Among the less-noticed passages of Pope Francis' new exhortation was a lengthy section on marriage preparation, a subject that the pontiff has repeatedly spoken on, calling for additional focus at the diocesan and parish levels.
"Learning to love someone does not happen automatically, nor can it be taught in a workshop just prior to the celebration of marriage," Pope Francis said. "For every couple, marriage preparation begins at birth."

His reflections on the October 2015 Synod on the Family were released April 8 in the lengthy post-synodal exhortation "Amoris Laetitia." He cited many statements of the synod and added his own commentary.

The main objective of marriage preparation for engaged couples is to "help each to learn how to love this very real person with whom he or she plans to share his or her whole life," the Pope said.

"We need to find the right language, arguments and forms of witness that can help us reach the hearts of young people, appealing to their capacity for generosity, commitment, love and even heroism, and in this way inviting them to take up the challenge of marriage with enthusiasm and courage," he added.

Among those who are best prepared for marriage are likely those who witnessed the example of Christian marriage from their parents, the pontiff said.

He characterized marriage preparation as an initiation to the Sacrament of Matrimony. It provides couples with "the help they need to receive the sacrament worthily and to make a solid beginning of life as a family."

The Church can help engaged couples' love grow and mature through the example and advice of missionary families and the couples' own families; other pastoral resources; discussion groups; and optional talks, he advised. However, individual meetings with the couple are still essential.

The Pope also stressed the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a means for engaged couples to find the mercy and "healing strength" of God from their past sins. He encouraged couples to reflect on the Bible readings of their wedding Mass and the meaning of the rings they will exchange.

"Nor would it be good for them to arrive at the wedding without ever having prayed together," he said, suggesting that couples consecrate their love before an image of the Virgin Mary.

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In preparing for marriage, the Pope cautioned that the financial and social preparations for the wedding ceremony risk leaving spouses "exhausted and harried, rather than focused and ready for the great step that they are about to take."

Noting that some people in relationships never get married due to concerns about the expenses, he encouraged more modest and simple weddings.

"Have the courage to be different. Don't let yourselves get swallowed up by a society of consumption and empty appearances. What is important is the love you share, strengthened and sanctified by grace."

Pope Francis also commented on the various reasons that some young people choose not to get married – reasons ranging from financial motivations and a feeling of not having a future to anti-marriage ideologies and a sense that marriage limits one's options and independence.

"The Synod Fathers stated in a number of ways that we need to help young people discover the dignity and beauty of marriage," the Pope reflected.

"They should be helped to perceive the attraction of a complete union that elevates and perfects the social dimension of existence, gives sexuality its deepest meaning, and benefits children by offering them the best context for their growth and development."

Furthermore, couples should be encouraged to see the meaning in the Catholic wedding ceremony and the "God-given meaning" in their created bodies, signs of the covenant of love between Christ and the Church, he continued.

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Those charged with helping couples prepare for marriage should take care not to overwhelm them with too much information, but to focus on aiding them in accepting Church teaching and offering access to resources, practical advice, programs, and guidance, the pontiff said.

In addition, he recommended that marriage preparation help couples recognize eventual problems and risks before they commit to marriage.

"In this way, they can come to realize the wisdom of breaking off a relationship whose failure and painful aftermath can be foreseen. In their initial enchantment with one another, couples can attempt to conceal or relativize certain things and to avoid disagreements; only later do problems surface."

"Sadly, many couples marry without really knowing one another," the Pope lamented, saying that couples should be strongly encouraged to discuss their expectations in marriage, their understanding of love and commitment, what they want from each other, and what kind of life they want to build together. These discussions can help them discover if they have little in common and realize that mutual attraction alone is not sufficient for an enduring marriage.

"The decision to marry should never be encouraged unless the couple has discerned deeper reasons that will ensure a genuine and stable commitment," he said.

At the same time, engaged couples discerning marriage must have a "realistic trust" in the possibility that each other's weak points can be countered by developing good qualities.

"This entails a willingness to face eventual sacrifices, problems and situations of conflict; it demands a firm resolve to be ready for this," the Pope said. Marriage is not the "end of the road" but "a life-long calling based on a firm and realistic decision to face all trials and difficult moments together."

Noting that many couples tend to "drop out" of the Christian community after their wedding, the Pope encouraged Christian communities to recognize the great benefit they receive from supporting and engaged and newlywed couples.

Marriage support must also extend through the first years of marriage, when initial affection or attraction can diminish, he commented. Couples who were insufficiently mature at the time of their wedding merit special attention.

"Young love needs to keep dancing towards the future with immense hope," Pope Francis said. "Hope is the leaven that, in those first years of engagement and marriage, makes it possible to look beyond arguments, conflicts and problems and to see things in a broader perspective."

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