Most of the reaction to Amoris laetitia has focused on whether and under what circumstances divorced-and-remarried Catholics might receive communion. While the attention given to this question is understandable, we should not overlook the much broader topic of marriage preparation itself, which is another fundamental pastoral concern that Pope Francis addresses in the apostolic exhortation. An experience of mine with a recently-engaged couple (I will call them John and Mary) vividly illustrates the significant pastoral implications of marriage preparation.
Both John and Mary wanted their wedding in the Catholic Church. Both were baptized. Both were raised Catholic. This would be the first marriage for both. However, neither John nor Mary were currently members of a parish, though they certainly intended to be “once their life settled down a bit.”
As John and Mary began to inquire about a Catholic wedding, many of the parishes they went to simply would not discuss possible wedding dates until they had officially registered as parishioners. Indeed, a few of the parishes stated that they would require six months of “active membership” before wedding preparation could begin and any date-setting could be entertained. “Well,” you might think, “that’s just parish policy.” However, there is another consideration: John and Mary were not unwilling to become parishioners (even active ones), but they reasonably hoped to become members of the parish where they would celebrate the sacrament of marriage.
Of course this process would be simpler if John and Mary had not drifted away from their home parishes after Confirmation, but their lives unfolded like those of many young Catholics today. They left home to go to college, moved again for graduate school, and then kept moving for first and second jobs and cheaper rents.
Getting engaged is a true turning point for young Catholic couples like John and Mary. For the first time as adults, they began to consider how their faith would shape their future lives now that they saw themselves “settling down” together. But in the meantime, without a confirmed church and date for the wedding, their attempts to finalize the caterer, photographer, and florist remained on hold. They simply couldn’t move forward.
One parish secretary accused them of “church shopping.” A pastoral associate at a different parish, during their first meeting, bluntly asked whether they were living together. The pastor of another parish said that he hesitates to allow any non-members to celebrate the sacrament of marriage there because they might not return after their wedding day.
Even if these are legitimate concerns, should they be the primary ones when a couple has deliberately presented themselves precisely to live their faith as a couple?
When Pope Francis presided at the wedding of twenty couples in St. Peter’s Basilica in 2014, commentators quickly observed that one couple already had children, some had previously been married, and others were already living together. But this inclusive welcome of young couples should not have been all that surprising given what Francis had written earlier in Evangelii guadium. In this, his first major teaching as pope, Francis acknowledged that “the Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” He also lamented that too often those entrusted with pastoral responsibility “act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.”