A couple gets married at St. Mary of the Assumption in Kansasville, one of the Racine Kenosha County Line parishes. (Submitted photo)

This is the second in a two-part series on using Marriage Prep as an evangelization tool.

Earlier this summer, Pope Francis wrote that the Church must “walk an important stretch of road together” with couples who are seeking sacramental marriage, urging accompaniment that continues “even after the wedding, especially during moments of crisis.”

The Holy Father’s words were part of the preface he wrote to a document released June 15 by the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, which made headlines around the world and sparked a dialogue surrounding the state of marriage preparation in the modern Church.

Here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the struggle to speak both truth and love to couples seeking marriage in the Catholic Church is a real one, say those engaged in that ministry — especially if the couple is not practicing their Catholic faith at the time of their wedding.

But the best place to start is “to lead with witness and belonging,” said Emily Burds, the marriage preparation coordinator for the Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.

“We have to lead with the question of ‘why?’” she said. “‘Why do you want to get married in the Catholic faith? Why are you here?’”

“Many of the couples that come to us asking for marriage prep have a deep desire for marriage in the Church,” said Kathi Andreoni, pastoral associate at the Kenosha Racine County Line Parishes. “Often, they cannot express why they have that desire, but the desire for something better is there. They have been influenced by so many other cultural pressures. We need to offer a marriage preparation that allows them to grow from where they are in their faith formation journey.”

Peggy Lanser ministers regularly to couples preparing for marriage, both in her work at the Catholic Community of Waukesha, where she is the adult and family ministry coordinator, and in her home parish of St. Mary’s Visitation in Elm Grove, where she and her husband David are a FOCCUS facilitator couple.

As a FOCCUS facilitator couple, the Lansers welcome engaged couples into their home for fellowship, conversation and the administration of the FOCCUS inventory, a confidential 151-question inventory taken separately by the bride and the groom that is meant to facilitate conversations about crucial topics in married life.

“I think that the process of marriage preparation is one of those pivotal moments when a person is seeking the Church for a sacrament and we can respond in an evangelizing way,” said Lanser. She has met with couples of all ages and in different parts of their spiritual journey. “The bride may go to Mass every Sunday but the groom only on Christmas and Easter, or vice versa. Or both may only go to Mass on a monthly basis. Many couples pray individually but have not tried praying together as a couple. Wherever they are in their faith journey, they are all desiring a sacramental Catholic marriage, and they come to the Church to do what is needed for that. They know deep down that they want God and their faith to be the foundation of their life together.”

When approaching marriage preparation, especially with a couple who may not be well-catechized, Fr. Michael Malucha said he looks to the words of scripture: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15).

In that passage, said Fr. Malucha, the associate pastor at Holy Family Parish in Fond du Lac, the Church can find a blueprint for ministering to brides and grooms who have fallen away from the practice of the faith.

In this type of situation, the Church has to be careful not to “lower the bar so low as to seemingly promise couples who have fallen away that a sacramental marriage will be easy,” but rather “present the goodness, truth and beauty of our teachings on marriage and family life … inviting couples to participate with us in this greatest adventure, a life in Christ.”

“It might surprise many to know that those couples far from the faith either don’t consider themselves to be so or don’t know, for varied reasons, that their lives look very different from the teachings of Our Lord,” said Fr. Malucha. “For that reason, clearly and credibly and lovingly articulating the truths of our faith and the practices of the Church is always the way to proceed.”

Clearly, credibly and lovingly articulating the truths of the faith is a process that Fr. Stephen Buting finds to be most effective when it is rooted in relationship. “Whenever I can, I like to introduce couples to other couples, Catholics to other Catholics. It’s harder for people to be Catholic all by themselves,” he said.

At his parish, Lumen Christi in Mequon, Fr. Buting will meet with engaged couples around five times, including over a meal or drinks, and he also encourages them to attend a gathering of the parish’s young adult group.

Over the course of their conversations, Fr. Buting tries to get to know the couple on a personal level while going through the marriage preparation curriculum. In doing so, he tries to ascertain what aspects of the process they find beneficial, as well as what parts they find challenging.

He won’t shy away from addressing the challenging parts, he said. But that never happens until after he has first made a connection with the couple.

“I don’t tackle a subject like cohabitation in the first meeting. I don’t even typically tackle it in the second meeting,” he said. “I typically wait until I’ve at least had the chance to get to know them a little bit and have had some social engagement with them. Otherwise, it feels like it’s not going to be effective.”

Lanser takes a similar approach with her FOCCUS couples.

“I think a really important part of walking with these engaged couples and accompanying them in this short but unique marriage preparation stage is letting them know that people sincerely care about them, their faith and their life together as a married couple,” she said. “There may be times when it is necessary to communicate the Church’s stance on more sensitive topics, such as when couples are engaging in practices that are contrary to Church teaching. For instance, when a couple is living together, we have found it best to lovingly convey the reasoning and logic behind the Church’s stance and why it has been designed with our best interests at heart. We also talk about common problems when moving from living together in a non-married state to living together in a married state. There are challenges that are very unique to this scenario, and we try to help prepare them for those. We want to meet them where they are at and focus on the goodness and graces that God will bring them through this sacramental marriage that they are committing to.”

Andreoni’s parishes utilize the Witness to Love program, which pairs engaged couples with a mentor couple who will accompany them not just through marriage preparation but into the beginning of their marriage.

“We need to understand that many engaged couples do not understand their Catholic faith, and they have been influenced by many outside factors,” said Andreoni. “As a response to this, we need to guide them with love back to the Church because God loves them and desires them to be in union with him.”

In the Witness to Love program, engaged couples choose their own mentor couple, and they will meet frequently throughout marriage preparation and beyond, which helps them to “gain a sense of family and parish life that continues after their marriage,” she said.

Andreoni said that the Witness to Love program reflects Pope Francis’ call for “more space to be given in communities to the active presence of spouses as spouses, as agents of marriage ministry, and not just as individual believers.”

“The mentoring process allows for effectively meeting the needs of individual couples who might need more understanding of cohabitation or to evangelize those that have fallen away from the Church,” she said. “We can express our desire for wanting them to be with us to complete our parish community.”