New Marriage Prep Program Debuts
by David Gibson
Couples in the “Fully Engaged” marriage-preparation program developed by the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., and fully initiated there at this start of this year typically meet four or more times with a trained mentor or mentor-couple to discuss key issues in married life.
“The mission of ‘Fully Engaged’ is to help engaged couples solidify the foundation upon which they, together with Christ, will build their sacrament of marriage,” the diocese says. It points out that “at a time when marriage is increasingly challenged by the surrounding culture, the Catholic Church affirms the goodness and dignity of marriage.”
Interestingly, the “Fully Engaged” program does not conclude with a couple’s wedding. After a couple marries, each spouse receives a series of monthly e-newsletters designed to help their “marriage mature into the life-giving sacrament that Christ desires for them.”
A central component of “Fully Engaged” is the pre-marriage inventory the diocese developed, coupling questions related to Catholic faith and identity with the other types of questions customarily found in such inventories on finances, or handling conflict, or family-of-origin issues, for example. St. Cloud’s pre-marriage inventory is intended for use by mentors with engaged couples as a catechetical and teaching tool in what is, a spokesperson explained, “a sacramental marriage-preparation program.”
In the Diocese of St. Cloud, couples participating in “Fully Engaged” also attend a weekend marriage course coordinated and run by the diocese’s Marriage and Family Life Office. That course covers such topics as the foundations of marriage, married love, faith, sexuality, natural family planning, communication and hidden issues.
After a first meeting with their pastor to discuss their desire to wed, an engaged man and woman each fills out the pre-marriage inventory. Afterward, each receives a copy of the “Fully Engaged Couple’s Workbook” covering topics to explore when they meet with their mentor or mentor-couple. A mentor may be a priest, deacon or trained sponsor couple.
The diocese tells couples that the pre-marriage inventory “is not a test to determine whether you can marry in the Catholic Church. It is strictly a tool that will be used as a guide for facilitating discussion on areas that are important to married life.”
In completing the inventory, each partner individually expresses agreement or disagreement with statements related to the dynamics of their personal relationship, faith, personality differences, priorities, recreational activities or the special issues that arise in the marriage of a Catholic and non-Catholic.
The inventory’s 169 statements challenge the man and woman to reflect on whether their faith “is equally important to both” of them and whether each of them sees Christ in the other’s “words and actions.”
Statements about natural family planning and church teaching on contraception are included, along with statements related to the meaning of marriage such as, “We understand that when we exchange our vows, we are entering into a life-long covenant.”
Anger, the handling of money, how a man and woman speak to each other and numerous other issues related to married life are raised in the pre-marriage inventory. For example, the couple are asked whether they believe “marriage will be an ongoing effort” and even if they have discussed how they will divide up household tasks.
The “Fully Engaged” workbook’s 14 chapters invite the couple “to explore, both individually and together, specific areas that are central to a loving and life-giving sacramental marriage.”
Results of the inventory are used together with the workbook during the series of meetings the couple has with their mentor or mentor couple, whose task is to “lead discussion regarding areas of agreement and difference.” A “Fully Engaged” facilitator’s guide advises mentors that during these meetings “the focus should always remain on the engaged couple” — their good, their needs.
The pre-marriage inventory’s purpose, the facilitator’s guide explains, “is to stimulate discussion between the couple on areas that:
“1. May be difficult to them to talk about.
“2. They may not be aware of.
“3. They agree on, which provides a format for the facilitator(s) to affirm them on some of the decisions they have already made.”
Handling conflict is a topic likely to arise during a mentor-couple meeting. Couples are encouraged to recognize that “not all conflicts can be resolved” but that “coming to a point where mutual respect is possible, even when opinions differ, is essential.”
“Never make your spouse the problem; make the problem the problem,” says the “Fully Engaged” program. It invites couples to ask what they have been doing with their conflicts “up to this point” and whether God is calling them “to do anything different” with their conflicts.
The meaning of “intimacy” is another area of concern. “When we speak of ‘intimacy’ we mean familiarity, closeness, relationship, understanding, confidence. This may be different from how people usually think of ‘intimacy,’” the couple’s workbook comments. It says, “Christian teaching explains that as a person, you are not only a physical body, but also a body-soul unity, which encompasses feelings, hopes and dreams, beliefs, will, experience and conscience.”
The workbook adds: “To some people it seems like the Catholic Church says no to everything regarding sexual intercourse. In reality, what the church says no to are the influences that harm your relationship and prevent you from growing into the fullness of intimacy… that God desires for you.”
By inviting couples to reflect upon so many “areas that are central to harmonious and life-giving sacramental marriage,” the “Fully Engaged” program challenges them to improve communication and grow in “their relationship, spirituality and faith.” It says to couples, “You will take home with you skills so you can begin your marriage with the tools that will make a faithful, life-long commitment possible.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.