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Why marriage prep isn’t (just) about learning things: Interview


Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

I.Media - published on 07/27/22

Fr. Rosini, Rome's vicar for vocations -- including the vocation to marriage -- considers prepping couples for life.

How can we better accompany families and couples pastorally?

This question was at the heart of the reflections at the 10th World Meeting of Families, which was held in Rome in late June.

Local Churches around the world are reconsidering this challenge after the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life published a guide on June 15, 2022, for those involved in this pastoral work. It gives orientations to dioceses, which are invited to launch “a pilot project” in parishes. Pope Francis wrote the preface of the document.

Speaking at the World Meeting of Families on Thursday, June 24, Fr. Fabio Rosini, director of the Vocations Service of the Vicariate of Rome since 2012, talked about how priests and seminarians can be trained in the pastoral care of couples. I.MEDIA interviewed him on this topic. 

This interview is published in two parts. Part 2 is here.

What has been your experience so far in accompanying engaged and married couples? 

Fr. Rosini: I’ve been the Director of the Vocations Office of the Vicariate of Rome for 10 years, and our office is concerned with serving all vocations. In fact, I live at the Roman seminary, where I work with the team that deals with the priestly formation of seminarians, and then I also deal with serving the vocation to marriage.

Now, there’s a lot of talk about preparing for marriage, but in 2012 we were a bit of a pioneer in creating these preparation courses where we thought about how to help young people not to destroy their marriages.

At the beginning of this adventure, right around the time we were doing our first remote marriage preparation course, I ended up having a collaborator who later became famous, Chiara Corbella Petrillo [a mother who postponed treatments for cancer while pregnant to protect her son, and is now in the process of being beatified, ed.], along with her husband Enrico.

Another couple who worked with us were the doctor who accompanied Chiara until her last breath, Angelo Carfi, and his wife and a dear friend of Chiara’s, Elisa Tinti. They still help me today.

How are your marriage preparation courses designed and structured? 

The preparation should be designed for all young people because you have to start preparing them long beforehand to understand what engagement is, how to behave during engagement, etc. The Holy Father, in the newly published document, “Catechumenal Itineraries for Married Life” wonders, “Is it possible that it takes 7 years to make a priest and training for marriage takes only 10 meetings?” This is unacceptable from a quantitative point of view, and so we thought of doing a long course that would take at least a year, to which many young people then came.

Over the years we then saw that many priests became interested in our courses, so we shared them with other dioceses and parishes outside Rome and outside Italy. Our courses have a very simple structure. In the book of blessings, there’s the blessing of engaged couples, which is performed at the moment when engaged couples choose to aim directly for marriage, that is, when they have arrived at a certain moment in their discernment. So we thought of preparing them for that rite. Our motto is that a good engagement isn’t one that ends in marriage, but one that ends in truth. That is, it’s a path of truth between a young man and a young woman, determining whether their attraction, their attunement, their encounter, has substance or whether it’s evanescent.

What do you think is the most important element in the formation of a priest or seminarian to accompany couples and families? 

Until now we’ve basically thought that formation, especially of a priest, is intellectual; we’ve believed that we form young people by explaining things to them. Priests are trained theologically to know a lot of theory and very little in practice. Descartes has totally conditioned us to think this way. It would seem that understanding means living, but instead, living means learning how to live.

The problem is precisely that if a catechumenal-style itinerary for marriage is proposed, that is, an initiation, the instructor must also have experienced an initiation. For example, if we are to follow a mountain path, the best guide who can lead us will be one who has already done the path. How can someone teach young people an initiation into married life without having experienced their own personal initiation?

This concept will have to radically change our approach to priestly formation, which to date is all set on theological studies, which are very important and indispensable but insufficient. It’s as if I, in order to understand French cooking, learn the recipe perfectly by heart. But it doesn’t work that way; the day I eat a French dish is when I will know French cuisine well. I have to eat and experience what I have studied.

Back in the 1980s, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris, took very serious steps forward on this, from which we take inspiration. He conceived a much more pragmatic and initiatory formation to priestly life. In fact, there have been very good fruits in the Parisian clergy which I have seen personally, borrowing this logic of a path of integral transformation of the person. It’s what we need, and not only in marriage formation. 

And concretely what does it mean to have experienced an initiation? How can a priest, who has not experienced a marriage, legitimately speak to families and couples ? 

What should newlyweds be taught to do? To love. We as Christians know love through the cross of Christ. He showed us an Easter love that goes beyond death. The problem is getting to know this leap, this passage, this love, which can be experienced anywhere. So who can teach the art of loving? Those who have lived the adventure of Easter transformation and conversion.

So, as I always tell the young people I teach, a person is not existentially frustrated because they have no sexuality, but if they have not learned to love. If we have a model of a priest who does his own thing, almost as if he were single, an individual person, and who lives only from his clerical performances, logically he will have nothing to teach anyone. If, on the other hand, he is a priest who has learned communion, who has learned to be with others, learned the art of asking for forgiveness, of embracing the poverty of others, that’s someone you can learn from.

A person who can teach me how to love is not simply someone who does the exact same thing as I do, but someone who has learned the art of going beyond the limitations that there always are between two people in a relationship of friendship, marriage, partnership, work, etc. It’s not so much about being priests who teach spouses, but Christian children of God who teach other children of God to live the life of children of God.

What did you think of the recent pastoral guidelines released by Pope Francis, “Catechumenal Itineraries for Married Life”? How do you imagine these suggestions could be applied concretely?

We will have to radically question our attitude. We will have to become people of initiative, much more than managers of an ecclesial position, and we will have to take care of the path of the young people who will ask us for help. There’s a key sentence in Evangelii Gaudium that photographs the epochal change we are living through. It says that there is a supremacy of time over space, and so this supremacy dictates that we should not conquer spaces but trigger processes.

The question is, how do you trigger processes? This has been somewhat lacking in marriage training. We will have to learn how to trigger processes, look to those who can do it and learn from them. The problem has always been to trigger the process of an encounter between the Holy Spirit and the human heart. And to do that you have to have experience, you have to understand what the conditions are for the fertilization for this new life to be born. So much will change if we take this challenge seriously. So many priests will have to change the way they are priests, that is, they will no longer be able to be organizers or managers, they will have to be fathers. They will have to fertilize souls, they will have to initiate processes in people, and they will only be able to do this if they have learned how to do it in practice.

[Part 2 of this interview is here]

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