ROME—In his annual speech to the Vatican judges, Pope Francis skipped his usual call for an improved marriage annulment process to ask for a stronger focus on the roots of the problem: Inadequate marriage preparation, and the lack of a support system for young married couples.
After avid discussion regarding his document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, focused almost solely on chapter eight, which addresses the situation of those in “irregular” situations such as divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics, the pope is attempting to guide the conversation towards other issues, such as preventing broken families in the first place.
Hence on Saturday, Francis decided to call for a “new catechumenate” in preparation for marriage, arguing that just like adult converts need to prepare themselves for the Sacrament of Baptism, so should those who want to enter the Sacrament of Marriage.
“Preparation for marriage should become an integral part of the whole process of the Sacrament of Marriage, as an antidote that would stop the multiplication of marriages that are null or inconsistent,” Francis said.
The Argentine pontiff has often spoken of the need for the Church to improve the marriage preparation process. In 2016, when giving improvised remarks to a community in Italy, he went as far as to say that the “great majority” of sacramental marriages today are invalid.
Although the Vatican later redacted his words – with Francis’s consent – to “a part,” he didn’t abandon the substance of his point.
“Because they [young people] say ‘yes, for the rest of my life!’ but they don’t know what they are saying,” the pope had said at the time as a way of explanation. “Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know.”
Often attacked by critics who claim the pope disregards his predecessors’ teaching on the family, most of Saturday’s address to the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s main court, was guided by quotes from Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, an apostolic exhortation the Polish pope wrote in 1981 after a synod of bishops on the family, much like Francis’s Amoris Laetitia.
Addressing the Rota to mark the beginning of the judicial year, the pontiff said he wanted to talk about the relationship between marriage and faith: “The further away man gets from the perspective of faith, the more so ‘the human being runs the risk of failure and ends up in the condition of the fool,’” Francis said, quoting John Paul’s 1998 Fides et Ratio (Faith and reason).
“Love needs truth,” the pope insisted, quoting instead from Benedict XVI to say that if love is not based on truth, it cannot last over time, as it is incapable of overcoming the ephemeral.
Without being rooted in truth, both popes insisted, love “is subject to changing feelings and does not stand the test of time.”
In his remarks, Francis acknowledged that the experiences of faith of those who today are entering a Catholic marriage is very diverse: from those who have an active faith life to those who have no faith whatsoever.
Faced with this situation, the pope insisted, the Church needs to “find valid remedies.”
The first, according to Francis, is for structures within the church, at a parish-community level, to redouble their efforts when it comes to preparing young couples for marriage.
This path, he said, is adequate when “it leads to rediscovering marriage and family according to God’s design.” The purpose of a good marriage preparation is “helping engaged couples to know and to live the reality of marriage that they intend to celebrate, so they can do so not only validly and lawfully, but also fruitfully.”
The second remedy Francis gave was helping newlyweds to continue the journey of faith after the wedding celebration.
“You need to identify, with courage and creativity, a training project for young married couples, with initiatives aimed at increasing awareness of the sacrament received,” the pope told the judges.
The Christian community, he said, is called to welcome, accompany and help young couples, offering appropriate opportunities and tools, including participation in Sunday Mass and pastoral programs.
“Often the young couple are left to themselves,” perhaps because they’re nowhere to be seen in the parish, something which the pope said happens often after the birth of a child. However, it’s precisely during those first steps in family life that “greater proximity and strong spiritual support” are needed.
A suggestion Francis gave are “reference groups” with which young couples can share a path of lifelong learning, sharing not only their faith but also the struggles of family life.
“Dear brothers, as I’ve said several times, great courage is needed to get married in the times we live in,” he said in closing. “And those who have the strength and the joy of taking this important step must feel next to them the concrete affection and closeness of the Church.”