As FOCCUS facilitators, Julianne and George Archibald lead with the witness of their own 55 -year marriage. (Submitted photo)
This is the first in a two-part series on using marriage prep as an evangelization tool.
According to Emily Burds, the Marriage Preparation Coordinator for the Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, the majority of couples who are being married in the Catholic parishes of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee today would qualify as “unchurched” — one of them baptized and perhaps confirmed, but not affiliated with a parish and not actively practicing the faith.
They are often unacquainted with Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage. In their world, contraception, cohabitation and divorce is the norm.
But they, nevertheless, find themselves at a Catholic church, seeking the sacrament of marriage.
The couples Burds encounters are “seeking something good” for their marriage, she said — and they are drawn to that goodness in Catholicism.
That’s a huge opportunity for the Church, she added.
“I would say these couples probably have a lot of questions they haven’t had answered about the Church — but also (they) aren’t asking them, or don’t know how to ask them,” said Burds. “They probably haven’t heard the word ‘sacrament’ in a really long time.”
All of this makes the marriage preparation required by the Church all the more crucial, but it also frames it in an evangelical lens, begging the question: what if we viewed marriage preparation as a means to save the souls of a generation who might otherwise be lost to their Catholic faith?
“So much of (effective marriage preparation) is leading with witness and leading with belonging,” said Burds. “We have to lead with the question of ‘why’ — ‘why do you want to get married in the Catholic faith? Why are you here?’”
When George and Julie Archibald were married in the Catholic Church 55 years ago, their decision was hardly countercultural. But, as a mentor couple for their parish, the Basilica of St. Josaphat, they know the soon-to-be brides and grooms they meet today are facing a very different world.
“The ability of the society to promote a certain code of personal behavior can be overwhelming, especially if more thoughtful options are not even presented,” said George Archibald. “In our formative years, we were not faced with this level of persuasion and it was easier to accept a lifestyle producing a 55-year marriage.”
The Archibalds meet with couples preparing for marriage and administer the premarital FOCCUS Inventory, which is designed to facilitate crucial conversations on topics that will impact married life, including everything from finances to domestic responsibilities and even sexuality.
The Archibalds are not spiritual directors or marriage counselors, but for young soon-to-be husbands-and-wives, they are something perhaps more compelling: mentors who are willing to listen without judgment, and a living witness to the power of a sacramental marriage in the Church.
With just 22 percent of couples opting to hold their wedding in a church, according to data released in 2020 by popular wedding planning website The Knot (https://www.wedinsights.com/report/the-knot-real-weddings), there is no doubt that religious weddings are on the decline in the United States. Burds noted that most of the parishes in the archdiocese who have busy wedding schedules also boast historic architecture or are located close to popular reception venues.
“It’s so easy to judge these couples as unchurched, thinking all they want is the pretty thing, convenient and just using the space. But most of these couples don’t actually know that that isn’t how they should be doing it,” she said. “Nobody has invited them into a relationship with Jesus. Nobody’s asked them what they believe. Nobody’s said, ‘Hey, we would love to see you back at Mass here, because we would love to journey with you in this amazing thing called marriage.’”
The Archibalds endeavor to do that, in whatever way they can.
“We trust the Holy Spirit to give us the words they need to hear,” said Julie Archibald. “We are very thankful that they’re getting married in the Catholic Church, and when they do ask us for advice I always tell them to put Christ at the center of all you do, and you’ll be good to go.”
Relaying the truth of Catholic teaching, Burds said, is a lot like throwing a perfect pass down a football field. “Tom Brady might have the perfect throw, but I can’t catch the football if no one teaches me how to catch it. I’ll just get a bloody nose and walk the other way.”
But, what if marriage preparation was a place for them to learn to catch the football?
“What if we cared so much that we wanted these couples to know Jesus? That as much as we love our parishioners, we want these non-parishioners to also have a great experience of the Eucharist on Sunday, and we want them to sit by a family that’s going to take them for brunch afterward, and teach them about being Catholic?” said Burds. “This preparation could actually be for their salvation.”