Less than half of marriage-minded single Catholics strongly believe that it’s important to get married in the Church, according to a 2007 survey by Georgetown University. Women care about it more than men. But even weekly mass attendance doesn’t exert an irresistible influence on people’s decision where and how to get married—only 58% of weekly mass-goers consider it very important to get married in the Church. Since it’s not valid to get married outside the Church without a special dispensation, more than 5,000 annulments per year have been granted to those opting for a non-Church wedding.
If you’re Catholic, why not get married validly in the Church? Some people get overwhelmed by what they see as too many requirements and paperwork. I remember a friend of mine in law school expressing frustration with having to gather so many documents (like Certificates of Baptism, etc.). His complaint made no sense to me, since dealing with paperwork is what lawyers do! But I could see how that might drive some people towards a civil wedding.
Here’s the thing, though—civil marriage may come with less paperwork, but it also comes with less support. Take pre-Cana marriage preparation classes, for example. Pre-Cana classes not only prepare you for a sacrament, but also introduce you to other couples who are on the same journey and share the same values. If you’re lucky enough to find a weekly small-group class in a nearby parish, a supportive community starts forming as you gather each week together, listening to each couple sharing the stories of the prayers they said to find each other and the sacrifices they’ve already made to keep each other.
After you’re married, these women may be the ones to congratulate you warmly if you get pregnant on your honeymoon, or to remind you that criticizing your husband in public helps neither of you. These men may be the ones to tell you that you can spend less time at work and more time with your wife. They may be the ones to invite you to a baseball game instead of a strip club. The priest who counsels you in pre-Cana may be the one to hear your confessions when you hurt each other, or advise you to keep trying when you think you can’t go on.
Pre-Cana tools like the FOCCUS questionnaire help you talk to each other about the issues you haven’t gotten to yet, and even the issues you’re downright avoiding. One of the most famous pre-Cana legends circulating around is about how the engaged couples were told to sit back to back and hold up a number of fingers for how many children they each wanted. One woman held up five fingers while her fiancé held up zero, and they were both surprised! What my husband and I have learned through teaching pre-Cana is that there are a surprising number of crucial issues many couples don’t discuss until prompted. The marriage prep process encourages you to communicate with your fiancé about expectations and potential pitfalls that might otherwise have stayed hidden.
Many dioceses offer or require Natural Family Planning (NFP) classes as part of marriage preparation, too. NFP classes help you communicate with each other about your sexuality. The woman gains a greater knowledge of her fertility while the man helps her to interpret and chart the signs she observes. NFP can help detect, diagnose and control common women’s health problems, such as PMS, hormonal abnormalities, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (which affects up to 5 million American women). Possible fertility problems can also be detected and resolved before the wedding—a special help for older couples wanting to conceive right away. And even though some couples want to stay totally open to life and don’t think they would ever need to use NFP, you never know when financial or health problems might strike. It’s very helpful to learn NFP before you’ll ever need it.
But the top reason to get married in the Catholic Church is to open yourself up to receive a powerful flood of graces that will sustain your marriage in its darkest moments. Only a sacramental wedding in a church, blessed by a priest and witnessed by the faithful, can become a channel of grace into your married life. Single life can really be hard. As Our Lord said in the garden, it is not good to be alone. But married life—the exquisitely challenging and almost painful process of turning two into one—is so difficult that it requires a sacrament.
Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Matrimony at the Wedding of Cana where he performed his first miracle, turning water into wine. Everyone was at the party having a good time—as they should, because God wants us to be happy—but in the back room, the wine was running dry. Who noticed? Our Blessed Mother, who has a special and tender love for families.
And who lavished the miraculous gift of superabundant grace and love in the form of wine on the husband and wife on their wedding day? Jesus did and he is waiting for you both on the altar.
Karee Santos will offer online marriage retreats February 3-4 and 10-11. The retreat is available for individuals or couples and explains the Church’s beautiful teaching on marriage. Morning and evening retreat sessions are available. For more details or to register, please visit Can We Cana?