Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage

Pontifical Council for the Family, Vatican City State, May 13, 1996

Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo
President of the Pontifical Council for the Family

Most. Rev. Francisco Gil Hellin

Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage


1. 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 Kayrs, 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 (GS 52), 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 - the Letter to Families Gratissimam Sane and the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae (= EV) - constitute a notable aid for our task.

In response to repeated requests, as we have said, the Pontifical Council for the Family began reflection 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" (cf. 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" (CIC can. 1063, 2, CCEO can. 783, 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 the CIC 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 is divided into three parts:

1) The Importance of Preparation for Christian Marriage;

2) The Stages or Periods of Preparation;

3) The Celebration of Marriage.

I - The Importance of Preparation for Christian Marriage

9. The starting point for an itinerary of marriage preparation is the awareness that the marriage covenant was taken up and raised to a sacrament of the New Covenant by the Lord Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The sacrament joins the spouses to the self-giving love of Christ the Bridegroom for the Church, his Bride (cf. Ephesians 5: 25-32) by making them the image of, and sharers in this love. It makes them give praise to the Lord, it sanctifies the conjugal union and the life of the Christian faithful who celebrate it, and gives rise to the Christian family, the domestic church, the "first and living cell of society" (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 11), and the "sanctuary of life" (EV 92 and also 6, 88, 94). Therefore, the sacrament is celebrated and lived in the heart of the New Covenant, i.e. the paschal mystery. It is Christ, the Bridegroom in our midst (cf. Gratissimam Sane, 18; Matthew 9: 15), who is the source of its energies. Therefore, Christian couples and families are neither isolated nor alone.

For Christians, marriage, which has its origin in God the Creator, also implies a real vocation to a particular state and a life of grace. In order to be brought to its maturation, this vocation requires adequate, particular preparation and a specific path of faith and love, all the more so because this vocation is given to a couple for the good of the Church and society. This has all the meaning and strength of a public commitment made before God and society that goes beyond individual limits.

10. As a community of life and love, both as a natural divine institution and a sacrament, marriage always possesses a source of formidable energies (cf. FC 43), no matter what difficulties there may be. Through the witness of the spouses, marriage can become Good News, contributing greatly to the new evangelization, and ensuring the future of society. However, these energies must be discovered, appreciated and enhanced by the spouses themselves and by the ecclesial community in the period preceding the celebration of marriage that constitutes its preparation.

Many dioceses around the world are making efforts to find forms for an increasingly effective marriage preparation. Many positive experiences have been passed on to the Pontifical Council for the Family. No doubt these experiences will be consolidated more and more and provide valid assistance if they are known and appreciated within the Episcopal Conferences and by each Bishop in the pastoral care of the local Churches.

What is called Preparation in this document includes a broad and thorough process of education for married life which must be considered in the totality of its values. This is why if the current psychological and cultural situation is taken into consideration, marriage preparation represents an urgent need. In fact, preparation is educating for the respect and care for life which, in the Sanctuary of families, must become a real and proper culture of human life in all its manifestations and stages for those who are part of the people of life and for life (cf. EV 6, 78, 105). The very reality of marriage is so rich that it first requires a process of sensitization so that the engaged will feel the need to prepare themselves for it. Therefore, pastoral care of the family should direct its best efforts towards qualifying that preparation, also making use of pedagogical and psychological aids that have a sound orientation.

In another document published recently (December 8, 1995) by the Pontifical Council for the Family entitled, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education Within the Family, the Council tries to help families in their task of educating their children with regard to sexuality.

11. Lastly, because of the present circumstances which were mentioned earlier, the Church's concern has become more urgent with regard to marriage preparation. On the one hand, the recovery of values and some important aspects of marriage and the family can be observed together with the flourishing of joyful testimonies by countless Christian spouses and families. However, on the other hand, the number of persons is increasing who ignore or reject the riches of marriage with a form of mistrust that goes so far as to doubt or reject its goods and values (cf. GS 48). Today we see with alarm the spread of a "culture" or a mentality that has lost heart with regard to the family as a necessary value for spouses, children and society. Some attitudes and some measures envisaged in laws do not help the family based on marriage and even deny its rights. As a matter of fact, a secularized atmosphere has been spreading in different parts of the world which especially affects young people and subjects them to the pressure of a secularized environment in which one ends up losing the meaning of God and consequently the deep meaning of spousal love and the family as well. Is it not denying the truth of God to shut out the very origin and source of this intimate mystery? (cf. GS 22). The negation of God in its different forms often includes the rejection of the institutions and structures which are part of God's plan, and which have been laid down since Creation (cf. Matthew 19: 3ss). As a result, everything is interpreted as being the fruit of human will andor consensus that can change.

12. In countries where the process of de-Christianization is more prevalent, the disturbing crisis of moral values stands out, in particular, the loss of the identity of marriage and the Christian family and hence the meaning of engagement. In addition to these losses, there is a crisis of values within the family itself to which a climate of widespread and even legalized permissiveness contributes. This is greatly encouraged by the communications media that present contrary models as if they were real values. What seems to be a cultural fabric is formed, offered to the new generations as an alternative to the concept of conjugal life and marriage, its sacramental value, and its links with the Church.

Phenomena which confirm these situations and reinforce such a culture are connected with new lifestyles which devalue the human dimensions of the contracting parties with disastrous consequences for the family. These include sexual permissiveness, the decrease in marriages or their continuous postponement, the increase in divorces, the contraceptive mentality, the spread of deliberate abortion, the spiritual void and deep dissatisfaction which contribute to the spread of drugs, alcoholism, violence and suicide among young people and adolescents.

