In the midst of a culture that no longer views marriage as the lifelong bond between one man and one woman, the Catholic Church is holding the line.
What does that mean for couples seeking a sacramental marriage in Alaska?
PREPARATION IS KEY
Spiritually, “Marriage is a sign of Christ’s unbreakable love for his people,” according to the Archdiocesan Office of Marriage and Family Life.
To begin this journey the Anchorage Archdiocese has couples embark on a minimum six-month preparation period. This includes determining a couple’s readiness and helping them prepare for a truly sacramental marriage.
Deacon Mick Fornelli, who works with engaged couples in Anchorage, said it is important that couples commit to dialogue from the point of their engagement and throughout marriage.
These commitments are especially crucial when faced with the reality of a culture which views marriage as optional and dissolvable when the going gets tough.
It is Deacon Fornelli’s hope that proper preparation can elevate and deepen a couple’s understanding of marriage.
Once a couple is engaged, their parish clergy will direct them towards a series of meetings, which Deacon Fornelli says are at minimum 12-15 hours of concentrated conversation. Additionally, couples are directed to attend an Engaged Encounter weekend and receive training in Natural Family Planning — the church’s teaching on being open to new life within the marriage act.
It’s important that couples understand the magnitude of their commitment, Deacon Fornelli emphasized.
“(It) is not a learner’s permit,” he said. “We must express that this is a full, complete state of affection, entered into with free consent.”
With much higher divorce and cohabitation rates than several generations ago, Deacon Fornelli said marriage preparation is more important now than in the past.
“A priest of bygone era may have baptized both parties to the marriage, maybe even baptized their parents,” he observed. This depth of familiarity and expectation of stability meant that parishes saw less need for formal marriage preparation.
Pope Francis spoke in February to parish priests, expressing concern for the state of marriage preparation.
“I ask myself how many of these youth who come to marriage preparation courses understand what ‘marriage,’ the sign of the union of Christ and the church, means,” the pope said.
Engaged Encounter, which is held twice a year in Anchorage, walks prospective bride and groom through the realities of marriage. Mentor couple Chris and Jennifer Robertson of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in south Anchorage assist couples in this process.
“I would say for couples, the biggest issue for their relationship is finances,” Jennifer Robertson said.
“I think it’s harder in our society that emphasizes individualism, meeting your own needs, depending on only yourself, and so on,” she said. “That’s a very different model than what the Catholic Church teaches and what we present at the weekend.”
Working out differences is another challenge for couples, she noted. They have to “decide that they’re willing to be an active part of working out a given issue. You can’t make someone care that you’re irritated.”
While it is not mandatory in the Archdiocese of Anchorage for couples to attend Engaged Encounter, parishes are strongly encouraged to use the program for marriage preparation.
Once a couple actually takes the vows and enters married life, the church recognizes that ongoing formation is important.
To this end, Marriage Encounter is a worldwide ministry aimed at strengthening and affirming marriage for couples as they grow together.
Deacon Bill and Sherry Tunilla, of Holy Cross Church in Anchorage, have coordinated Marriage Encounter locally for 13 years.
According to Sherry, the weekend is an intense period of reflection featuring 13 talks. It is not group therapy but offers a format with topics for the couples to ponder in privacy. It doesn’t include any public sharing. The retreats include a presiding priest who hears confessions and celebrates Mass.
Monthly follow-up gatherings are offered for fellowship and ongoing affirmation of marriage in all its stages.
“When you’re facing things with teenagers or other milestones, there are familiar couples who say, ‘you can get through this and grow through these phases of marriage,’” Sherry Tunilla said.
“We are called — man and woman — to make God visible to the world through our marriages,” she said, noting that many couples get so busy they wind up living separate lives, “which ultimately makes it easier to walk away.”
She noted that it is important for couples to prioritize their domestic church — the life of faith and prayer in the home.