In Your Midst

Beyond the Wedding Day

August 2008

Marriage Preparation at St. James

For Nathan and Elizabeth, it all began on November 19, 2006.  Nathan remembers the place—the Victrola Coffee Shop on Capitol Hill.  Elizabeth remembers the time—1:00pm on a Sunday afternoon.  They had talked on the phone a couple of times after “meeting” online, but this was their first face-to-face encounter.  After talking over coffee (for three hours!) they both knew they had found something special, and they both wanted to meet again.

Elizabeth Arias, born in San Jose, California, is the fourth and youngest daughter in a large Catholic family.  After college back east and medical school in the Midwest, she was delighted to be accepted to residency at the University of Washington Medical Center.  The Pacific Northwest felt like home, and after residency Elizabeth accepted a position as hospitalist at Evergreen Hospital.

Elizabeth had dated off and on, but things hadn’t really clicked.  She realized that what she really wanted was a partner who shared her faith.  And she also realized that she would have to take action:  “if this is what I wanted for the rest of my life,” she recalls, “I would have to look for it.”  With much reluctance, she visited a Catholic dating website.  Her first time on the site she found Nathan Standifer.

Nathan was born and educated in Texas.  A convert to Catholicism, he entered the Church in Denton, Texas, in 1993.  Nathan says he read himself into the Church, and was especially drawn by the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the lives of the saints.  “It was the empirical and the phenomenological,” he says; “the combination of the two made it irresistible!”  A scientist, Nathan is a post-doctoral fellow at the Benaroya Research Institute, studying juvenile diabetes.  He is also a member of the Cathedral’s RCIA team, helping others to make the journey to the Catholic Church.

That meeting at Victrola Coffee Shop was the beginning of a wonderful new relationship.  Just over a year later, on December 21, 2007, Nathan and Elizabeth became engaged.  And then they began the formal process of preparing for marriage.
In the Catholic Church, marriage is more than a contract; it is a sacrament.  It is a response to the universal vocation God has given to all people:  the vocation to love.  “God who created man out of love also calls him to love,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Love is “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (1604).  The mutual love of husband and wife is, in Catholic theology, “an image of the absolute and unfailing love” of God.

Careful preparation is required for all the sacraments—adults entering the Church spend at least a year preparing for baptism, and children prepare for two years for their first Holy Communion.  Young people get ready for Confirmation through months of prayer and study.  And think of the years of preparation required of those preparing for the priesthood!  And yet, until fairly recently, the Church required very little preparation for the sacrament of matrimony.  Parishioner Joan McDonell, who has been helping couples prepare for marriage for more than twenty years, married in 1953.  “We met with the priest, filled out some paperwork, and that was it,” she recalls.  “It was like being given keys to the car without ever having been taught to drive!  Fortunately, both Larry and I had loving and kind families to learn from.”

Requirements vary widely from place to place, but now the Church does ask the couple to spend time preparing for marriage.  At St. James, there are two main parts of the process, which usually lasts 12-14 months.  Couples participate in a “pre-marital inventory,” designed to help them begin to understand and talk about their married life, and then join in “Evenings for the Engaged,” a series of five sessions which takes them deep into Catholic teaching on marriage.
Even before a date is confirmed for the wedding, couples must complete the premarital inventory.  They come to the parish office, where Joan puts them into separate rooms to complete a questionnaire called “FOCCUS”—Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding, and Study.

The FOCCUS questionnaire covers issues that can make or break a relationship.  Is my spouse honest with me?  Am I honest with my spouse?  Do I want children?  Do I want our children be brought up in the Church?  Other topics touched on by the FOCCUS questionnaire seem less important, but can become the source of serious tension.  Who will handle the bills?  Whose career will come first?  Who will be the primary caregiver for the children?  Will there be one checking account, or two?  How involved will the in-laws be in our lives and our relationship?

When the results of the FOCCUS inventory come back, they are given to one of several married couples in the parish.  The results are not intended to evaluate the couple or their relationship, or to predict their happiness or success in marriage.  They are simply a tool to help the couple to identify the areas they need to talk about as they prepare for their new life together.

Fred and Jeannie Armstrong are one of several couples who assist with this part of the marriage preparation process.  First they go over the results together.  They highlight areas where the couple is in significant disagreement either with each other or with Church teaching on marriage.  Then they meet with the engaged couple, usually for about two hours.  Their task is simply to help the couple to begin a conversation with each other on the areas of concern.  “In every situation, and with every engaged couple, there are surprises on the areas of disagreement,” Fred says.  “But there’s also a desire to drill down into the subject matter, and come to a better understanding of the other’s reasoning.”

The FOCCUS is useful even when the match is made in heaven!  Nathan and Elizabeth found, as they expected, that they agreed on most areas, but there were still some surprises.  “There were things we realized we had never talked about,” Elizabeth says, “like household roles, for example, and money matters.  It really helps you to discuss things that you might not have thought about.”

