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Must-have conversations before marriage

First slide

WASHINGTON - Discussion about the wedding cake, reception site and invitations are just a few of the many details engaged couples pore over as they plan their trips down the aisle.

While these things help make their special day lovely and memorable, Catholic couples preparing for married life are strongly urged by the church to use the time of their engagement wisely, and to discuss matters - both spiritual and practical - that will set them on the right course for a sacramental marriage.

These conversations - even if they bring up some minor differences of opinion - can help prevent major disagreements in the years to come, according to Catholic family life experts and newlyweds.

Some of the essential "must-have" conversation topics should include:

- Faith and spirituality

- Finances

- Children and child-rearing

- Natural family planning

- Intimacy

- Commitment

- Careers

Father Rick Kramer, director of Family Life and Pastoral Resource Development for the Archdiocese of Washington, said in today's culture young adult Catholics need to begin their premarital discussions by gaining a deeper understanding of the true meaning of marriage.

"Marriage reflects the love of Christ for the church. It is also a sacrament of service, a sacrament for others," he said. "Couples need to have rich and deep conversations that start with: 'Are we prepared to live our lives in generous service to God, each other, our families, our neighbors and our parish until our deaths?'"

He said the church's rich teachings on marriage and the family are the best starting point for all Catholic marriage preparation discussions. From there, he said the spiritual and practical conversations are able to flow.

"The spiritual includes the practical. They are knitted together," he said.

Sarah Castellanos, 26, and her husband, Nathan, 33, parishioners of St. Patrick Church in Washington, said the 2013 marriage preparation classes in the Washington Archdiocese helped them focus on the spiritual aspects of marriage and the practical challenges of married life.

"It was helpful and humbling to be reminded that just because you are faithful Catholics, you can't assume that you are on the same page on everything," Castellanos said. "You still have to talk."

During their courtship, she said, she and her future husband often discussed spirituality and faith. When they became engaged, the discussions evolved into the meaning of marriage and its covenant.

"You incorporate (spirituality) into the practical sides of marriage," Castellanos said. "You can't be this coldhearted practical person; there has to be a reason for doing things for your spouse. Both sides have to come together and not be lopsided."

Other spiritual conversation topics for engaged couples that Father Kramer suggests include: how the future spouses view divorce; ask themselves if they will pray together; whether they will attend Mass as a couple daily or weekly, as well as the importance of confession. "This is for a lifetime, and couples need to understand they've been preparing for marriage from the day they were born," he said.

Forgiveness, too, is another vital spiritual aspect of marriage, said the priest. "Even though there will be challenges and difficulties, there is no straw that breaks the camel's back even when it seems impossible to forgive," he said.

Natural family planning, said the priest, is another spiritual and practical must-have topic of discussion for Catholic couples. "Couples need to have this conversation and be open to the gift of participating with God in receiving children as a gift," he said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' marriage website foryourmarriage.org - a resource for married or engaged Catholic couples - recommends that couples discuss sensitive topics in their wedding preparations.

"This is the time to face difficult conversations and make sure you are on the same page. You don't have to agree on everything - just the important things. Use your time of courtship and engagement to explore the serious and controversial issues that are ahead of you. A marriage preparation program will help you address these issues more thoroughly," the website advises.

"After our classes, we'd sit down to dinner and discuss something that came up," said Castellanos. "Sometimes it was difficult to face disagreements."

One of the most important topics of conversation for the couple was finances, she said. "We needed to know who would pay the bills and how much debt each had," she said. "Once we talked about those two, it was good to go deeper and define what our goals were financially."

Other issues - such as in-laws, each other's expectations of family life and division of authority - were among the practical topics during premarital conversations and later popped up during their first year as husband and wife, she said.

"You learn some things as you go on, but it's also important to talk about things like (extended) family boundaries in the first few months to a year and how your spouse feels entering into a new family," Castellanos said, adding it's a good idea to discuss how and where to spend holidays.

The U.S. bishops also advise that couples should not lose heart if they can't agree on an issue. "You may come to an impasse on an issue. That doesn't mean you aren't meant for each other. It does mean you should pause and study this issue more carefully," the bishops said. "Perhaps it's a sign you need to consult others with experience or expertise in the area."

Father Kramer said the church - which prepares a couple for marriage - "doesn't abandon them" after the wedding, offering several diocesan and parish-based marriage enrichment programs. "The church is always there to help strengthen and perfect their love," he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014