One out of three Catholic marriages ends in divorce. This, according to a study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), is a lower rate than the general population, but it’s still nothing to brag about. It’s like saying, “Look at the couple in the pew in front of you, now at the one behind you. One of them is going down. Or you are.”
While many parishes and dioceses have already taken steps to strengthen pre-Cana, Pope Francis says such measures are not enough. “I ask myself,” he said, “how many of these youth who come to marriage-preparation courses understand what ‘marriage,’ the sign of the union of Christ and the Church, means?”
Preparation for marriage “with two or three meetings” just doesn’t cut it. Marriage prep needs to be much deeper. In keeping with his theme of “accompaniment,” the pope is calling on the greater Christian community to accompany a couple long before they enter the married state — and then continue to accompany them for about a year as newlyweds.
This idea is called the neocatechumenate of marriage. It gets its name from the Latin words for “new” and “program” for catechumens. The word catechumens usually refers to those who are preparing to be received into the Church, whether it be through the sacraments of Baptism or Baptism and Confirmation. In this case, it refers to those who are preparing to receive the sacrament of Matrimony. In all cases, the reception of these sacraments entails a lifetime commitment and calls for thorough preparation.
Pope Francis’ call for a neocatechumenate for marriage is a new take on an old idea. In his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), St. John Paul II likewise called for the formation of a catechumenate for marriage, especially “for engaged couples that still manifest shortcomings or difficulties in Christian doctrine and practice” (66).
But the idea is older than that. The neocatechumenate for marriage is based on God’s own design for the family. It’s called your parents’ marriage. St. John Paul II wrote in his Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
The right and duty of parents to educate their children is “essential, since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others” (239).
In Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II likewise wrote:
In some countries it is still the families themselves that, according to ancient customs, ensure the passing on to young people of the values concerning married and family life, and they do this through a gradual process of education or initiation (66).
In other words, the natural place to learn how to be successfully married is in your own family. Your preparation for marriage (and for any vocation) begins when you are 2 — as soon as you realize who your parents are and can raise your sticky arms up to them and demand to be picked up and shown the view from up there.
The role of parents is a right and a duty, and it is also a simple fact. Parents are the ones who are there — all the time. Children will imitate their parents. Parents will be their children’s first mentors. How parents act toward each other largely influences how their children will act in their own marriages — for better or for worse.
In his encyclical on marriage Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage), Pope Pius XI summed it up when he wrote:
For it cannot be denied that the basis of a happy wedlock, and the ruin of an unhappy one, is prepared and set in the souls of boys and girls during the period of childhood and adolescence (112).
If parents rely on God and respect and care for one another faithfully, children will be given a sound pattern on which to model themselves and are, according to CARA’s research, more likely to have success in their own marriages.
Married Catholics are more likely than those who are separated or divorced and those living with a partner to say their parents are (or were) married to each other (80 percent compared to 67 percent of those separated or divorced and 51 percent of those living with a partner). Catholics who have never married are most likely to indicate their parents never married (5 percent) (Marriage in the Catholic Church: A Survey of U.S. Catholics, October 2007).
Unfortunately, with CARA’s sad findings, the natural model of marriage is often not available.
St. John Paul II said:
The changes that have taken place within almost all modern societies demand that not only the family but also society and the Church should be involved in the effort of properly preparing young people for their future responsibilities (Familiaris Consortio, 66).
A key element of the neocatechumenate for marriage is mentor couples. Instead of having a few marriage prep sessions or workshops, couples would meet with mentor couples who would guide them gradually over time, and even after their wedding. Change the words “mentor couples” for the word “parents,” and again, you have a program that goes back to the beginning of time, designed by the Creator himself.
It’s an interesting cycle. Marriages are in bad shape so we need mentor couples — urgently. But with marriages in bad shape, where do you get mentor couples? On the flip side, when marriages are in good shape, you don’t need to establish a program. It already exists quite naturally. Parents mentor their own children. What’s more, young people also have other examples of great marriages through ordinary contact with their parents’ friends or other couples within the parish. And the influence is much more effective because it is organic and takes place over a lifetime, rather than just for a time.
Saving Catholic marriages
The need for a neocatechumenate for marriage is urgent. With it, Pope Francis hopes to “find valid remedies” for the rampant loss of Catholic marriages. But this calling is not just for the Church — or for churchmen. It fundamentally lies with parents themselves. No one has the power to influence the next generation of marriages like the mentor couple designed by God himself. Nor does it depend only on happily married parents.
Divorced Catholics can still give due reverence to their marriage, even when not enjoying the benefit of it, by living heroically and chastely as an example to their children. Such sacrifices win many graces. Catholics who struggle with rough marriages need to know that grace exists precisely for those times and can bring good even when it seems there is nothing but evil. There is no divine forgiveness without first a human fall. And nothing teaches the goodness of God and the sacredness of marriage quite like forgiveness.
Faithfulness to marriage vows in good times and bad shows children what marriage is, and it says: “Act like this someday.”
Though Catholic marriages are suffering, Catholics still have a better record of success in marriage precisely because there is so much grace available in the sacrament of Matrimony and in the other sacraments.
Parents can reach out and take back their primary role as mentors of their children’s marriages. They can show them God’s grace at work in their own lives as they honor each other, forgive each other, and daily resolve to live their wedding vows.
The next generation of marriages is counting on the married couples of today. So is Pope Francis. Who else but happily married couples are going to show forth the “beauty and joy of true love?” And, who else can the pope count on to sign up as mentors for his neocatechumenate program?