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A better marriage preparation (and preparation for a better marriage)

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 03, 2016 | In Reviews

In the furor over the recent apostolic exhortation on marriage (Amoris Laetitia), few commentators have paid much attention to the most important point made in the entire text. In the first paragraph in the section on “The logic of pastoral mercy”, Pope Francis wrote:

To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown. [#307]

There is a great deal involved in any “pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown”, starting with comprehensive preparation and finishing with comprehensive support. Ideally, much of this would be built into a sound human culture, or more particularly a Christian or even a Catholic culture. Children would grow up with the right attitude toward love and marriage already deep in their bones, with the expectation that its invaluable blessings will be hard-won, and the formation to make sacrifices with the assurance of delayed gratification—all against the backdrop of an unshakeable trust in God. The mindset would be: Success is worth any moral price; voluntary failure is not an option.

Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily difficult for marriages to succeed without this understanding and expectation. When the general culture is out of tune, the pastoral effort necessary to prepare and sustain marriage must be sufficient to create a remarkably rich subculture. Ideally, this subculture will shape the lives of potential brides and grooms from childhood until death. And when the subculture cannot be generalized to any significant extent, it must at least be actuated within the marriage itself—a persistent pattern of understanding, action, commitment, sacrifice and grace that defines the couple’s life together.

The importance of this inculturation cannot be overstated. Its necessity is made painfully clear by the number of divorces even among couples who pride themselves on accepting the teachings of the Catholic Church. A mere knowledge of the outlines of marriage, particularly its permanence, sacramentality, fidelity and openness to children, is not enough. A deep grasp of marriage as a state in life must, as I suggested, be gradually worked into our very bones, with keen attention to the constant formation of intensely practical habits, uniquely tailored to the needs and personalities of each spouse—habits of marital attentiveness, communication, and sacrificial care.

Clearly, then, no mere “program” will ever be enough. People respond to different signals at different times in the process of personal growth, and the experience which enables one couple to “get it” will be water off a duck’s back for another. It is impossible to implement program X in parish Y and then say, “we’ve got this covered.” It isn’t covered until an entire culture of marital values can touch couples throughout their entire vocational journey, with sufficient power and depth to counter whatever “false touches” they will inevitably feel.

Starting somewhere

Nonetheless, one does not build a sustaining culture all at once. Nobody can work on the entire range of necessary improvements, but working on any of them is a signal gift to the culture of marriage. So let us begin with the step of formal marriage preparation. This remains the most obvious opportunity to form within the couple a supportive counter-culture for marriage. Moreover, marriage preparation programs have been wildly uneven in quality since they began to be required in the period following World War II. Making good resources widely available is a very worthy objective.

This is why I was so happy to see the Augustine Institute’s new DVD-based video program for marriage preparation: Beloved: Finding Happiness in Marriage. The program is available to individuals as a six-DVD “home edition” from Lighthouse Catholic Media, and to parishes through FORMED, a joint operation of the Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press. Various workbooks and teaching materials are also available. (See the trailer.)

The producers know that human conventions and laws have given us an inadequate idea of marriage, and so Beloved begins with the question of what God has intended marriage to be from all eternity. From the outset, the program emphasizes that the indissolubility of marriage in God’s plan is the very thing that gives couples the confidence and openness to commit themselves unreservedly to a life of permanent love. We are, in fact, made for this sort of love.

The program is divided into two parts, each containing six episodes, two per DVD. Part One is entitled “The Mystery and Meaning of Marriage”. The episodes range from 29 to 45 minutes in length, and cover the following topics:

  1. Does marriage matter?
  2. Entering the story of marriage
  3. Love revealed
  4. Total gift of self
  5. A sacramental bond
  6. Real challenges, real love

Part Two has a more practical focus. Entitled “Living Marriage”, it covers the following topics, which range from 18 to 25 minutes in length:

  1. Christ at the center
  2. A deeper unity
  3. Conflict and communications
  4. Building a thriving marriage
  5. Protecting the bond
  6. Sexuality and authentic love

The content for Beloved was developed under the direction of Edward Sri. Presenters include a superb cast of widely-known Catholic married couples, lay leaders, and priests. Those principally involved are Julie and Greg Alexander, Jason and Crystalina Evert, Curtis and Michaelann Martin, Edward and Elizabeth Sri, Jim Beckman, Patrick Coffin, Lisa Cotter, Leah Darrow, Pia de Solenni, Matt Fradd, Tim Gray, Sean Innerst, Brant Pitre, Scott Powell, Chris Stefanick, Teresa Tomeo, Fr. Leo Patalinghug, and Fr. John Riley.

The episodes present a welcome blend of sound theology, deep spirituality, and practical experience. There is a personal emphasis on how various presenters have grown into better marriages through the trials of their own experience, including the blind spots and difficulties they had to overcome. While I have not yet viewed each episode in its entirety, I have seen enough to report that the presentations are both engaging and inspiring. I have been moved to tears at the beauty of what is being conveyed here by real persons who, through their own trials, have come to embody a marital and family culture which properly reflects God’s plan.

Still, I’m easy. I’ve been married forty-four years, have raised six children, and have learned much the hard way myself. So even though I am not done “getting it”, I do get it. But would I have been impatient with the episodes when I was twenty or twenty-five or thirty, and I “knew” that this romance was intrinsically eternal? Why is it that the Holy Spirit can gain our attention so completely at some times, when we do not even hear Him knock at others?

There is no one answer that fits everyone, which is why the formation of a total culture in support of God’s plan for marriage is so important. We need to offer a thousand opportunities to touch the lives of men and women who are called to marriage—both before and after they tie the knot—so that when the needed openness arises, the needed message will get through. Yet as true as this may be, it must not be permitted to undermine the necessary particular initiatives. Beloved can benefit both those who want to marry and those who have already married. It is an important step toward preparing for marriage better, and preparing for a better marriage.

Note: Prices on Amazon as of this posting are twice as high as purchasing from the sources linked within the review, so please use those links to order.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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