In Your Midst

MARRIAGE PREPARATION AT ST. JAMES

Spring 2002

Shortly after Father Ryan came to St. James Cathedral as its new pastor in 1988, he formed a marriage preparation team and asked us to join this important ministry for the many couples who celebrate their wedding at St. James each year.

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“Who, us?” we asked. Who were we to help prepare others for marriage? It was true we’d been married for 15 years, that we had three young children and were expecting a fourth. But we certainly didn’t feel like experts who could pontificate on an infallible formula for married bliss. We did believe that marriage was a lasting commitment, and we did know about the daily struggles to live out that commitment. “That’s the point!” said Father Ryan.

When a couple asks to be married at St. James, it’s a crucial time in their relationship with each other and a crucial time in their relationship with the Church. That’s why marriage preparation is so important.

What does marriage preparation at St. James entail? In terms of time elapsed, about a year. That’s right! There’s no such thing as a quickie, fly-in-for-the-weekend wedding at St. James. As the Cathedral wedding brochure states, “since marriage in the Catholic Church is a sacrament and a lifetime commitment, one of the ways we value and honor it is by taking the time to help couples prepare.” This involves three main ingredients: 1) helping the couple discern their readiness for marriage; 2) imparting the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage as a vocation and lasting covenant; and 3) helping couples learn some of the practical tools and emotional skills needed to weather the inevitable difficulties of married life.

How is this accomplished? First, shortly after a couple asks to have their wedding celebrated at the Cathedral, they take a comprehensive written questionnaire, called FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Under-standing & Study) premarital inventory. After the questionnaire is scored, members of the marriage preparation team meet with the couple to go over the FOCCUS results. The goal is to assist the couple in assessing their areas of agreement and disagreement on various matters, such as lifestyle expectations; communication and problem-solving skills; family, parenting and sexuality issues; financial concerns; and religion and values. This phase of the marriage preparation process takes place as long as a year before the actual wedding, giving the couple time to become aware of, and begin working on, any areas of weakness in their relationship.

Next, the couple is required to participate in a marriage preparation program approved by the Cathedral. Some of the options include an Engaged Encounter weekend or a series of Evenings for the Engaged. In the latter, six couples meet once a week for five weeks in the home of one of the married couples of the St. James marriage preparation team. Each week they discuss together as a group, and separately as couples, communication styles, sexuality, parenting, finances, extended family issues, interfaith marriage challenges, as well as potential problems, such as infertility, and substance abuse or mental illness.

At first glance all these marriage preparation requirements may seem like annoying roadblocks to couples intent on tying the knot, but we don’t apologize for giving engaged couples reason to pause. As everyone who has ever been involved in a wedding knows, it becomes more and more difficult for the bride and groom to focus on matters of more lasting concern to their relationship as the wedding date approaches. When the big day looms, couples can easily become distracted by the myriad of details involved in their wedding celebration, and they may even forget that there is life after the wedding. It’s crucial that they be encouraged to focus on the most important task at hand: preparing for life together after their wedding day.

Over the years, we’ve spent many Sundays with Father Ryan hosting Evenings for the Engaged in our home. What trends do we see? What concerns do we have?

The couples who are married at St. James are as diverse as the Cathedral parish. They come from all over Puget Sound, from a wide variety of family backgrounds and nationalities. In general, compared to their parents, they come to marriage a bit older (most are in their late twenties), better educated, more financially stable, and more established in their job or profession. They’ve handled their own bank accounts and some of them already own a home and have investments. They are full of enthusiasm and joy.

We also have some concerns. We know that 38% of marriages in this country end in divorce, and the rate is exactly the same for Catholics. Couples who marry at the Cathedral live and breathe American culture, and for many, that culture has far greater influence on their values than the Church. Because many couples are marrying at an older age, they have lived on their own much longer. It’s often more difficult for them to make the transition from single to married life. Many do not understand the Catholic idea of marriage as a vocation, a life-long calling, and a covenant. It’s hard for many to recognize the centrality of God in their lives, and those going into interfaith marriages often underestimate its challenges.

An important goal of the marriage preparation ministry is to make known to couples who are married at St. James, the Church’s rich teachings on marriage. They are entering a vocation every bit as sacred as the call to religious life. It is a call to a different kind of religious life! Married people are called to be examples of God’s love to the whole community, so it’s only right that the community of St. James do all it can to honor and support couples as they embark on their vocation to marriage and strive to live out that calling.

Suzanne and Brian Lynch have been associated with Father Ryan in the marriage preparation program for over 14 years. Brian is an attorney and Suzanne has been director of advocacy for Catholic Community Services. They are the parents of four children.


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