Many Catholic couples live in civil marriages, but a new program invites them to receive the full graces of the Sacrament of Matrimony.
If there’s one thing most married couples can agree on, it’s that marriage can be hard work! But doing that work is so very worth it.
Not only is marriage an important building block of society, it can also be a source of joy that radiates the goodness of family life and community. A happy and holy marriage blesses the spouses, their children, friends, and all those around them.
The theological importance of marriage, for Catholics, is reflected in both doctrine and practice. Marriage is one of the seven sacraments, and whole sections of the Catechism discuss its purpose and effects.
A sacramental marriage, which is a covenant of persons rather than a legal contract, brings about extraordinary effects in the lives of the spouses and their children. Most crucially, the grace of the sacrament transforms their relationship, helping spouses to imitate the charity of Christ:
Just as of old God encountered his people with a covenant of love and fidelity, so our Savior, the spouse of the Church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of Matrimony. Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love. (CCC 1642)
These graces help the couple to live out their vocation, so that the Sacrament is a great gift God gives to spouses.
Many couples, however, even ones who attend Church, love God, and pray regularly, are not living in a sacramental marriage. This problem is found in all communities, but seems to especially affect the Hispanic Catholic community, where four out of 10 couples are living in civil marriages.
A marriage renewal program, Witness To Love, is launching a new initiative to invite these couples into the Sacrament of Marriage, so that they can benefit from the graces it brings. Currently in its pilot phase, this new Hispanic Civil Marriage Initiative (available in Spanish and in English) will be available for implementation by parishes and dioceses across the United States in Spring 2021.
The reasons that keep many Hispanic couples from receiving the Sacrament of Marriage are complex and varied, but in their discussions with pastors who serve Hispanic/Latino communities, Mary-Rose and Ryan Verret, Founders of Witness to Love, have noticed several trends:
- Many Latin American countries require a civil wedding prior to a religious wedding, and “somewhere in between the two ceremonies they experience a disruption in their plans, such as having to migrate to the U.S,” the Verrets said in an interview with Aleteia. “These couples often dream of being married in the Church but believe that because of their current situation, they cannot afford it, or want to postpone the ‘big wedding’ until relatives can be present.”
- Other times couples end up in civil unions as a compromise between one spouse’s morals and the other’s fear of commitment. A civil union seems easier to “get out of” if the relationship doesn’t work.
- Still others pursue a civil marriage first, whether for immigration status or for other legal and financial benefits.
“Whatever the circumstances, the Witness to Love Civil Marriage Initiative gives pastors and parish leaders the tools to engage civilly married Hispanic couples so that the many concerns can be addressed, and misunderstandings be laid to rest,” the Verrets said. With this initiative, the Church can help “open the doors to the grace that awaits couples in the Sacrament of Matrimony and in greater communion with God, one another, and the Church.”
The causes behind high rates of civil marriages are complicated, but the need that the new initiative seeks to meet is simple. Couples benefit from the countless graces of the Sacrament, so how can parishes and ministry leaders help them convalidate their unions? The Civil Marriage Initiative is a wonderful and widely needed resource to facilitate the process.
Parishes interested in implementing the initiative can fill out a short questionnaire to receive a free parish review pack. Then the Witness to Love team will walk them through the certification process and answer any questions they may have about getting started.
“Witness to Love works best on a parish level, but we are happy to work with individuals through our Virtual Pathway, especially as the pandemic continues to limit what dioceses and parishes can offer at this time,” Mary-Rose and Ryan said.
Hispanics now represent about 40% of the Catholic Church in America, and half of all Catholic millennials are Hispanic, studies have found. This means that the next wave of married couples and families will come from the fast-growing Hispanic community, so the time is ripe to invite and encourage Hispanic Catholics, and all Catholics, to live out their faith authentically, with the full graces of the sacraments.
“This is the time to invite and support civilly married couples as they witness to the next generation of young Catholics,” the Verrets said. “There is no more important and urgent evangelization need than inviting civilly married Catholics to receive formation for the Sacrament of Matrimony.”