Liz Shier, who with husband Tracy joined the marriage preparation team several years ago, is a firm believer in the FOCCUS inventory.  “The survey is a valuable tool to help couples begin to communicate and explore ways to work through some of the issues they may find themselves facing after the honeymoon!” she says.  “Every couple planning to be married should be given the opportunity to take this survey, and take the time to reflect on the results.”

After the interview, the marriage preparation team prepares a report for Father Ryan, who meets with the couple next.  Sometimes Father Ryan reviews the FOCCUS results with the couple as well, but the primary goal of this first meeting is to get to know the couple better and help them come to a deeper understanding of the meaning of marriage as a sacrament.  “I always get them to share with me about themselves, their families, their growing-up years, their education.  I also like to learn about their faith and its role in their lives.  And then, of course, it’s always fun to hear how they met and began dating.  No two stories are ever the same!”  Following this meeting, with Father Ryan’s approval, the couple is able to confirm a date on the Cathedral’s calendar for the wedding—and to begin the second part of the marriage preparation process.
Evenings for the Engaged is facilitated by Director of Religious Education Helen Oesterle.  Couples gather on five Sunday evenings to explore the Church’s vision of Catholic marriage.  They talk about love and romance, about God, about marriage and intimacy, about the sacrament of matrimony, and about ways to build a stronger marriage.  They talk about challenging questions along the way:  about the inspiration—and the baggage—they bring with them from past experiences; about their attitudes towards love and sexuality; about their faith, their sense of vocation, their hopes and fears as they enter into marriage.

Helen Oesterle feels that a parish-based program like Evenings for the Engaged has advantages over an immersion weekend like Engaged Encounter.  Couples have a chance to meet other people preparing for marriage in their own parish community, and hopefully deepen their connection with each other and with the parish.  They meet married couples in the parish who can serve as mentors for them.  They also get to spend time with Father Ryan, who always teaches the session on the sacrament of matrimony.  But most valuable of all is the way Evenings for the Engaged requires the couple to dedicate time to each other.  “The process requires them to get together as a couple for two to three hours each week outside the session,” Helen says.  “For some of these busy couples that seems impossible at first, but in the end they find this the most valuable part of the process.  And we hope it helps them to form a habit of always making time for each other.”

Both Nathan and Elizabeth found participating in Evenings for the Engaged illuminating.  “The materials were wonderful,” Nathan says, “and Helen’s presentations were great.  It took a lot more time to complete the ‘homework’ than we anticipated.”

Some of the “assignments” would be equally challenging for long-married couples to complete!  After one session, couples are sent home with the task of doing something romantic for their partner that doesn’t cost anything.  Another session asks them to think about their parents’ marriages, and to discuss openly with each other the expectations they are bringing to their own marriage.  Helen loves to see the change in couples’ relationships as they take time to explore these realities.  “It is wonderful to see couples fall in love in a deeper way through this process, as they open up to each other.”
There is no graduation day when it comes to marriage preparation! It is an ongoing process.  As Joan McDonell says, “Marriage isn’t just a ceremony—it’s a lifelong commitment that takes daily attention.”  That is especially true in these days when so many marriages, for so many reasons, end in divorce.  “There are many challenges facing couples today, that weren’t present a generation ago,” says Liz Shier, “such as ways to balance the pressures of having two careers, raising a family, and holding on to the core values of family time and worship together.”  Fred Armstrong adds that this can be a positive:  “it requires that marriage be a true partnership.  But it can also create pressures, especially when many of the couples were raised in an era that taught them different lessons.”  Helen agrees.  “There are so many conflicting values and attitudes out there; our lives are so busy.  It is really countercultural to think about marriage the way we do, and to take time to nourish a relationship.”

But in spite of the challenges, hope is strong.  Helen says, “Our young people are so much more spiritual, hopeful, and strong than we sometimes give them credit for.” 
For the couples who embrace the vocation of married life, there is some trepidation, but even more, there is hope and trust.  “For me,” Nathan says, “it means having a home that I hope will be the center, the balance of my life.  In the fields Elizabeth and I are in work can become everything.  Home and spouse will provide boundaries—and yet freedom.”

Elizabeth adds, “the prospect of sharing my life with someone, forever, is an exciting thing.”

Father Ryan summed it up in his homily for the nuptial Mass:  “God is love and your love for each other is a powerful and very visible sign of the God who is love.  And it will be that way throughout your married life… As you celebrate life’s joys and face its challenges, you will be making Christ present to each other, showing each other the face of Jesus who laid down his life for his friends.  You receive a sacrament tonight but you also become a sacrament tonight—a sacrament to each other and to all of us.”  


Corinna Laughlin is Director of Liturgy at St. James Cathedral.

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