New prep program, modeled after ‘catechumenate,' aims to strengthen marriages in faith

Deacon Michael East witnesses the exchange of wedding vows of Blake Davidson, right, a grandson of Deacon East, and Lacy Joslin Oct. 26, 2019, at St. Ambrose Church in Seymour, Ind. (OSV News photo/courtesy family)

INDIANAPOLIS (OSV News) -- A new form of marriage preparation is being developed to help strengthen marriages rooted in the faith.

"Marriage has an ecclesial dimension," explained Father Jeffrey Dufresne, pastor of St. Neri Parish in Indianapolis where this approach was recently piloted. "It is a sacrament to build up the body of Christ. The domestic church must be connected to the local church."

Not just a new program, this "marriage catechumenate" model is an effort to return to the early church's approach to forming adults to be received into the church. It has its roots in the four stages of the Order (formerly Rite) of Christian Initiation of Adults (OCIA): inquiry, catechumenate, purification and enlightenment, and mystagogy.

Like OCIA, this model would include a series of rituals, such as a reception of candidates, a ritual of entry into the marriage catechumenate and a rite of betrothal. By moving to this model of formation for the vocation of marriage, Father Dufresne said the Catholic Church hopes "to form more couples to live this ecclesial mission in their marriage."

Connecting faith and marriage In the OCIA process, the first stage is called "inquiry," when participants start to learn about the faith and what it can mean for their lives. Similarly, the initial stage of the marriage catechumenate model is a time to lay a broad foundation of faith on which preparation for marriage would be built, said Gabriela Ross, director of the archdiocesan Office of Marriage and Family Life.

"It's a moment where the couple is asked to look at their Catholic faith -- if they're Catholic -- and to deepen their baptismal commitment," she explained. "If they are not Catholic or have been away, there's space and time for that (faith) to be proclaimed to them and for them to really be able to know who Jesus is and what the church is inviting them to before they request a sacrament from the church."

Father C. Ryan McCarthy, pastor of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis, has taken a catechumenal approach to marriage preparation throughout his now 22 years of priestly ministry.

In an interview with The Criterion, Indianapolis' archdiocesan newspaper, Father McCarthy said that, at the start of marriage preparation, he'll talk with couples for up to six hours during several sessions about the basics of the Catholic faith.

"We use this as a means to jump off in a conversation about marriage," he said. "When we talk about sacraments, we talk about all the sacraments. But when we get to marriage, it's a much more in-depth conversation about what marriage is and the role marriage plays in the life of the church."

As in the OCIA catechumenate phase, couples continue to learn -- in this case, about the connection between the faith and their call to marriage.

Although a catechumenal approach to marriage preparation is rooted in ancient practices of the church, Father McCarthy sees it as especially relevant in contemporary society where a secular understanding of the nature of marriage has departed so far from the church's vision of it.

"You can't help people understand it unless you help them understand the basics of who Christ is, how he reveals himself to us and particularly how he reveals himself to us in the sacraments. Without doing that basic work, people can't understand what marriage is," the priest said.

During this stage of the OCIA process, those who wish to continue in their formation to be received into the church participate in rites that take place at parish Masses around the start of Lent. In a catechumenal model of marriage preparation, rituals that take place at various points in the process will place marriage preparation in the context of the broader life of the parish.

"Parishioners in the pews will be involved in the vocations to marriage that are happening in the parish," Ross said. "It'll no longer be the case that a couple would go to their pastor, have meetings at the office, have their wedding on a Saturday with no parishioners there and then be on their way. This is a vision for engaged couples who are discerning this vocation to be supported in prayer by their community."

The encouragement of this approach to marriage preparation is in its beginning stages in the church. Consequently, some of the rituals have not yet been developed, although the Rite of Betrothal, a blessing of a couple's engagement, is available.

With a catechumenal approach to marriage preparation seeking from the start to strengthen the overall faith of engaged couples, this stage in the marriage catechumenate parallels the mystagogy stage of OCIA, which is a period after adults have been received into the church.

"Mystagogy is kind of that processing of the sacrament received," Ross said. "It's also a revisiting of the earlier catechesis now that you're actually living it out. You're drinking from a fire hose on the front end. Once you're actually in the vocation, you're getting to revisit some of the teachings."

This stage also helps newly married couples find the help they need with hardships in their life together that inevitably come along.

"When you face those challenges, do you know to lean on the church to work through them?" Ross said. "And are you already plugged into a community that will help you do that? There's a real accompaniment combined with that mystagogy."

A pilot program of a catechumenal approach to marriage preparation took place at St. Philip Neri Parish in Indianapolis from last fall through spring this year and was geared for the largely Hispanic population of the faith community. Engaged couples met together monthly at the parish. The meetings started with a potluck dinner and included witness talks given by married couples and presentations of the faith in general and more particularly on marriage by Father Dufresne.

"As soon as the formation began, it was clear that these men and women were hungry for a deeper relationship with God," he said. "In fact, if a couple had to miss a meeting for one reason or another, they were often sad."

Father Dufresne plans to continue the program at St. Philip Neri and to begin one at nearby St. Mary Parish in Indianapolis, where he began ministry as pastor in July.

As executive directors for 12 years of One In Christ, a marriage preparation program approved by the archdiocesan Office of Marriage and Family Life, Mark and Michelle Overholt have worked with engaged couples using the principles of a catechumenal approach to formation for the sacrament of matrimony.

Now that the church is starting to advocate more strongly for this approach, they see One in Christ, or OIC, as well-positioned to spread its use, especially through married couples who were prepared for the sacrament through the program in the past.

"OIC alumni (can) become mentors to help accompany the next generation of engaged couples," Michelle said. "Therefore, the more pastors we can serve, the more we can help them build strong, well-formed marriage mentors to help their parishes thrive."

While the Overholts, members of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis, see One In Christ as helping engaged couples prepare for marriage, they have observed its positive effect on the broader faith lives of the couples.

"Over and over again, OIC couples are telling us they are revived in their faith," Mark said. "They are going to confession and attending Mass. They are praying together. They are quitting pornography. They are stopping to use contraception and desire to learn natural family planning."

"They want to give back to the church and become active volunteers especially in marriage ministries," he said. "They are now evangelizing their families, friends and co-workers. They are excited to get married in the Catholic Church and desire to be open to life to grow their family and to help each other get to heaven."

Ross noted that a catechumenal approach to marriage preparation, which is being encouraged in parishes throughout the Indianapolis Archdiocese, will help couples before and after their wedding in order to help them contribute to the overall mission of the church through their married vocation.

"The goal is for couples to be accompanied from engagement to their wedding day, as newlyweds, and throughout their married life," she said. "With this approach, married couples will form an integral part of the parish community precisely in their vocation as married couples."



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