Catholics across the U.S. are joining in a celebration of National Marriage Week to promote the sacrament and vocation upon which society is built.

"National Marriage Week provides an opportunity for the Church, and for the entire nation, to affirm and support married couples and to promote the vocation and sacrament of marriage," said Bethany J. Meola, assistant director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.

The week, she told CNA, is a chance "for the Church to remind married couples of the dignity of their vocation" and to reassure them "that the Church is in their corner and provides numerous supports for them."

The U.S. Bishops are inviting Catholics to observe National Marriage Week from Feb. 7 to 14, joining with Catholics around the globe in celebrations for World Marriage Day, held on Feb. 9.

National Marriage Week has been celebrated in the United States since 2002, springing out of Marriage Week International and World Marriage Day.

At the week's conclusion, Pope Francis will hold an audience with engaged couples, entitled "The Joy of Yes Forever."

In the United States, the week includes a variety of initiatives to advance marriage, including the "For Your Marriage" and "Por Tu Matrimonio" websites, which offer marriage and relationship advice to couples, as well as "Marriage, Unique for a Reason," which explains the purpose of marriage in society.

In addition, the bishops are hosting a virtual marriage retreat during the week, presenting daily themes for reflection, meditation and spiritual nourishment.

In a Jan. 17 letter to the bishops of the United States, Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo praised the week's role in helping to "promote and strengthen marriage both as a natural institution" and as a sacrament.

Bishop Malone, who chairs the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, stressed the need to recognize the proper role and value of marriage in the modern world.

"Marriage and the family face many challenges in our contemporary society," he said, pointing to threats ranging from pornography to political attempts to redefine marriage.

He urged the bishops to remember "that in the midst of ongoing challenges, there are always opportunities to proclaim the Gospel more clearly," pointing toward the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family to take place in Rome in October 2014.

Meola explained that marriage is essential both because it is a vocation and "the first form of communion between persons." Marriage, she said, "is the foundation of the family, which is the building block of society," and faithful, fruitful married love "provides stability to society, and especially to a couple's children."

As a vocation, she added, marriage "reveals in a unique way the human person's call to love, to give oneself completely to another person in mutual and lasting fidelity." This loving fidelity is "bolstered by divine grace," revealing "Christ's self-sacrificial love for His Church" in the sacrament of matrimony.
She also pointed to the importance of marriage preparation, which "is an opportunity for the Church to say to each couple very personally that their marriage matters enough to invest time and resources into making it strong, healthy, and holy."

These marriage preparation programs provide not only practical communication and financial skills, but instruction on marriage's sacramental nature.

Meola stressed that this focus "helps couples understand what their mission and identity will be as a married couple and the importance of keeping God at the center of their marriage."