Parishes teach children and youths about marriage

LEVITTOWN, Pa.  — In the effort to promote Catholic marriages, which have been on the decline in recent years, some U.S. parishes are making conscious efforts to reach out not only to engaged couples but to a much younger audience — children and youths — about the church's teaching on marriage.

The declining number of marriages is "not simply a Catholic issue but a cultural phenomenon," said Father Richard Kramer, director of the Office of Family Life for the Archdiocese of Washington.

"What we're really talking about is evangelization," about building a different kind of culture, he said. "We have to teach (young people) what marriage is."

He suggested finding ways to make marriage a celebration of the whole parish and showing couples: "Look, we want you to have what Jesus wants you to have." For example, honoring couples who are celebrating jubilee anniversaries — 25 or 30 or more years of marriage — says to young people, "So can you."

Parish young adult ministries also should remind people that each of them is made to give their love away to someone else, whether to a parent, a sibling, a spouse or children of one's own.

The priest stressed that parishes need to be intentional about their efforts to build the culture this way and to focus on "being a marriage-building parish" where newly married couples are immediately integrated into the life of the parish.

"Encouraging marriages isn't going to come through quick fixes," he added.

While the number of Catholics in the U.S. continues to increase, the number of Catholic marriages has been steadily declining.

According to 2014 data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the number of Catholic marriages reported — 148,134 — was less than half the number in 1964 — 352,458 — despite the number of self-identified Catholics having grown from 48.5 million to 81.6 million between 1965 and 2015.

Many dioceses and parishes concerned about marriage have their hands full focusing on marriage enrichment and the immediate preparation of couples who present themselves requesting marriage in the church.

In 1981, in his apostolic exhortation "Familiaris Consortio," St. John Paul II identified three stages of marriage preparation: remote, proximate and immediate.

Steve Patton of the Diocese of Sacramento, Calif., said remote preparation begins in the family at birth, as a growing child sees those around him or her and how they relate to each other. Proximate preparation begins around puberty and continues through the dating years until a couple finds each other and decides to marry. "That's the audience" that is not typically being addressed, Patton said.

But efforts to reach larger groups are spreading. The Sacramento Diocese, for example, attempts to reach young people with its message on marriage through a program created and launched in the Diocese of Memphis, Tenn., that has gatherings for mothers and daughters and for fathers and sons.

Patton said the "evaporation of the sacramental understanding of marriage" has been influenced by no-fault divorce policies, the widespread acceptance of artificial contraception and the recent trend toward acceptance of same-sex marriage. Marriage is seen as a vehicle for individual satisfaction, he said, something that is easily abandoned if it ceases to bring happiness not only to the couple but to the individual.

Steve Bozza of the Office for Life and Family at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia similarly said: "It's no secret that the decline of marriage is a decline in faith practice." He looks at marriage promotion as a matter of evangelization, and cited the possibilities of the Year of Mercy as a time to bring back people who have "self-selected" themselves out of the church.

"We're not going to change this overnight," he said, echoing Father Kramer's point.

Bozza emphasized the need "to speak of marriage and its truth," noting that it's not serving anybody to loosen up on church teaching on marriage in an effort to attract more people.

The Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, which sends teams of trained recent college graduates to college campuses to evangelize, puts a lot of emphasis on the idea of vocation and helping students see both marriage or religious life as a calling, said Kevin Cotter of Denver, the organization's senior director of curriculum.

He said the group calls on married couples to serve as models demonstrating what married life looks like, "how it's possible and joyful."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017

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