Is the Church Considering a Marriage Catechumenate?

By Peter Jesserer Smith, February 14, 2017

Pope Francis has signaled his support for the Church to reform its marriage-preparation process in favor of a new “catechumenate for marriage” — an idea more than 35 years in the making — that would build healthy, holy unions and provide an “antidote” to the contemporary crisis in Catholic marriage.

Two different synods on the family have seen the Catholic Church’s bishops propose a new model of marriage formation based on the catechumenate conception, where couples would be formed for marriage within the context of the parish community, with their pastor and mentor couples working together, guiding them before the wedding and after, when they take their first steps as a new family.

And Pope Francis made explicit in his Jan. 21 address to the Roman Rota, the Church’s top jurists, that it was “urgent” for the Church to “implement practically” St. John Paul II’s plan for modeling marriage preparation on the catechumenate in Familiaris Consortio (66).

“I must repeat the need for a ‘new catechumenate’ in preparation for marriage,” he said, emphasizing that the synod fathers hoped for this change. He said the Church needed to “find valid remedies” for the crisis in marriage that would help future spouses “grasp and savor the grace, beauty and joy of true love, saved and redeemed by Jesus.”

Francis explained, “Just as for the baptism of adults the catechumenate is part of the sacramental process, also the preparation for marriage should become an integral part of all the sacramental procedure of marriage as an antidote that prevents the proliferation of null or inconsistent marriage celebrations.”

He said the Christian community “is called to announce cordially the Gospel to [engaged couples], so that their experience of love may become a sacrament,” and then help newlyweds “follow the path of faith and in the Church also after the celebration of marriage.”

The Catholic Church has been coming to grips with the fact that Catholic marriage and family outcomes have fared only marginally better compared to the rest of the culture.

In the U.S., Catholic marriages end in divorce at a lower rate than the general population. Still, close to one out of three (28%) of Catholic marriages end in divorce, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

CARA’s surveys also show that weekly Mass attendance and church involvement correlate strongly with better family life. But only one out of five Catholic parents with children at home go to Mass weekly, and just under half of Catholic parents go to Mass once a month or more. The other half of parents go rarely or not at all.

A number of bishops at the 2015 Synod on the Family voiced their support for moving to a marriage catechumenate model as the way to form couples (and their families) in the Church’s teaching.

Some U.S. dioceses have begun, on their own, to move away from having centralized pre-Cana programs at diocesan-based sites toward a parish-based marriage-ministry model, so couples can get a catechumenal formation at the parish with the diocese providing support.

Steve Patton, associate director of Family and Respect Life Ministries at the Diocese of Sacramento, California, told the Register in an email that the diocese shut down its pre-Cana program in 2012 and embraced the catechumenal approach by shifting entirely to having parishes as the locus of marriage preparation.

“Our rationale for this move was that optimal marriage prep needs to be ‘local, relational and gradual’ — and the one-day, pack ’em in, large class at the chancery was accomplishing none of the above,” he said. “Now the principal diocesan role is forming and supporting the parish marriage-prep teams so they can do the best job at both evangelization and catechesis.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago, which is known as the birthplace of pre-Cana and still has centralized marriage ministry, is exploring with parishes and pastors how they can together reinvigorate marriage formation.

Clarissa Aljentera, senior coordinator of family ministries for the Archdiocese of Chicago, told the Register she was encouraged by Pope Francis’ remarks.

“We are looking to Pope Francis as our guide to better accompany engaged couples and newlyweds in their faith journeys,” she said. Marriage catechumenate, she added, captures the “theology of accompaniment” that Pope Francis calls for. The archdiocese, she said, wants parishes and pastors to be “really involved with the engaged and newlyweds.”

Part of the challenge, she explained, is taking all of the excellent programming and tools the archdiocese has developed over the years and training parish facilitators, pastors and communities to unpack that in a practical way. Archdiocesan officials are also looking to integrate Chapters 4, 5 and 6 of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) into their marriage materials and for guidance on how to build the marriage catechumenate, particularly where the Pope calls for “couples walking with other couples.” They also intend to gather parish best practices to share with other parishes.

