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Experts unpack Vatican-recommended ‘catechumenate for marriage’

A pair of wedding bands symbolizing the sacrament of marriage is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Isabel Church in Sanibel, Fla. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Gregory A. Shemitz)

(OSV News) — In 2022, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life released “Catechumenal Pathways for Married Life”, providing principles for rethinking marriage preparation in the Catholic Church. Nearly a year later, leaders are still unpacking what a “marriage catechumenate” means for the church in the U.S.

In a preface to the document, Pope Francis states the process of forming couples for the sacrament of matrimony should borrow from the process of bringing converts — catechumens — into the Catholic Church: “Just as the catechumenate is part of the sacramental process for the baptism of adults, so too may the preparation for marriage form an integral part of the whole sacramental procedure of marriage.”

The reason for this change, the pope said, is “to prevent the increase of invalid or inconsistent marriage celebrations.”

Catholic sacramental marriages have plummeted 69% in the U.S. from 1970 to 2021, according to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. According to Pew Research Center, a quarter of U.S. Catholics have gone through divorce, with 26% of this number saying either they or their spouse sought from the church an “annulment.” The term is commonly used to refer to a declaration of nullity, the church’s determination after an investigation that a sacramental marriage did not actually take place, either due to “lack of canonical form” (such as getting civilly married only) or because one or both parties did not fully and freely consent to the sacrament.

This “distressing decline” in marriage rates, high rates of divorce, an “alarming” number of invalid marriages, and a “culture of materialism and careerism” are the reasons a marriage catechumenate is particularly needed in the US, said Julia Dezelski, assistant director for marriage and family life at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.

Tory Baucum, professor at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, and director of its Center for Family Life, told OSV News that in “Catechumenal Pathways,” Pope Francis is calling for a “radical move for the church” that is in continuity with St. John Paul II.

“He’s taking marriage preparation outside of the context of pastoral care, which is how we’ve normally thought about it, and he’s putting it into the context of evangelization,” explained Baucum.

Ryan and Mary-Rose Verret, founders of the Witness to Love marriage ministry, agreed that the new document has a “conversion approach” to the sacrament of matrimony.

“In most parishes (now), you can go through your whole engagement and never go to Mass once,” Ryan Verret told OSV News.

Conversely, a marriage catechumenate seeks to “bring people into the life of the parish and the church,” said Verret.

In June, the Verrets, Baucum and Dezelski attended the first-ever Marriage Catechumenate Summit in Houston. The summit brought together lay leaders, clergy and couples to “unpack” the marriage catechumenate proposed in “Catechumenal Pathways,” Dezelski explained, “with the hopes of understanding more clearly its implications for diocesan implementation.”

“Catechumenal Pathways” presents principles that local churches can use to rethink formation for marriage as evangelization. Among them, according to the dicastery, is that marriage preparation must start long before engagement, with education on human dignity and sexuality in childhood.

“We need to educate about marriage as a vocation from a young age,” said Mary-Rose Verret.

“People need to see good marriages,” Baucum said. “We’re living in the second generation of unmarriageable people. … In a faithful Catholic home, you’re learning (about marriage) by example because you’re seeing it. But if that’s not happening, you need more support.”

Benedictine’s Center for Family Life, which Baucum directs, seeks to restore healthy family relationships through mentorship and education for youth and adults. The center also developed a curriculum on human dignity that was recently implemented in a local public school.

Another proposal of “Catechumenal Pathways” is that marriage preparation should extend beyond the wedding into a post-sacramental period of formation, a “marriage mystagogy,” where the couple is accompanied by more experienced married people as they deepen their understanding of the sacrament they have received and are now living out.

Accompaniment requires mentors who are equipped to accompany others, which requires educating married couples to “understand the gift they have received and that they should share it,” said Mary-Rose.

“We (married couples) need ongoing formation on how Jesus is present in our union,” said Baucum.

The Verrets also recently co-wrote a book on marriage and evangelization with OSV News national news editor Peter Jesserer Smith, “The Road to Family Missionary Discipleship.”

“There’s no limit to what God can do in a marriage relationship,” said Ryan Verret.

Mary-Rose Verret also noted that accompaniment requires trust.

“Most engaged couples don’t even have a relationship with Jesus or trust the church,” she said.

Witness to Love, which the Verrets founded, helps parishes set up the formation that goes into a marriage catechumenate, including accompaniment by a mentor couple before, during and after they receive the sacrament of matrimony on their wedding day. Witness to Love asks engaged couples to choose a church-going mentor couple whose marriage they admire and meets certain criteria. This creates a bridge of trust and foundation for friendship between the mentor couple and the engaged couple that extends beyond the wedding day.

“Almost every engaged couple knows a couple who goes to church, who’s been married at least five years, whose marriage they admire. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be getting married,” said Mary-Rose. “It’s not a token accompaniment.”

Witness to Love is in 500 parishes so far. However, Dezelski shared that most dioceses and parishes are “at the very beginning” of implementing a marriage catechumenate.

“This process will most likely take many years, maybe decades. … However, a few dioceses have seriously begun the work,” said Dezelski.

Attendees of the summit emphasized that the church’s implementation of this new vision for forming sacramental marriages must be flexible, collaborative and prompted by the Holy Spirit — not simply a set of programs or content.

Some criticize the potentially lengthier preparation in a marriage catechumenate as an obstacle to some couples.

But “there is also room for adaptation based on the couple,” said Dezelski, underscoring “Catechumenal Pathways” own emphasis on the need for adaptation.

“This is something the Holy Spirit is doing in line with the needs of people today,” Ryan Verret said, adding that the marriage catechumenate “cannot just be a reprinting of what we’ve done before.”

The USCCB hopes to provide greater guidance to dioceses in the future as the “collaborative work in progress” initiated by the summit unfolds, said Dezelski.

Mary-Rose Verret emphasized again the implementation of a marriage catechumenate is less about content and more about growing in virtue.

“You can’t grow virtuous reading a book, watching a video, sitting in a classroom,” she said, explaining it needs to be lived — and also learned from having good examples.

“Virtue is caught, not taught,” she said.

This means faithful married couples need to start a “virtuous cycle” by being willing to mentor others, especially those couples who want to live a sacramental marriage.

“We need to move from being observers of the needs of the church to meeting the needs of the church,” said Ryan Verret.

Rachel Hoover writes for OSV News from Tennessee.

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