My fiancé and I are planning to be married in two months. Putting aside all the stress and confusion associated with trying to plan a simple, reasonable wedding that reflects our understanding of commitment in resistance to the social pressures and the massive beast called “the wedding industry,” the process of getting married in the Church has been its own bureaucratic tango.
The big task was completing all the pre-marriage preparations required of the Archdiocese. The first step was completing the FOCCUS Inventory (“Facilitate Open, Caring Communication, Understanding and Study”), consisting of a long series of statements which my fiancé and I separately read and filled out a scan-tron form stating whether we agreed, disagreed, or were uncertain. Our facilitator, a laywoman who has been married for 44 years, met with us three times about the results. Our conversations didn’t reveal too much we didn’t know, but did give us clarity, encouragement, and affirmation. It was time well spent.
The eye-opening experience for me, though, was sitting through two Saturday sessions of the Archdiocesan marriage preparation program. Due to a sudden out of town trip for work, we were unable to attend the highly-recommended program at the University’s parish. The only workshop that still had space available before our wedding was an hour out of St. Louis in a rural parish. We begrudgingly signed on.
I’ve always thought that marriage preparation is the golden opportunity for the Catholic Church to reconnect with people who, for whatever reason, have stopped attending Mass and have lost connection to the Church. Here they are, back on our doorstep and willing to attend whatever preparation program we require. If we can somehow make those preparation programs engaging, compelling, and life-giving, maybe some people would reconsider their exile from the community.
While it was mildly better than I had feared it would be, I couldn’t help but bemoan how out of touch the program felt. As we sat next to two couples, one of whom had been living together for three and a half years, the other had been together for fifteen years (with who knows how many children at home), we watched a video proclaiming the goods of avoiding cohabitation and encouraging cohabiting couples to find a way to separate for a while before their marriage. I had a hard time turning off my critical hermeneutic, and my fiancé had to squeeze my hand hard to tame me down each time the deacon would remind us that the husband, as the man, would be the provider and protector of our household. (People still believe that?!) I can’t imagine that the couples who spent ten hours over two Saturdays sitting there came away converted to believing that our Church had somehow become relevant to them. This experience was topped only by the required Natural Family Planning workshop. Of the 16 engaged couples who attended, not a one remained after to ask the facilitator any questions. No one added an e-mail address to the sheet passed around for those interested in more information.
I look forward to celebrating our marriage in the Catholic Church. I believe that this community will support us, that grace will be with us in a special way through this sacrament, that the Church will nourish us in our relationship. Yet, after enduring the marriage preparation process, I’m sadly not convinced that many of the others in these programs would say the same.
Angela Batie is a Campus Minister and has an MDiv from Yale. She’s spending her time avoiding wedding websites and talking herself out of being stressed out about centerpieces.