Preparation for marriage, for married and family life, is of great importance for the good of the Church. In fact, the sacrament of Marriage has great value for the whole Christian community and, in the first place, for the spouses whose decision is such that it cannot be improvised or made hastily. In the past, this preparation could count on the support of society which recognized the values and benefits of marriage. Without any difficulties or doubts, the Church protected the sanctity of marriage with the awareness that this sacrament represented an ecclesial guarantee as the living cell of the People of God. At least in the communities that were truly evangelized, the Church’s support was solid, unitary and compact. In general, separations and marriage failures were rare, and divorce was considered a social “plague” (cf. Gaudium et Spes = GS, 47).
Today, on the contrary, in many cases, we are witnessing an accentuated deterioration of the family and a certain corrosion of the values of marriage. In many nations, especially economically developed ones, the number of marriages has decreased. Marriage is usually contracted at a later age and the number of divorces and separations is increasing, even during the first years of married life. All this inevitably leads to a pastoral concern that comes up repeatedly: Are the persons contracting marriage really prepared for it? The problem of preparation for the sacrament of Marriage and the life that follows emerges as a great pastoral need, first for the sake of the spouses, for the whole Christian community and for society. Therefore, interest in, and initiatives for providing adequate and timely answers to preparation for the sacrament of Marriage are growing everywhere.
2. Through on-going contact with the Episcopal Conferences and the Bishops in various meetings, and especially their “ad limina” visits, the Pontifical Council for the Family has carefully followed the pastoral concern regarding the preparation and celebration of the sacrament of Marriage and the life that follows. The Council has been repeatedly asked to offer an instrument for the preparation of Christian engaged persons which the present document represents. The Council has also drawn on the contributions from many Apostolic Movements, Groups and Associations working for the pastoral care of the family who have offered their support, advice and experience for the preparation of these guidelines.
Marriage preparation constitutes a providential and favourable period for those oriented toward this Christian sacrament, and a KayrÃ³s, i.e., a period in which God calls upon the engaged and helps them discern the vocation to marriage and family life. The engagement period is set within the context of a rich evangelization process. In fact, questions that affect the family converge in the life of the engaged, the future spouses. They are therefore invited to understand the meaning of the responsible and mature love of the community of life and love which their family will be, a real domestic church which will contribute toward enriching the whole Church.
The importance of this preparation involves a process of evangelization which is both maturation and deepening in the faith. If the faith is weak or almost nonexistent (cf. Familiaris Consortio =FC 68), it must be revived. Thorough, patient instruction that arouses and nourishes the ardor of a living faith cannot be excluded. Especially where the environment has become paganized, it will be particularly advisable to offer a “journey of faith, which is similar to the catechumenate” (FC 66), and a presentation of the fundamental Christian truths that may help acquire or strengthen the maturity of the faith of the persons contracting marriage. It would be desirable if the favourable moment of marriage preparation could be transformed, as a sign of hope, into a New Evangelization for the future families.
3. This particular attention is highlighted by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (GS52), the guidelines of the Papal Magisterium (FC 66), the ecclesial norms themselves (Codex Iuris Canonici = CIC, can. 1063; Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium = CCEO, can. 783), the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1632), and other documents of the Magisterium, including the Charter of the Rights of the Family. The two most recent documents of the Papal Magisterium â€” the Letter to Families Gratissimam Sane and the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae(= EV) â€” constitute a notable aid for our task.
In response to repeated requests, as we have said, the Pontifical Council for the Family beganreflection on the subject by concentrating more on “preparation courses”, in line with the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. During its preparation, the present document went through the following editorial process.
