Should the Church require a year of marriage prep? Catholic formators weigh in

Michael and Deanna Johnston of Tyler, Texas, hold hands during an interview. Michael and Deanna Johnston of Tyler, Texas, hold hands during an interview. | Daniel Ibanez/CNA

The Vatican last week released a document with recommendations for a year-long “marriage catechumenate” to prepare Catholic couples for the sacrament of matrimony.

In the document’s preface, Pope Francis called adequate marriage preparation a matter of justice, since it precedes a life-long commitment.

But a couple’s experience of sacramental preparation before their wedding can vary widely from place to place.

On June 15, the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life published a booklet called “Catechumenal Itineraries for Married Life,” currently available in Italian and Spanish, which suggested three stages of Catholic marriage formation.

The first phase, called “proximate preparation,” should last “about one year,” according to the dicastery’s recommendations. The second phase would take place in the final months before the wedding, and the third part would follow the couple through the first 2-3 years of married life. 

The idea of a marriage catechumenate, the document said, is analogous to the preparation for baptism in the early Church: “a faith formation and accompaniment in the acquisition of a Christian lifestyle, specifically aimed at couples.”

The Vatican said: “It is generally suggested that the upcoming preparation should last approximately one year depending on the couple’s previous experience of faith and ecclesial involvement.”

“Having made the decision to marry — a moment that could be sealed by the rite of betrothal — one could begin the immediate preparation for marriage, lasting a few months, to be set up as an actual initiation into the nuptial sacrament,” it explained.

“The duration of these stages should be adapted, we repeat, taking into account the religious, cultural, and social aspects of the environment in which one lives and even the personal situations of each couple,” the document said. “What is essential is to safeguard the regularity of the meetings in order to accustom couples to take care of their vocation and marriage responsibly.”

Deanna Johnston, the director of family life for the Diocese of Tyler, said she is in favor of a longer marriage preparation, but emphasized that it cannot just be the diocese handing couples a checklist of things to do for 12 months.

“It gives us a challenge, I think, as family life directors,” she told CNA during an interview in Rome, where she traveled with her husband, Michael, and the oldest of her four children, 7-year-old Alexandria, to take part in the World Meeting of Families.

“We can’t just send couples through a program and expect that to be the thing that gives them a happy, healthy, holy marriage,” she said.

At a time when many couples are afraid of divorcing, or come from families of divorce, she emphasized that the Church needs to present the idea of a “marriage catechumenate” as a way to achieve a good marriage, and not just another heavy task to fulfill. 

Part of this, she said, is building relationships with engaged couples that continue even after the wedding day.

“I know for us, we’ve been married for only nine years, and so much life has happened,” Johnston said. “I remember going to Engaged Encounter and some of the things that they had us discuss, but life is very different than I think we thought it would be back in 2013.”

Johnston said she thinks the engagement period is also an opportunity to grow as a person and in virtues such as chastity, even for practicing Catholics.

“That’s one pushback that I’ve heard is like, well, if you have two really well-formed Catholics, why would you make them wait for the sacrament of marriage? But even as well-formed Catholics — Michael is a former seminarian, I am a deacon’s daughter, like we were good Catholics, right? — but we’d never been married before,” she said.

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“So, recognizing that these two individuals have never experienced married life together, that it’s so worthwhile for us to invest that time and relationship building to make sure that they have a strong foundation.”

Sheila Reineke, a Natural Family Planning program coordinator for the Diocese of St. Cloud, told CNA she thinks extending marriage preparation from the standard 4-6 months to an 8-12 month program “would allow for relationships to form with the other couples that the couples are meeting with. I think that they could really become a small community.”

Vince and Sheila Reineke have been an NFP witness couple for more than 30 years. Daniel Ibanez/CNA
Vince and Sheila Reineke have been an NFP witness couple for more than 30 years. Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Sheila and her husband Vince have been married for 34 years and have four adult children.

Finding community and friendship with other Catholic couples in a Bible study was something that helped strengthen their own marriage early on, they said.

Reineke said she knows some people already find the current standard requirements to marry in the Catholic Church burdensome, and there are always necessary exceptions, such as for military couples.

“I would start by listening” to couples’ concerns, she said. “But again, I think if we speak to them with love and explain the reasons for it, many couples really enjoy the process when they get to the end of it.”

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Deanna Johnston’s husband, Michael, is the director of the theology department at a Catholic high school. He said a year of formation for a life-long commitment does not seem unreasonable. 

He and his colleagues try to start even earlier, by setting teenagers up for a successful marriage relationship in the future by “forming them in moral theology and Church history and ethics just so that they have an orientation towards what marriage actually is at a very young age, or a relatively young age.”

He noted that focusing on forming good Catholic families now will have a positive influence on the children from those marriages, and who will be walking into the doors of a high school in a dozen years.

The Johnstons and Reinekes agreed that having mentor couples is a helpful approach to engaged formation.

Bishop John Doerfler told CNA that his Diocese of Marquette also follows the mentor couple model.

One difficulty new married couples often face is a sense of loneliness or isolation, “especially when problems may arise,” he said. “It’s our hope over time that by fostering mentor couples, they know that there’s someone there they can reach out to, so they don’t have to go through difficulties or struggles alone.” 

With the idea of a 12-month preparation, “there needs to be some kind of flexibility,” he said, “because often people will approach us when they have already set a date for their marriage and we want to be able to work with them as best we can.”

“But I think in general, trying to look at preparation for a whole year is a good idea, with some flexibility depending on the circumstances in which people find themselves,” the bishop said. 

Deanna Johnston noted that those preparing engaged couples “won’t have every single answer for them when they’re going through marriage formation in the very beginning, but if we can set it up so that the Church is there to walk with them through all of these different changes and challenges in life — maybe that’s very idealistic but I think it’s very worthwhile.”

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