and Francine Pirola: When non-believers wed

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Every couple will flounder at some time in their marriage – for Catholics the Church is here to help. But what of those who have a Catholic wedding without embracing the call to Catholic married life?

The human heart yearns to be loved, known and accepted, and to give to our beloved the same love, understanding and acceptance. This longing for total, mutual self-donation is embedded in our human nature and ultimately leads us to The Great Lover – the God who created us for intimate relationship with him.

That’s one of the reasons why the Church recognises marriage as a Sacrament – the kind of love that a husband and wife share, is the same kind of love that Jesus has for us: freely given, permanent, total, faithful and fruitful.

Despite our earnest beginnings, every couple will flounder to some degree in our marriage. As imperfect people, our capacity to understand and accept each other is limited and thus our experience of the permanent, intimate communion for which we long, is flawed.

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For some couples, the weight of their challenges overwhelms them, and, lacking the support and resources needed to sustain their relationship, their marriage breaks down permanently. It is always painful and traumatic for the couple, their children if they have any, and their family and friends.

It also impacts the wider community eroding our confidence in the reliability of love: If human love is so fickle, can we trust God’s love?

Strong Christian marriages vital for the proclamation of the Gospel

Strong marriages are therefore vitally important for the proclamation of the Gospel. For without a solid witness of married love, God’s love is more difficult to believe and experience.

We’ve often said that the vocation crisis in the Church began in the 60s with marriage. Everyone worries about the declining number of priests and religious, but we forget that these vocations are born and nurtured in families.

When the faith of the couple is underdeveloped, they are unable to fully embrace and live their vocational call to be prophetic leaders in their families and in the Church. They are thus less able to nurture the faith in their children or to guide them in discerning a priestly or religious vocation should one of them have it.

Many couples marry at a church rather than in The Church. The church is really just a venue for the ceremony rather than a critical part of their commitment made in faith – they don’t really embrace their vocational call to live a Catholic married life.

They seek a Catholic wedding for reasons that are not ideal – for example, to appease parents, to fulfil to a childhood dream, to secure a place for their children in a Catholic school, or simply due to force of habit.

A recent Vatican commission explored the issue from an unexpected perspective: what is the appropriate response to baptised non-believers presenting for Catholic marriage? And how does it impact the validity of their marriage should the couple later be in a situation seeking an annulment?

There are no simple answers but what is apparent, is that formation for the couple, before and after the wedding, can only be a positive.

Pope Francis has repeatedly called for a ‘marriage catechumenate’ – a framework of formation that begins with children and continues throughout married life into the mature years.

In our work with engaged couples, we are well aware of the limits of effective formation during the busy engagement period. In fact, the formation needs to start much earlier, when the couple is dating, or even among single adults before they form romantic attachments. And it needs to continue after wedding when the challenges of living Catholic marriage sharpen.

The Catholic marriage preparation question – more or less?

The number of Catholic weddings has been in decline for the past 25 years. Some people think we need to make it ‘easier’ to marry in the Catholic Church, but we’re not so sure.

Incentivising couples to marry at a church by making the preparation less demanding, reducing the theological and spiritual content or relaxing our expectations of couples may increase the number of Catholic weddings, but it won’t increase the number of couples who sincerely embrace their vocational call.

Nor will it make their marriage more robust. A marriage catechumenate, on the other hand, can make real inroads in nourishing the faith of couples and in reducing the number of marriages that fail – and that is surely a good thing.

Francine and Byron Pirola are the directors of the Marriage Resource Centre and the co-authors of the SmartLoving series which serves thousands of couples worldwide.

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