A 78-year-old widower I know, married to his first wife for 55 years, tomorrow will wed a never-married, lifelong Catholic in her sixties. They planned to marry in the Catholic Church. Instead, they are hoofing it across the street to his church, which is Lutheran.
What prompted this change of plans? The priest’s insistence this older couple attend PreCana classes, classes designed for folks in their 20s and offering information ranging from Natural Family Planning to how to manage a household budget.
This makes me sad. It makes me angry. It’s an example of a Christian – in this case a member of the clergy - placing a greater priority on rules than on the Resurrection. This at a time when the Church is making great noise politically about the need to protect traditional marriage.
I don’t fault the Church as an institution for this couple's rejection. I know at least a handful of wonderful priests who would have found a way to make sure the couple understood the awesome commitment they are making in this sacrament, without forcing them to fulfill a requirement designed for an entirely different demographic.
This situation reminds me of what we’ve been reading in School of Community - about how far we Christians often are from Christ. Pope Benedict XVI posed some important questions during his Chrism Mass. “Do we open up the pathway to God for others or do we rather conceal it? Have not we–the people of God–become to a large extent a people of unbelief and distance from God?”
I am not arguing that marriage preparation is a waste of time. Depending on the program, it can offer great value. My husband and I found an extensive survey we each took as part of our marriage preparation very helpful in figuring out areas of potential marital conflict and talking about them ahead of time. We were encouraged to talk about our attitudes toward money management and child-rearing and other important issues.
But to work, marriage preparation must respond to the couples’ spiritual and practical needs. I remember feeling terrified my fiancé and I would be in Big Trouble during PreCana when the organizers found out we were visiting one another over weekends; at the time we were engaged we lived two hours away. Instead, we found we were the only couple among 20 who were not cohabitating. Other couples had spent more than one overseas vacation together. The Church needs to face instead of ignore reality. The PreCana could have been an opportunity talk about what kinds of premarital relations are sinful and what kinds are not, as well as some of the Church’s spiritual underpinnings, such as the Theology of the Body. But no one said a word and an opportunity for conversion was lost.
My husband and I experienced an even more misguided marriage preparation a few years into our marriage, when we were asked to participate in a PreCana team at our parish. We were shocked to discover that virtually every engaged couple in the session had lived together longer than my husband and I had been married. Many owned property together at a time when we still were renting.
The parishioners organizing the sessions seemed blind to the reality in front of them. For example, I recall an older woman counseling the couples on how hard it would be to share living space with someone else and to not argue over toothpaste or whether the husband liked a particular meal the wife was making. Worse still, one organizer was ignorant of Catholic teaching. She spent time talking to the engaged couples about how she and her husband were opposed to adoption and how she had prayed her Rosary over their frozen embryos. (We left that parish as a result.)
These kinds of programs make a laughing-stock of our church, its leaders and its followers. We have got to do better if we want to attract and retain people and help them to understand the relevance of the Resurrection is to their lives every day.
Back to Saturday's nuptials. I feel such sadness (as St. Thomas put it “a longing for an absent good” ) that a chaste elderly couple of my acquaintance has been turned away at the doors of her church. We need to open the doors wide and be unafraid to welcome and teach those who come calling. The sacrament of marriage is a beautiful opportunity to reflect on one’s own spiritual path and to learn what the Church teaches and what Christ wants from our lives.
Tomorrow we toss aside a lifelong Catholic and her new beloved spouse. I am so sad the Church couldn't find room for them. I know Christ will be present when they make their vows and for the rest of their days. I wish them every blessing.