Pastoral letter encourages parishes to bolster marriage prep

Jessica and Donald Cook pose for their wedding photos in the nave of Old St. Mary’s Church in downtown Detroit in 2011. In his pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, Archbishop Vigneron has called for marriage preparation to be re-imagined as a form of “second catechumenate” in the Archdiocese of Detroit to better prepare couples to live as Christian husbands and wives.
Robert Bruce Photography

Detroit — From hiring a caterer to reserving a church — and don’t forget the rings — a lot goes into preparing for a wedding.

But even more needs to go into preparing for a marriage.

In Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s pastoral letter Unleash the Gospel, the archbishop calls on parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit to reassess how marriage preparation is done.

Specifically, the letter calls for marriage preparation to be transformed into a type of “second catechumenate” — not unlike the process currently used during the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) — where couples use the time before marriage to reflect on what it means to be called into a vocation to love one another until death.

The letter asks the archdiocesan Office of Family Life to lead the charge to develop such a plan by June 2019.

David Grobbel, the office’s coordinator, said successful marriage preparation is defined by whether or not the bride and groom are ready to begin a life of grace together.

“The bottom line of marriage prep is, can the couple confirm a valid sacrament with each other?” Grobbel said. “Some couples come to the Church for their sacrament, but they are at different places along their faith walk.”

Grobbel said it’s important for priests and marriage preparation coordinators to welcome all couples, regardless of their faith journey, when they come looking to be married in the Catholic Church. But he added that also means inviting them to accept all that goes into living a Catholic marriage.

“We don’t want marriage prep to be just something that happens to them; we want them to actively participate in the marriage preparation,” Grobbel said. “So it’s not an external thing of going through the motions, but an internal movement of the Holy Spirit.”

One parish that has already begun to take a closer look at marriage prep is the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, which recently launched its “Witness to Love” program.

“Witness to Love is a mentorship-based marriage prep program where the engaged couple has several meetings with a mentor couple,” said Fr. John Kopson, Shrine associate pastor. “Ideally, the mentor couple are friends of the couple about to be married, who are registered members of the parish, and not immediately family.”

Fr. Kopson explains it was former Shrine associate pastor Fr. Ryan Adams who brought the program to the parish.

The program’s central concept is that engaged couples seeks out a couple they would like to model their marriage after, learning what goes into developing a strong Catholic marriage and creating a support system for the couple when difficulties and questions arise.

“Ideally, the point of the program is to get the couple connected to the community of the parish,” Fr. Kopson said. “The couple picks a mentor couple, and on a practical level, this establishes a good couple to lean on when times get hard.”

In cases where engaged couples can’t find a couple in the parish to serve as mentors, the parish can connect them.

The mentor and mentee couples attend Mass together and meet at the mentor couple’s home for six sessions, where they discuss different aspects of Catholic married life.

A couple holds hands as they prepare to wed at St. Damien of Molokai Parish in Pontiac in 2016.
Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

For Shrine, it hasn’t been difficult to find experienced couples willing to help out.

“It’s an easy sell to find mentor couples,” Fr. Kopson said. “Many parishes that have mentor couples before the Witness to Love program came to the parish. There have always been couples at parishes that can give testimonies about how being a mentor couple has strengthened their own marriage.”

Rose Wingfield and her husband, Dennis, are marriage prep coordinators for the Witness to Love program and have served as mentors for engaged couples.

“The key to the Witness to Love program compared to any other type of mentoring program is the engaged couple chooses who will be the mentor couple,” Rose Wingfield said. “When they are doing that, they’re seeing something to which they are attracted in that couple.”

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron smiles as he prepares to join a couple in matrimony at St. Damien of Molokai Parish in Pontiac in 2016.
Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Witness to Love isn’t the only option out there for parishes, but it does serve as a way to connect couples to others in the Church, not unlike RCIA, in which a candidate is assigned a sponsor.

When one considers the amount of preparation that goes into receiving the other sacraments, it isn’t too much of the Church to ask for couples to be properly formed for marriage, Grobbel said.

“Marriage prep comes down to convincing the couple of the value in all of this and making sure the couple knows what we’re asking of them,” Grobbel said. “There are two sacraments for service: matrimony and holy orders. Priests have to go through years of study, and we’re asking married couples for six months to do this.”

“It’s important to try to bring up and remove the irregularities” such as living together, sex before marriage or birth control “and to get them informed and evangelized,” Grobbel said. “Otherwise, if not sacramentally formed, the couple won’t appreciate the sacramental aspect of marriage, which creates handicaps further down the road.”