It’s Valentine’s Day, and in countries across the world, people are focused on love and marriage. But for the Catholic Church, the celebration of – and support for – marriage is not limited to one day, but all year round.
“Marriage is not private,” explained Rev. Richard Kramer, Director of Family Life and Pastoral Resource Development for the Archdiocese of Washington. “It’s personal, but it’s not private.”
Marriage is not only between two people, but involves God as well, and so “it’s a public act,” he told CNA. As a result, “marriage always needs the support of culture, it needs the support of society, it needs the support of friends and families. It needs the support of the Church itself.”
While love and marriage exist throughout history around the world, and not just in the Church, their universality points to God’s plan for love and marriage, the priest said.
He pointed out that society is built upon families. Jesus was born into a family, he raised marriage to a sacrament, and his fist miracle was performed at the Wedding at Cana. Christ’s love for the Church is compared to the love between spouses.
Because of this importance of marriage, the Catholic Church seeks specifically to offer support for couples as they live out the sacrament, Fr. Kramer said. At the heart of these efforts is the parish priest.
One of Fr. Kramer’s first lessons for young priests is to “make them understand that their life is not separated from marriage, but that they are integral to it.” He explained that Matrimony and Holy Orders, while distinct, are similar in their orientation to self-sacrifice and love for others. Both ultimately have the same goal – getting people to heaven.
Laity too should view their parish priest as a resource and someone who can accompany them through their marriage. “Something that I would like couples to understand is that by the virtue of a priest being pastor of a parish, he has a keen and almost expert insight to family life because he’s integral in every part of the family.” Fr. Kramer said, pointing to a pastor’s involvement through catechesis, marriage formation, confession and counseling.
“I think couples do themselves a disservice if they buy the line ‘Father doesn’t know anything about marriage because he’s celibate’,” Fr. Kramer warned, pointing back to a priest’s role in a family’s life as well as his position as Father of a parish.
“What I’d hope couples would do is to invite Father more intimately into their marriages, into their homes, to help him see and know that the priest is a man of the family.”
A call to love
“Every single human being has a vocation, a call to love,” Fr. Kramer said, and for most people, this call is to the Sacrament of Matrimony.
Preparation for marriage begins at birth, in the family, where one first learns about love, he said. But in a culture where so many marriages and families are broken, it can be difficult to understand what it truly means to love someone.
“We see a time when there’s more need to make sure that couples who are preparing for the sacrament have a good formation so that they can live their marriages in the whole of their lives,” said Fr. Kramer.
Before marriage in the Catholic Church, couples are typically required to take a marriage preparation course and talk with the parish where they will be married and the priest who is preparing them.
The engagement period is a time for evangelization if the couple has been away from the Church and the sacraments, Fr. Kramer said. Even for couples who are already involved in the Church, marriage preparation and counseling is a good opportunity to deepen one’s knowledge and relationship with Christ and to become more involved in their parish’s life.
Bethany Meola, assistant director in the Secretariat on Laity Marriage, Family Life and Youth at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, pointed to the conference’s online resource “For Your Marriage,” which contains contact information for marriage preparation and support programs for dioceses around the country.
The website also contains a wealth of online resources, such as Church teachings on various topics surrounding marriage and family life, relationship and parenting advice, Natural Family Planning resources, wedding planning guides, and book reviews.
In addition to their online resources, the office is engaged in virtual outreach to Catholics around the country through their virtual retreat for National Marriage Week. This year’s retreat focuses on the theme of “Life and Love,” and is running via Facebook from Feb. 7 through Valentine’s Day. Each day, the office posts a reflection from the new apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” – or “Joy of Love” – and invites couples to pray and reflect on the passages together.
The office is also celebrating the lighter side of marriage and love through their “Joy of Love” social media contest: each day couples are invited to engage online with National Marriage Week by answering a question posed by the Secretariat. Every day, winning couples will receive a pair of matching “Mr.” and “Mrs.” coffee mugs.
Offline, while the office doesn’t directly oversee any marriage program, it does provide support and aid dioceses across the country and the marriage programs happening in their parishes. Meola told CNA that around the country, the bishops are seeing “a lot of energy” going into marriage preparation. “I think we’re at a really exciting time.”
In addition, dioceses are trying to implement the insights from Amoris Laetitia into their marriage preparation and support programs. This, in turn, is refocusing attention on parishes as the “first responders” to marriages in crisis, and the role of marriage in evangelizing the broader culture.
