Of my many, many shortcomings, the one I perhaps dislike most is that I am not easily impressed. It is a fault born of a blessed life, but a fault none the less. On my second and final day of pre-Cana last weekend I tried, not always successfully, to keep this in mind.
Like on the first day, all of the content was solid. Couples should be able to communicate with one another, have a shared set of expectations for how married life will be lived, and be able to formulate a budget and financial plan for themselves.
Additionally, I have nothing but praise for all of the speakers, who were a good mix of ages and conditions. Even when I wasn’t engrossed in what they were saying, it certainly was not because they were presenting it poorly. The young, attractive, clearly in love couple who spoke about their experiences with Natural Family Planning were especially effective, I think.
However, I have managed to get this far in life–not the least of which involves getting a smart, beautiful girl I don’t deserve to agree to marry me–without needing any formal training on what could be called “relationship skills.” Again, like the first day, I didn’t take a whole lot of new information away from them.
In fact, I am exactly the person our good Pope Francis spoke about when he commented that some “come to the course somewhat reluctantly: ‘But these priests make us take a course! But why? We already know…’”
On the other hand, I didn’t realize until I attended the class that my marriage would be valid, but not sacramental, since my girlfriend has never been baptized. She, likewise, was unaware that we would need lectors for the ceremony. I found these portions of the classes much more instructive.
That said, I don’t think that putting 30 or 40 couples in a room and subjecting them to hours of powerpoint presentations is really the best way to convey this information. A parish-based approach would be much preferable, especially if it is not only pre-Cana, but post-Cana as well.
I am certain that my pastor could cover some of the more “God heavy” topics, as my girlfriend called them. My parish also has a wedding coordinator who is more than capable of handling the logistics.
For the “relationship skills” sessions, Pope Francis was admittedly right when he said that “Yes, many couples are together a long time, perhaps also in intimacy, sometimes living together, but they don’t really know each other. It seems curious, but experience shows that it’s true.” I will grant him that, but I think a couple-to-couple approach, with the “benefit of the simple but intense witness of Christian spouses,” would have been more effective on several fronts.
I envision something like an engaged couple and a mentor couple attending mass together, and then going out for breakfast. Not only would a relationship between the couples be forged, but finances, communication, and the other relationship skills could also be discussed. If the Church is going to require it, a conversation over a plate of French toast sounds much more appealing than a lecture in an auditorium. More than that, I think I would retain far more from it than I did from the seventh or eighth hours of classroom training.
A few weeks later the couples could have dinner and continue their discussion. A month later they attend, purely socially, the annual parish cookout. Hopefully this pattern would continue through the engagement and even after the nuptials, drawing the newly married couple deeper into the life of the parish.
To be fair, my pastor did offer us a series of shorter meetings with him, but we chose the two day class instead. There were several reasons why, but a big one was that we could just get it out of the way. In many minds more meetings could equal more hoops to jump through, and the last thing I want to do is erect unnecessary impediments to the sacraments.
Weddings outside the church are becoming increasingly common, and I have to assume the mandatory pre-Cana courses accounts for some of that. If I, a practicing Catholic, attend only reluctantly, how are those less connected going to feel about the requirement?
With the focus placed on family life in his pontificate, Pope Francis seems to recognize the shortcomings of our current system. I don’t think we will ever come up with a perfect marriage preparation program, nor do I think there is a single best option. However, when my girlfriend rated the program higher at the end than I did, I think the Holy Father must be on to something with his call for a “new catechesis” on marriage.