Marriage catechumenate, by its nature, has to involve the whole parish community, explained Mary-Rose Verret, who with her husband, Ryan, founded the “Witness to Love: Marriage Prep Renewal Ministry,” which trains parishes in their catechumenal model for marriage formation. She told the Register that they started working on developing a framework for “marriage catechumenate” with Witness to Love approximately six years ago.

Verret said the key to Witness to Love, and the marriage catechumenate, is personal relationships and integrating the couple into the life of the parish, so that newlyweds (marriage neophytes) have a trusted mentor couple (marriage sponsors) and a supportive community (their parish) they can turn to as they take those first steps living together the Church’s vision for marriage.

Otherwise, Verret said, the best diocesan conferences, mandatory natural family planning courses and parish workshops will not achieve the evangelization couples need and can become one more “hoop” for a couple that may likely disappear after the wedding.

“If books and programs alone did the trick, everyone would be amazing Catholics living out their faith,” she said. “We need relationships” to support the Church’s plan for love and marriage.

Marriage catechumenate is also vital for civilly married couples seeking to obtain the sacrament of matrimony through a process called “convalidation,” where both spouses exchange their consent to marry each other in the presence of an authorized priest or deacon and two witnesses.

Verret said too often convalidating couples are not given marriage preparation. They are given a “quick fix” to rectify their irregular status in the Church, but this sends the message to such couples that they have a “second-class sacrament” and they do “not feel more invited into the parish.”

Such an approach also means the Church is not evangelizing a vast number of Catholics, or assisting these couples in having the best opportunity for a happy marriage by resolving any serious issues before they attempt the sacrament.

Patrick and Courtney Pourciau, who told the Register their civil marriage was convalidated in 2004, agreed.

“We really didn’t have any marriage prep,” Patrick said, noting that it was not required at the time. Both Pourciaus are Witness to Love coordinators at St. Bernard’s parish in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, and they say they would have appreciated marriage catechumenate with mentor couples, which they believe could have helped them deal with some emotional wounds and better understand the “intimacy and vulnerability required for marriage.”

However, they both have benefited from their involvement in their parish’s Witness to Love ministry, where they serve as liaisons, helping couples choose mentor couples and arranging the pre-wedding retreats and the post-wedding dinners between classes of newlyweds and mentor couples. Patrick said honestly sharing their own marriage with a couple seeking the sacrament of matrimony taught them a lot about themselves and their own marriage.

“The mentor couples really get to see the growth,” said Courtney, who said she has seen “a lot of grace” at work through this sacramental process for marriage. And they are looking at the possibility of making Witness to Love a form of marriage enrichment for sacramentally married couples who never went through a catechumenal process for marriage.

The discussion on “marriage catechumenate” has its origins in the first synod on the family held by St. John Paul II in 1980, according to Father Paul Holmes, a moral and sacramental theologian at Seton Hall University. Father Holmes told the Register that he switched his doctoral focus to dedicate his scholarship to exploring the marriage catechumenate upon reading about the idea in the reports coming out of that synod.

“The synod fathers actually looked at each phase of preparation, and when they got to the immediate preparation, they said what is needed is not just a lot of words spoken like pre-Cana — they didn’t actually condemn pre-Cana in any way — but they said what is really needed is what we have for the sacrament of baptism,” he said, “that we need to prepare couples for the sacrament of marriage in a ritual way, the way we do for baptism.”

Father Holmes said matrimony as a sacrament is rooted in a Christian’s baptism, so having a marriage catechumenate would highlight the connection between those two sacraments. The engaged could be brought to the parish church, surrounded by the ecclesial community, a number of times during the period of their engagement, to receive anointing, a blessing over them or other ritual actions that would signify their catechetical journey toward receiving the sacrament on their wedding day. And then, as newlyweds, they would have the parish helping them to deepen their growth in the sacrament.