In 1991, the Council dedicated its General Assembly (September 30 October 5) to the theme of preparation for the sacrament of Marriage. The Presidential Committee of the Pontifical Council for the Family and the married couples who are part of the Council offered ample material for a first draft. Later, from July 8-13, 1992, a working group was convened made up of pastors, consultors and experts who prepared a second draft which was sent to the Episcopal Conferences for their contributions and additional suggestions. A great number of responses with useful suggestions came in, and these were studied and included in a subsequent draft prepared by a working group in 1995. This Council now presents the guideline document which is offered as a basis for the pastoral work related to preparation for the sacrament of Marriage. It will be especially useful for the Episcopal Conferences in the preparation of their Directories, and also for a greater pastoral commitment in dioceses, parishes ?and apostolic movements (cf. FC 66).
4. The “Magna Carta” for families, the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, which has already been cited, had already pointed out that: “…the changes that have taken place within almost all modern societies demand that not only the family but also society and the Church should be involved in the effort of properly preparing young people for their future responsibilities. (…) The Church must therefore promote better and more intensive programmes of marriage preparation, in order to eliminate as far as possible the difficulties that many married couples find themselves in, and even more in order to favour positively the establishing and maturing of successful marriages” (FC 66).
The Code of Canon Law states that there should be “personal preparation for entering marriage, so that the spouses are disposed to the holiness and the obligations of their new state” (CICcan. 1063, 2, CCEO can. 783, Â§1). These instructions are also found in the Ordo celebrandi matrimonium 12.
In his Address to the Ninth General Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family (October 4, 1991), the Holy Father added: “The greater the difficulties caused by one’s surroundings for knowing the truth of the Christian sacrament and of the institution of marriage, all the greater must be our efforts to prepare spouses adequately for their responsibilities”. Then, with some more concrete observations regarding the courses as such, he went on to say: “You have been able to observe that, given the necessity of having such courses in parishes, in consideration of the positive results of the various methods used, it seems appropriate to start drawing up criteria to be adopted, in the form of a guide or directory, to offer the particular Churches a valuable aid”. This is all the more so because in the particular Churches, for much of “the people of life and the people for life’, the family has a decisive responsibility. This responsibility flows from its very nature as a community of life and love, founded upon marriage, and from its mission to ‘guard, reveal and communicate love'” (EV 92 and cf. FC 17).
5. For this purpose, the Pontifical Council for the Family offers this document which has as its object the preparation for the sacrament of Marriage and its celebration.
The guidelines that emerge constitute an itinerary for the remote, proximate and immediate preparation for the sacrament of Marriage (cf. FC 66). The material provided herein is addressed first of all to the Episcopal Conferences, the individual Bishops and their co-workers in the pastoral care of marriage preparation, and it is also addressed to the engaged themselves who are the object of the Church’s pastoral concern.
6. Particular pastoral attention will be given to the engaged in special situations foreseen by theCIC can. 1071, 1072 and 1125, and by the CCEO can. 789 and 814. When the guidelines presented in the document cannot be applied completely in their regard, they can still be useful in guiding and accompanying them in a fitting way.
Faithful to the will and teaching of Christ, through her own legislation the Church expresses her pastoral charity in her care for all the situations of the faithful. The criteria offered are means for providing help in a positive way and should not be understood as further, constrictive requirements.
7. The underlying doctrinal motivation that inspires this document comes from the conviction that marriage is a value that takes its origin from the Creation and that it is rooted in human nature. “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ?For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one?'” (Matthew 19: 4-5). Therefore, what the Church does for the family and marriage certainly contributes to the good of society as such and to the good of all. Furthermore, as an expression of the new life made possible by the Risen Christ, Christian marriage always expresses the truth about married love and is like a prophecy that clearly proclaims a human being’s real needs: that man and woman are called upon from the beginning to live in a communion of life and love and that this complementarity will lead to strengthening the human dignity of the spouses, the good of the children and of society itself, through “…the defence and promotion of life…everyone’s task and responsibility” (EV 91).
8. Therefore, the present document takes into consideration both the natural human realities proper to this divine institution, and the specific ones of the sacrament instituted by Christ. It isdivided into three parts:
1) The Importance of Preparation for Christian Marriage;
2) The Stages or Periods of Preparation;
3) The Celebration of Marriage.