While love and preparation can help build the foundation for a strong marriage, every marriage inevitably faces challenges and obstacles, Fr. Kramer said. And when these difficulties arise, the Church does not abandon couples.
When struggling couples approach him for advice, the first question Fr. Kramer asks is whether they have been attending Mass and going to Confession. The sacraments, he said, form the core of our lives and relationships, and the graces of the sacraments have a key place in marriage as well.
“People always have financial difficulties, they’ll always have difficulty communicating, but if they’ve separated themselves from the Church or from the sacraments,” Fr. Kramer said, “then it’s difficult to live that out in their life.”
In addition to the sacraments, Fr. Kramer noted, parish priests can offer guidance or counseling. And some dioceses also offer marriage enrichment programs like “Three to Stay Married,” “Marriage Encounter,” and “ReFOCCUS” to help couples revitalize their relationship with God and with each other.
Many couples who previously used contraception also report that learning and using Natural Family Planning can help heal divisions and can bring about new life in a relationship, he said.
The Church can also help find aid for those struggling with separation from a spouse, addictions such as pornography, or healing for other struggles like infertility or miscarriage. Finally, the archdiocese offers a support group called “Post-Cana” for widows and widowers grieving after a marriage has ended because of death.
In some of the more difficult situations, where couples have sought aid from other resources to no avail, there is still support and hope for healing. Denise Felde, a presenter for Retrouvaille of Maryland / Washington DC, spoke to CNA about her organization, which has been helping heal marriages since the late 1970s.
Started by Guy and Jeannine Beland in French-speaking Quebec, Retrouvaille – which means “reunion” in French – seeks to address severe struggles couples may face that cannot be adequately supported by other marriage enrichment programs. The program states in its online description that it “is not a retreat, marriage counseling, or a sensitivity group. There are neither group dynamics nor group discussions on the weekend. It is not a time for hurting; it is a time for healing.”
“Retrouvaille is surgery to get rid of the bad and to deal with the problems in a calm and loving manner,” Felde said.
The program begins with an intense weekend experience led by three couples who have also been through a period of intense struggle in their relationship. A Catholic priest or other minister is also typically present as well.
Throughout the weekend, attendees go through series of presentations and have chances to talk with their spouse, and typically there are also opportunities for confession, Mass and prayer. Afterwards, the couples meet for 12 follow up sessions, typically occurring over the span of 6 weeks.
In the program, “we teach couples how to talk to each other to help each other understand where the other is coming from,” Felde explained. Organizers place a focus on listening to one another and accepting their spouse’s feelings without judgment. This approach “helps people to speak to one another without being angry, being calm and accepting.”
Every couple has challenges in their marriage, Felde said, but the problems faced by many Retrouvaille participants – such as adultery, drug abuse, mental illness, and pornography – “are more severe.”
“It’s very hard. It’s extremely hard work,” she acknowledged, but added that healing is possible. Many times, Retrouvaille leaders also help couples find referrals for expert help and counseling. “If it’s a problem we can’t help them with, we have a list of places.”
Since the program’s beginning, it has spread throughout the world to countries including South Korea, Zimbabwe, Argentina, Portugal and elsewhere. The program has a 92 percent success rate worldwide in helping couples heal their marriages.
After the main program is over, couples are invited to continue growing in their relationship through the support group CORE – or “Continuing our Retrouvaille Experience” – once a month. Couples can attend any support group anywhere in the world for the rest of their lives.
Felde explained that like many fellow presenting couples, she feels called to help other couples find healing in their marriages because of how Retrouvaille helped heal her own marriage. “For my husband and I, Retrouvaille saved our marriage 20 years ago,” she said. “We believe in giving back.”
Everyone is part of a family
While marriage is a key focus for the Church, it’s not only those who are married who have something to give to family life, Fr. Kramer said. “Every person from every walk of life is a part of a family.”
“It’s wrong to think that because a person is single they don’t fit in to the parish as part of a family,” he noted. “Every person is a son or daughter, a sister or a brother and has a role to play in the family,” and in supporting marriage and family life.
The priest encouraged all Catholics to pray for and support marriage and its vocation of love. “Pray for marriage, pray for strong marriages and pray for the healing of families who are facing struggles or challenges.”