“It lets the couple know that they are surrounded by the Church, that they are upheld by the Church and supported by the Church, rather than going for three evenings where people talk about marriage and then they have a rehearsal, and then they have a wedding, and that’s it,” Father Holmes said. In a new catechumenate for marriage, “we would have preparation for the sacrament in a ritual way, then we have the sacrament itself, and then we would have a mystagogial period, the post-sacramental period,” where the couple would have sustained guidance and support from the Christian community.

He suggested that the Latin Church should look at reviving the “Rite of Betrothal,” which went by the wayside after the Council of Trent, and try to examine also how it used to ritualize the various stages of engagement leading to the wedding. He said that the Latin Church could draw ideas from the Eastern Churches about how to revive the imagery needed for these rituals. One Eastern practice, he said, involves bringing the couple to church to have their wedding garments blessed in a ritual before the community.

Father Holmes said if Pope Francis wants marriage catechumenate to become a reality, he should direct the Congregation for Divine Worship, currently led by Cardinal Robert Sarah, to begin the process of developing a ritual for marriage catechumenate, which will take both hard work and imagination.

As a priest who marries 10-15 couples a year, he said he would greatly appreciate having the intended bride and groom go through a marriage catechumenate, rather than leaving all of the catechesis in the sacrament up to him.

“I do my best, but I send them off to pre-Cana, they come back, we fill out forms, and I can only hope and pray that they’re going to become the living symbols of Christ’s love for his Church and Christ’s unity with his Church,” Father Holmes said. “I can only pray that that’s going to happen. I would feel a lot stronger about that if there were a marriage catechumenate.”

Poverty, Obedience and Chastity in Marriage?

I know it sounds crazy.  Going into uncharted territory always sounds crazy.  I think it is possible to live out the evangelical counsels in marriage.  It’s not for everyone, just like the expatriate or Foreign Service life, but for those who are called to live out these counsels, they will bear much fruit for our brothers & sisters in Christ.

I started out writing about a contemplative life in marriage.  Quit Netflix, video games, recreational reading to simplify my life. Give myself more time to pray.  It is not natural, I admit, while my flesh is still stronger than my wounded soul.  My biology, my ego, and my passions are in alliance against the contemplative life.  My soul was once like a starved prisoner, shackled by years of habitual sin and charmed into compliance by the natural pleasures of the world (cf. Ps 106:14-15).  Christ freed my soul with Baptism on Easter 2009.  It’s like a mixed martial art battle with my body.  For the first few years, my soul lost battles more often than it won.  These past couple months, though, my soul has been winning more often.  Structured prayer and frequenting the Sacraments (especially weekly Confession and the Eucharist) have strengthened my soul.  The Holy Spirit has been the strength behind my K.O. punches.  The goal?  Total submission of my body to the direction of my soul and the Holy Spirit.  If I follow the spirit of the evangelical counsels, I believe I can achieve that goal.


How can I practice poverty in marriage?  Easy.  Give all my money to my wife.  I need to ask her every time I want to buy something.  I should stop eating out at lunch and bring leftovers from home.  Her virtue of temperance is a lot stronger than mine.  So, I would benefit from her counsel.

There is a bit of irony, though.  My wife doesn’t like managing finances.  So, I still make our investments, do our taxes and plan for our financial security.  I have all the responsibility, but none of the (temporal) fun.  Ah… suits the spiritual life just fine, then, doesn’t it?


As a Catholic, I obey God and His appointed leaders.  There is the Pope and his encyclicals.  There are the councils and its documents.  There is the Magisterium and its decrees.  These people and bodies are all divinely delegated authorities by Christ.  He gave them to me (for all of us, really) because he knows how frail I am when left to my own devices.  We all want to be pope and define right and wrong; few want to be slaves to the liturgy & doctrine.  Little do people suspect that there’s freedom in divine slavery!

