More than a Venue

I recently had someone ask me, “What’s the least you have to do to get married in the Church?”  When I spoke to another person who works for a church, she said she gets that question all the time.

My first thought was, “What a great way to begin a marriage!”

What is the minimum?

In light of the news from yesterday and in anticipation of the upcoming synod, I thought it was timely to share my thoughts on this.

The fact is, a Catholic Church is not a venue.  A Catholic marriage is not the same as getting married in front of the justice of the peace. At (most) Catholic weddings, there is something much greater happening than a union in the eyes of the state. There is (most of the time) a sacrament taking place.

To get married in the Catholic Church is to say something particular.  You are saying that you are marrying for life, you intend to be faithful to one another, and are open to children. You are promising to lay down your life for your spouse. If you’re not willing to say that, you should probably go elsewhere.

Does that sound harsh?  Well, maybe it should.  Because Catholic weddings say something – or rather, they say that YOU say something – and if you’re not willing to say that, then you shouldn’t be standing in a Catholic Church saying it.

This is why marriage preparation is so important.  How the heck is that engaged couple going to know what they’re saying if we don’t teach them what marriage is?  How are they going to know what their presence on that altar signifies, what the vows they recite mean, what the witnesses are witnessing if we don’t teach them what marriage is?  Do you think society is going to tell them?  Do you think their parents are going to tell them?

The Church has the responsibility to make sure you know what you’re saying. So yes, marriage prep should be hard.  I have to say- I think it should be more than a weekend retreat.  Weekend retreats may be valuable, but are they enough?  By agreeing to witness your marriage, the Church is saying that we believe you are saying something particular.  When the priest signs that marriage certificate, he is saying he believes you said something particular. So it’s the Church’s responsibility to make sure you know what you’re saying.

I’ve had people tell me that priests can’t turn a couple away because the couple has the right to the sacraments.  Well, if you’re not prepared for the sacrament, if you don’t know what you’re saying, there’s no sacrament occurring.  Why? Because the sacrament requires matter and form to be valid.  And the matter and form is the couple’s consent.  Do they know what they’re consenting to?  Are they doing it honestly and openly?  If not, no sacrament.  Visit a tribunal sometime and you’ll see the hurt and brokenness that results.

Yes, you have the right to the sacrament.  Which means the Church is obligated to prepare you for the sacrament.

And if you ask me, we haven’t done a great job of it in the past.  Forget compatibility tests. Forget time lines about when to contact the organist. Forget rules about birdseed.  We need to be preparing these couples for a sacrament that will give them the grace to survive the inevitable crosses that their marriage will face.

Disclaimer: I do not write this as a diocesan employee.  I write this as a concerned young woman who looks out at my generation and sees young adults who have no idea what marriage is.

There was a lot of concern yesterday about the changes to the annulment process.  I’d like to see half as much concern for the fact that those annulments are often a result of bad catechesis. We can do better.


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