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Q: Pre-cana required? My fiancé and I just got engaged, and he does not want to attend marriage prep at our local parish where we’re getting married. I don’t blame him—it doesn’t get rave reviews from our friends who have taken the course. Do we technically have to take this course in order to get married in the church? Are there any alternate online options or useful Catholic marriage preparation programs that people really like?
—Engaged and confused
A: Congratulations on your engagement! To answer your specific question, whether or not you need to take part in your parish’s marriage preparation depends on your pastor and diocese. While the church wants couples to be emotionally and spiritually ready for the sacrament of marriage, it’s up to individual parishes and dioceses to determine how to accomplish this job. Some parishes require participation in a course, while others suggest a weekend retreat, counseling with a priest or a mentoring relationship with a “sponsor couple.” You’ll have to discuss the specific rules and requirements of your parish with the pastor.
Now, to editorialize a bit, I want to validate your difficult position and say, I get it. It’s a sad reality that Catholic marriage preparation has a less-than-stellar reputation, and like your fiancé, my now-husband once resisted partaking. But seven years later, I just read your question to him and he commented that he has fond memories of our preparation process. So do I.
Perhaps we both have a case of rosy retrospection, but what I think actually happened is that we gave ourselves permission to take the course with a certain degree of lightness, and instead of getting frustrated by the sub-par speakers or outdated materials, we approached the sessions as tools for sparking discussion and as hours of time devoted to discussing our relationship, our concerns about areas of difference, and our hopes for the future.
Selecting a marriage preparation book that we found appealing to read alongside the official course’s materials helped with this (we chose 1,001 Questions to Ask Before You Get Married by Monica Mendez Leahy), and so did establishing a post-pre-cana pizza date ritual. There are worse ways we could have spent time during our engagement.
Q: Accents. One of the priests at my parish has a very thick accent, so thick that I struggle to understand his homilies. Is it bad that I avoid going to the Masses he celebrates?
—Hard of Hearing
A: Confession: I once reconfigured the teen lectoring schedule at the parish where I work because one of my high school students begged to be moved to the Mass that her crush regularly attends. Who am I to get in the way of young love? In all seriousness, it’s likely that many Catholics have a gamut of influences behind their Mass attendance selection, and while some are undoubtedly more pure than others (the elderly neighbor whom you drive likes to pray the communal rosary before the 7 a.m. service vs. it’s the Mass that all your friends go to), choosing a particular Mass for a less noble reason doesn’t make you a bad person. The commandment, after all, is to honor the sabbath, and keeping the commandment doesn’t require sacrificing your Mass related desires.
That being said, I think it’s worth considering—for all of us—what it is that we seek on Sunday mornings. Is there more to Mass than the message contained in the homily? Can we be touched by the solemnity of the organ even though we prefer the folk choir? Do we need to know the faces filling the pews in order to experience a sense of community? In stretching beyond our ordinary predilections, we may be surprised by the movement of the spirit.
Q: Baptism present? My niece is being baptized this season, and I want to recognize this with a gift, but I’m not sure what’s appropriate. A lot of the options seem impersonal or dip into consumerism. Do you have any suggestions?
A: Congratulations on your niece’s upcoming baptism! It’s wonderful that baptism is a significant event for you and your family. I can tell by your question that it means more to you than a mere routine or a rite of passage. Baptism is such a beautiful sacrament and witness of God’s everlasting love for us. Of course, the greatest gift you can give your niece is the witness of your faith throughout your lives together.
However, I do understand the desire to give a gift. As you mention wanting to avoid something “impersonal” or something that trends toward “consumerism” perhaps consider making something yourself. I know for some that may sound daunting. But consider this: you are celebrating a sacrament with your niece. A sacrament is a personal encounter between ourselves and God, often utilizing creation. In this instance, water, oil, along with the symbols of a white garment, and a candle. Is there something you could make as a gift to signify your relationship with your niece?
After my grandmother died, I was given a gift she had made for me. I opened the box and found a tablecloth she had made along with a handwritten note. Those are more significant to me than anything she might have bought me because I know she made it with love with me in mind. Our relationship is woven into that tablecloth. So perhaps ponder how you might express your love for your niece through the work or your own hands. It can also be something simple that shares a meaningful aspect of your faith. Perhaps you have a favorite prayer, psalm, or passage from scripture. That could be made into something special, made with love from you to her. It will be one of a kind, just like your relationship with her.
—Father John Christman