As a husband and father, I obey my wife.  Obedience to my wife doesn’t mean I’m spineless or pusillanimous.  Just as Christ gave authority to his bride, the Church, to “bind and loose” on earth, so I give authority to my bride to bind and loose in the household (cf. Mt 16:19 and Mt 18:18).  I respect my wife’s domain, just as God respects His Church’s domain.  By obeying my wife, I am practicing the Catholic teaching of subsidiarity in the home.

As a diplomat, I obey many bosses.  They have rightful authority over me.  As long as I am not called to sin in the eyes of God, then I ought to obey my rightful superiors.  As it is in the divine order, so it is in the temporal order.  Obeying a command from a person I don’t like, or to perform a task I don’t want to do — again, as long as it does not lead to sin — would be good for my soul.


Chastity in marriage is misunderstood.  Dawn Eden’s article “10 and a Half Reasons to be Chaste,” reprinted at Catholic News Agency, explains the difference.  It’s worth reading because most people equate “chastity” with “celibacy.”  It’s possible to have unchaste sex in marriage.  Practicing Natural Family Planning would be an act of chastity in marriage.  Abstaining from sex, or what spiritual writers call continence, seems impossible without resentment.  However, I can testify that by the grace of God not only is chaste sex possible, but even joyful abstinence is possible in marriage.  Is that too much information?  Well, “what is impossible with men is possible with God” (Lk 18:27; also Mk 10:27 and Mt 19:26)

I live in a culture where sex is pleasure divorced from creation, where everything is sexualized: men & women, young & old, animals, inanimate objects… everything.  Ignorance of sex’s divine power to create new souls creates a mentality where it’s considered okay to use one’s spouse for sexual gratification.  Even well-meaning Christians use the Bible to “prove” that spouses are supposed to have sex even when one of them is not interested (Eph 5:22-23).  We can see the error in that interpretation when we logically extend it to the whole passage.  Husbands are supposed to imitate Christ by sacrificing their own life to help make their wife spotless before God, just as Jesus died on the Cross to make His Church spotless in Heaven.  The Church obeys Christ because of that sacrifice.  Wives would obey their husbands, too, if men were so self-sacrificing.

Dear God, thank you for protecting the wealth of knowledge in your Church, handed down from generation to generation.  Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange, pray for us.  May your work reach out to other souls.  May it continue to guide me deeper into Our Lord’s intimate life.  Amen.

What are the Three Counsels?

In a previous post, I was writing about the possibility of living a contemplative life in marriage.  I got to a point where I wanted to talk about adapting something that religious people do for practice in the married life.  These are the three evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity and obedience.  What are they and how are they practiced?  How can I adapt them to my life?

The Three Evangelical Counsels

In Chapter 13 of Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s book on the interior life, he makes the case for why the three evangelical counsels are very difficult to observe in the married life.  The three counsels are poverty (cf. Mt 19:21), chastity (cf. Mt 19:11-12) and obedience.  As Jesus said in Matthew 19, the counsels of poverty and chastity are voluntary.  Obedience to God, of course, is a given.  However, the evangelical counsel of obedience means something different.  Obedience, in this context, is the voluntary submission to a person, like a spiritual director or the Superior General of a religious order.

These three counsels specifically counter the three concupiscences (cf. 1 Jn 2:16) that we all suffer from as a result of Original Sin: concupiscence of the eyes (greed), concupiscence of the flesh (sensuality), and vanity of life (power; independence from God and from each other).

Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange is careful to emphasize that these three counsels are not obligatory to all Christians to obtain eternal life, but “it is a most suitable means more surely and rapidly to reach the end and not run the danger of stopping halfway.”  So, while my justification for eternal life is made through my belief in Jesus Christ, Christian perfection is another matter.  If we seek Christian perfection in this life (in order to reach the Beatific Vision faster in the next life), then the quickest route is by observing these three counsels.  Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange contends that it’s easier to follow these counsels when a person lives in a monastery or convent.

