"The number one burden" that engaged couples bring into a pre-Cana program "is fear," in the experience of Marga Regina, Marriage Preparation Coordinator for the Archdiocese of New York. "The fear of divorce is tremendous," she stated, noting that some cohabiting engaged couples might have already experienced the breakdown of multiple previous cohabiting relationships.
Marriage preparation instructors welcome the emphasis that the Synod has so far placed on their programs, and they have well-thought-out ideas for how to accomplish the goals the Synod has announced.
Deacon Scott Dodge, of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah, believes that first of all, “it is crucial to have married couples prepare couples for marriage." Regina agreed that engaged couples often admit that they don’t have a good example of marriage to follow, so "they like to see a married couple witnessing to the faith." The importance of this type of everyday witness will take center stage at this year’s Synod on the Family, where the bishops and cardinals will begin each day of discussion listening to a short presentation from a married couple.
Marriage preparation by lay couples needs to present an authentic picture of “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of married life, maintains Deacon Dodge. "Staying married is a huge challenge for virtually every couple," and there is "no need for unrealistic, overly idealistic, witness." Married couples should share how God’s grace through the Sacrament of Matrimony has helped them to persevere through their inevitable struggles.
Second, Church teachings on sexuality and contraception should be central. Most engaged couples have no idea “what does it mean to be open … to children, what does it mean to be male and female,” stated Regina. “Women are afraid the idea of the feminine will bind and constrain them. Men are growing up with fewer and fewer images of and incentives for civilized masculinity,” agreed marriage policy expert Gallagher.
Cardinal Erdö stated that the Church needs to re-promulgate the positive message of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical which, while praising the married couple’s mission of love and fertility, prohibited the use of artificial contraception.
Unfortunately, marriage prep is often “the last rung on the ladder” of a religious education that should have begun in childhood, according to Regina. “Children must grow up with an appreciation … for their masculinity and femininity, seeing it as a great gift, as a talent to be multiplied,” concurred Deacon Dodge. Instruction in Natural Family Planning is also crucial to teach couples about the gift of their fertility, he maintained.
Regina stressed that, as a third essential element of marriage preparation, engaged couples should have the opportunity to go to Confession while attending their pre-Cana program. She added that programs in the Archdiocese of New York routinely make the sacrament available to couples. People are "very open to the whole notion of healing" that comes through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, she observed. "When you talk to where their wounds are, that’s when they begin to trust," she said. "The very thing you don’t want to talk about … is the very thing Jesus says ‘give it to me, and I’ll heal it,’" she added. The graces of Confession and of sacramental marriage can set us free “to love authentically and be loved authentically," she said, and “we all want” that.
Reform of Annulment Procedures
It seems clear from Cardinal Erdö’s opening speech that annulment reforms will occupy a great deal of discussion at the Synod. In addition to reiterating several of the reforms already proposed, the Cardinal also suggested that "in each particular Church, at least one duly prepared priest is needed, who can offer counsel, without charge, as a first step for parties in ascertaining the validity of their marriage." Aldean Hendrickson, Director of the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal of New Ulm, Minnesota, enthusiastically welcomed this proposal. Tribunal staff, he explained, “spend much time in back and forth” trying to explain the annulment process and how it might apply to a couple’s particular situation. “A single trained point of entry … could well ultimately lead to a more efficient start to cases,” he noted.