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Preparing couples to grow ‘old and wrinkly’ together

Marriage preparation and Natural Family Planning reflect the beauty of the sacrament

It’s a tale as old as time: he gets down on one knee, ring in hand, and pops the big question. Time stands still as he waits with bated breath for the answer he’s hoping for. Through tears of joy, she manages to blurt out “yes!” and thus marks the start of a beautiful new beginning for the soon-to-be newlyweds. The big day will be here soon, complete with church bells and all! Not soon enough, though, because before they stand before the altar and share their vows, they have to go through…marriage prep.

What a buzzkill! Or is it? As we’ve seen throughout this issue, the Church recognizes the Sacrament of Marriage as something beautiful to be cherished and nourished. Rather than be preoccupied with the “how” of all the wedding planning, Mother Church asks those seeking marriage in the Church to first look at the “why” of marriage – and it is indeed a profound and deep “why.” Planning the wedding and reception is a big part of it, to be sure, but throwing a big party is not why two people should enter into marriage. They should enter it because it is a call from God to love and be loved, to welcome the gift of children, and ultimately, to be sanctified.

What is marriage prep? Three types

Marriage preparation is a concept foreign to the secular institution of marriage and also many other Christian churches. While most marriage-related programs are predominantly focused with the end of marriage, i.e. divorce support, the Catholic Church is unique in that it seeks to properly prepare couples not only for the practicalities of marriage, such as relational intelligence, like skills, finances and the like, but it desires for couples to understand marriage as a sacrament — that is, the visible manifestation of an invisible reality. In the case of marriage, the sacrament is reflected in the couples’ striving toward holiness in union with one another and with God, and in the fruitfulness of marriage — in other words, kids!

Deacon Colin Coleman is the marriage specialist for the Archdiocese of Denver’s Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministry. He’s been in family and marriage ministry for many years, and he’s witnessed firsthand the fruits that it can bear within marriages.

“I think why the church has this opportunity to call couples to preparation for marriage is, yes, it is a sacrament for two baptized people, but primarily I think the goal is that it’s a vocation,” he said. “It’s a vocation that has a great impact on the world. John Paul II said, ‘so goes the family, so goes the world.’ So it’s this idea of preparing couples for that responsibility.”

Marriage prep typically takes 8 to twelve months here in the Archdiocese of Denver. There are three types or stages of marriage prep: remote, proximate and immediate. Proximate and immediate preparation are the ones that are more traditionally associated with marriage prep, while remote preparation begins long before a couple is even considering marriage.

“We’re telling you that what the Church is offering you is really beautiful because she’s been in the business for 2,000 years, and the person that founded our Church also made the wedding of Cana super important.”

“The idea of remote preparation entails what can be covered in the proximate and immediate but involves some basic moral teachings of how to live as a human person, as a man and as a woman, and seeing the beauty and dignity of all of that,” Deacon Coleman explained.

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This is learned from a young age by learning the unique vocations of man and woman and by witnessing the beauty of marriage in various social environments: within the family, within a parish community, at school, in family relationships with friends and others. It is in these settings that we learn what love is; that is, willing the good of the other.

The proximate preparation happens when an engaged couple approaches the Church with the intent of entering into marriage.

“This is where the main interaction happens with couples, especially in my office and the leaders that I work with,” Deacon Coleman said. “They’re typically engaged, they have a date in mind 99% of the time, and they want to get prepared for that. This is where the Church in her wisdom says, ‘how can we do that?’ We need to prepare you for the sacrament, so there is a certain theology behind it. We start introducing the theology of marriage, the beauty of what marriage is with the teachings of the Church. The theology of the body, presented to us with John Paul II, is part also of that.”

As the wedding day nears, the immediate preparation begins, which entails the liturgical elements of the wedding, such as Mass readings and song choices, choosing the cantors and lectors, and ensuring that the couple connects with the priest who will be marrying them before the wedding — that is, if they’re not the one leading the couple through marriage prep.

Natural Family Planning: Free, total, faithful, fruitful

Throughout the marriage prep process, the goal is to welcome couples into the beauty of the Church’s teachings and help the couple to understand what love really is, especially as it pertains to the marital context. The four pillars of love as free, total, fruitful and faithful are central to this process.

“We’re telling you that what the Church is offering you is really beautiful because she’s been in the business for 2,000 years, and the person that founded our Church also made the wedding of Cana super important,” Deacon Coleman said. “The idea of talking about the value of what the Church has to say is also to prepare them for Natural Family Planning.”

The Church teaches Natural Family Planning (NFP) to couples to impart the wisdom of her rich teaching on human sexuality in a way that espouses growth in virtue. Those four pillars of love are made most manifest in marriage through an openness to the gift of children by the nuptial embrace.

“The idea of fertility and who we are as human persons has been stripped of all its inherent beauty today,” Deacon Coleman said. “It’s giving them the opportunity over these months to hopefully be prepared for Natural Family Planning so that they can welcome that.”

Practically, NFP tracks a woman’s fertility using natural biological markers inherent to the woman’s body and encourages periods of sexual abstinence between a couple when trying to avoid a pregnancy. Because the use of artificial contraception is contrary to the Church’s teachings, NFP is a way for couples to remain faithful to her teachings and ultimately experience a deeper and more fulfilling intimacy. As Deacon Coleman puts it, everything a couple learns throughout marriage prep is really to prepare for them for the successful and fruitful practice of NFP.

“Living out of the sacrament of marriage is until death. I like to use the term ‘old and wrinkly.’ We’re preparing you for that, so that you can look back after 60 years of marriage and go, ‘Wow. That’s what they mean by good times and bad, and in sickness and in health.’”

“NFP is the glue that holds it all together, because you’re living it out in a practical way,” he explained. “Marriage is not a philosophical thing. Marriage is a lived and true experience. Being able to have a lived, true experience through managing your fertility is the best way. Ask the woman, do you want your husband to talk to you more? Well, this is a perfect way. And how do we strengthen our will as well? Natural family planning teaches us to strengthen our will if we are practicing periodic abstinence.”

The strengthening of the will is just one benefit of practicing NFP that couples can reap. In addition to its being a totally natural, chemical-free and organic way of managing fertility, the best and most important benefit is the profound impact it will have on the couple’s relationship with each other as spouses, and in turn, with Christ.

“How do I live out my vocation? It’s through my body, and being free, faithful, total and fruitful with my body,” Deacon Coleman said. “NFP is allowing us to live a deeper relationship with Christ because we’re living it with our spouse. We’re really respecting the fertility of the wife and the gift of what that fertility is and also growing in greater trust of God.”

‘Old and wrinkly’

It’s understandable for marriage prep to seem intimidating and maybe even a bit overbearing for a couple seeking to get married in the Church. But the Church, in her wisdom and prudence, desires married couples both to understand and live out the covenant they’re entering into, and to do that, they need a firm foundation.

“The Church has the most beautiful and superior teaching of marriage on the planet,” Deacon Coleman said. “But if we’re placing that teaching on sand, it’ll just diffuse away. I’ve been in this ministry for a while, 18 years now, and I’ve seen couples, that when they receive it, that sand becomes rock.”

All of the elements of marriage prep — from the remote, proximate and immediate stages to the education and practice of NFP — are aimed toward one ultimate end: namely, the “’til death do us part” end.

“Living out of the sacrament of marriage is until death,” Deacon Coleman said. “I like to use the term ‘old and wrinkly.’ We’re preparing you for that, so that you can look back after 60 years of marriage and go, ‘Wow. That’s what they mean by good times and bad, and in sickness and in health.’”

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the former Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.
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