While he concedes that some saints managed Christian perfection in the married state, they are the exceptions that prove the rule:

The Christian who lives in the world is often exposed to excessive absorption and preoccupation about a situation to be acquired or maintained for himself and his family.  He is also in danger of forgetting to some extent that he must advance toward another life, another fatherland, and that to reach it, something is needed quite different from the understanding of worldly affairs: in other words, the help of God, which should be sought through prayer, and the fruit of grace, which is merit.  In family life he is also inclined to dwell on affections in which he finds a legitimate satisfaction for his need of loving.

His next statement was difficult to read because I can see how I am often guilty of it:

He is also led to forget that he must above all things love God with his whole heart, with his whole soul, with all his strength, and with his whole mind.  Frequently charity is not in him a living flame which rises toward God while vivifying all other affections; instead, it is like a burning coal which slowly dies out under the ashes.  This explains the ease with which a number of these Christians sin, scarcely reflecting that their sin is an infidelity to the divine friendship, which should be the most profound sentiment in their hearts.

The dagger of his words go deeper still:

The Christian living in the world is often exposed to doing his own will, side by side… with the will of God….  Then faith seems at times reduced to a number of sacred truths that have been memorized, but have not become truths of life….  The great truths about the future life, about the helps that come to us from Christ, remain practically inefficacious, like distant truths that have never been assimilated and are lost in the depths of the heavens.

While I don’t disagree that it would be difficult, it is important to know that it’s possible and that there are couples who have succeeded.  My journey, then, consists in finding out how I can progressively grow in holiness without abandoning my wife and children.  Next question to answer: How can I adapt the three counsels to my life?

Contemplative Life in Marriage

Praying Hands on an Open Bible
Praying Hands on an Open Bible

Is it possible to live a contemplative life in marriage and parenthood?  The Catholic Encyclopedia gives a very profound definition.  To me, it’s about developing a relationship with God that rests on top of my visible, temporal life — like a spiritual blanket.  It’s about seeing God in every event in my life, in every interaction I have in the world, in every person that I meet.  This isn’t easy, but from what I’m reading, I think I can chart a path for a married man like myself.  I also recently posted some wise words from St. Francis de Sales that reinforce my belief that a contemplative life in marriage is possible.

Make Time to Think About God

I need to deliberately make time to think about God.  It should be part of my daily routine.  When I wake up in the morning, I should say a quick prayer, asking “God, give me the graces I need this day to do Your will and glorify You, Lord.”  During the 25-40 minute shuttle ride to the Embassy, I should read the morning Divine Office and contemplate what I’ve read in the time left over.  If I need to connect with another soul during the ride, then I should read the morning office first-thing when I get to my desk.  It takes a few minutes, anyway, for my computer to boot up and Outlook to update emails.  So, I can close my door for the 15 minutes it takes to do the morning office before starting my day.

At lunch, I should do some spiritual reading.  I should save the last 15-20 minutes of my lunch time to do the Rosary.  If the day is slow, I could take a 15-minute break and sneak in another session of reading.

On the ride home, there is another 25-40 minutes for spiritual reading or the evening office.  Both my wife and children are asleep by 9 or 10 p.m.  This is where I can do some serious contemplation of an hour or more.  Do the Rosary if I didn’t do it at lunch.

Just from my commute and lunch break, I can get in almost two hours of prayer time during my normal work day.  I have two to four hours at night while my family sleeps.  That’s four to six hours a day that I can spend with God in prayer and contemplation.  Season 2 of House of Cards is coming out in February.  So, maybe my time with God will be drastically cut back, then.

Seeing with the Eyes of Faith

Trade missions, VIP visits and family time on the weekends would preclude that much time hanging out with God.  But even then, if I look with the eyes of faith, I can maintain a dialogue with God.  During a trade mission, the fast-paced schedule and quick decisions needed for crisis management are opportunities to harvest the fruits of the Holy Spirit.  I can show my colleagues that, because of my faith, even in stressful situations I am able to be charitable… joyful… peaceful… patient… kind… good… generous… gentle… faithful… modest… self-controlled… and chaste (especially when there are a lot of beautiful women around!)  When I support high-level government official visits, these are great opportunities for acts of charity (service), humility, and obedience.  The less I like the task, the better it is for my soul (mortification).  All that time planting seeds of virtue during my normal days will come to bloom during these times of high activity.

I include family time along with the above two examples not because it’s a chore.  Quite the opposite; it’s what I look forward to every week.  However, it is easy to look at family time and taking care of the children as ordinary tasks instead of analogies to my relationship with God.  When Maya or Hana are slow to obey, or defy my authority, I can recognize that behavior in my spiritual life with God.  I am slow to obey the Holy Spirit’s gentle promptings.  I defy God when I sin.  Seeing that similarity, I am able to be more patient and merciful with my own girls — just as God is patient and merciful with me.

This post will have to be continued.  I need to explain what the three evangelical counsels are.

Dammit, My Wife is Holier than Me

My wife had to go back to the U.S. to attend a funeral and I had to take care of our two children for five days.  It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my life.  It was only five days for me, but my wife has been doing this for over three years.  The experience was humbling.  Now, I have a profound respect for my wife.  Single-parents — I can’t even imagine — must have heroic virtue just to survive day-to-day, let alone help their children thrive.

We are blessed to live a life where the cost-of-living permits us to have part-time household help.  Although I never brought it up to my wife, I always wondered why she would say she didn’t have enough time to do certain things when we have Lorie to help around the house for half the day.  The purpose was to give Anne Marie more free time, but she would claim not to have any.  Now I know.  Even with the extra hours that Lorie put in, I could barely check my emails once a day, let alone get any time to read, think or relax.

Taking care of one’s children full-time and going to work full-time are really not the same thing.  For one, I get breaks at work.  There could be a lull in demands and I could check the news.  I can go off to lunch by myself and read for a whole hour.  That doesn’t happen with one’s children.  Not my children.  Not with daddy.  I’m like a honey pot and they are like Winnie the Pooh times two.  To top it off, they’re jealous of each other.  Maya could be happily playing in one corner, but as soon as she sees me holding Hana, she’d storm over and complain about having a “tummy ache” and wants me to carry her.

Another difference between work full-time and children full-time is intellectual and emotional detachment.  Screwing up at work is one thing.  Screwing up with your kids has a different magnitude of consequences.  While I have pride in my work, I don’t love my work.  I do love my children and so the amount of self-giving is that much greater.  That’s the thing… it’s the self-giving that is required with one’s children that is not required with people at work (i.e. supervisors, co-workers, clients, etc.)  Caring for one’s children is physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually draining.  And that’s on the good days.  Even on the worst days at work, I only complain about being mentally drained.

These five days with my children has been humbling spiritually.  In “The Three Ages of the Interior Life,” Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange wrote, “The great sign of love of God is precisely love of one’s neighbor.  A saint who has little learning in theological matters but who has a very great love of God, is certainly more perfect than a theologian who has a lesser charity.”  I have more theological knowledge than my wife.  I never realized it until now, but I thought that made me more holy.  It’s not knowledge that makes one holy, but self-giving to others, especially the less fortunate and the helpless (like one’s children).  My wife has given a tremendous amount of herself these past three years for our daughters.  Just these five days gave me a taste of the cross that she continues to bear for our family.  Taking care of our girls is not torture (per se), but there’s a lot of self-sacrifice.  All the virtues are practiced (faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance).  Many of the gifts of the Holy Spirit are exercised.  I’ve come to realize that despite all my book knowledge about God, my wife loves Him more than me because she gives of herself more than I, especially for our children.

If I am to pursue the holiness, I need to exceed the charity that my wife exhibits.  A little friendly competition doesn’t hurt.  The prize is the Beatific Vision.

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