In other areas of the world, situations of underdevelopment including extreme poverty and misery, as well as the simultaneous presence of cultural elements against or outside the Christian vision make both the stability of the family and building up an in-depth education in Christian love difficult and precarious.

13. Permissive laws contribute toward aggravating the situation with all their force in forging a mentality that harms families (cf. EV 59) with regard to divorce, abortion and sexual freedom. Many means of communication1 spread and help strengthen a climate of permissiveness and form what seems to be a cultural fabric that impedes young people from their normal growth in the Christian faith, their ties with the Church, and their discovery of the sacramental value of marriage and the requirements derived from its celebration. It is true that education for marriage has always been necessary, but a Christian culture made its formulation and assimilation easier. Today this is sometimes more arduous and more urgent.

14. For all these reasons, in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio - which brings together the results of the 1980 Synod on the Family - His Holiness John Paul II indicates that "More than ever necessary in our times is preparation of young people for marriage and family life" ( FC 66). He urges the promotion of "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" (Ibid.).

Along the same lines, and in order to respond in an organic way to the current threats and demands, it seems timely for the Episcopal Conferences to publish with some urgency "a Directory for the Pastoral Care of the Family" (Ibid.). In such Directories, the elements considered necessary for a more incisive pastoral care should be sought and delineated which aim at recovering the Christian identity of marriage and the family so that the family itself will succeed in being a community of persons at the service of human life and the faith, the first and living cell of society, a believing and evangelizing community, a real "domestic church, centre of communion and ecclesial service" (Ibid.), "summoned to proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life" (EV 92, and also 28, 78, 79, 105).

15. Given the importance of the theme, and aware of the different initiatives which have been made in this direction by not a few Episcopal Conferences and many diocesan Bishops, the Pontifical Council for the Family extends the invitation to continue in this pastoral service with renewed commitment. The Episcopal Conferences have prepared useful material that can contribute to marriage preparation and following up family life. In continuity with the directives of the Apostolic See, the Pontifical Council offers these starting points for reflection with exclusive reference to one part of the above-mentioned Directory: that related to preparation for the sacrament of Marriage. Hence this part of the directory can be more useful in delineating and developing those aspects which are necessary for the proper preparation for marriage and Christian family life.

16. Alive in the tradition of the Church and deepened by the Magisterium, the Word of God stresses that marriage for Christian spouses implies a response to God's vocation and the acceptance of the mission to be a sign of God's love for all the members of the human family, by partaking in the definitive covenant of Christ with the Church. Therefore, spouses become cooperators with the Creator and Saviour in the gift of love and life. Hence Christian marriage preparation can be described as a journey of faith which does not end with the celebration of marriage but continues throughout family life. Therefore, our perspective does not close with marriage as an act, at the moment of its celebration, but is on-going. This is why preparation is also a "special opportunity for the engaged to rediscover and deepen the faith received in Baptism and nourished by their Christian upbringing. In this way they come to recognize and freely accept their vocation to follow Christ and to serve the Kingdom of God in the married state" ( FC 51).

The Bishops are aware of the urgent and indispensable need to propose and articulate specific formation programmes in developing a process of Christian formation that is gradual and continuous (cf. Ordo celebrandi matrimonium, 15). In fact, it will useful to recall that real preparation is directed toward a conscious and free celebration of the sacrament of Marriage. However, this celebration is the source and expression of more binding and permanent implications.

17. From the experience of many pastors and educators it appears that the engagement period can be a time of mutual discovery but also of a deepening of faith. Therefore, it is a period of special supernatural gifts for personal and interpersonal spirituality. Unfortunately, for many, this period which is intended for human and Christian maturation, can be disturbed by an irresponsible use of sexuality which does not help spousal love to mature and, therefore, some make a kind of apologia for premarital relations.

The successful outcome of the engaged couple's deepening in the faith is also conditioned by their previous formation. On the other hand, the way in which this period is lived will certainly have an influence on their future life as spouses and as a family. From this comes the decisive importance of the help offered to the engaged by their respective families and the whole ecclesial community. This also consists in prayer. In this regard, the blessing of the engaged which is foreseen in the De benedictionibus (nos. 195-214) is significant, in which the signs of this initial commitment are mentioned: the ring, the exchange of gifts and other customs (nos. 209-210). In any case, the human depth of the engagement should be recognized and saved from any commonplace approach.

Therefore, both the riches of marriage and the sacrament of Marriage, and the decisive importance of the engagement period-which today is often extended for years (with the various kinds of difficulties that this implies), are reasons which call for the particular solidity of this formation.

18. It follows that the diocesan and parochial programming - with pastoral plans that give priority to the pastoral care of the family which enriches the whole of ecclesial life - presupposes that the formative task will find its proper place and development and that, between the dioceses and in the framework of the Episcopal Conferences, the best experiences can be evaluated and passed on in an exchange of pastoral experiences. It also seems important to know what forms of catechesis and education are given to adolescents regarding the various types of vocation and Christian love, what programmes are prepared for the engaged, the ways in which married couples who are more mature in the faith are included in this formation, as well as the best experiences aimed at creating a spiritual and cultural environment that is suitable for young people heading for marriage.

19. In the formation process, according to what is also referred to in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, three stages or principal periods must be distinguished in marriage preparation: remote, proximate and immediate.

The particular goals of each stage will be achieved if - in addition to the fundamental human qualities and the basic truths of the faith - the engaged will also learn about the principal theological and liturgical content that marks the different phases of preparation. As a result, in the effort to adapt their life to those values, the engaged will acquire the true formation that prepares them for married life.

20. Marriage preparation must be set within the urgent need to evangelize culture - by permeating it to its roots (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, 19) - in everything that concerns the institution of marriage: making the Christian spirit penetrate minds and behaviour, as well as the laws and structures of the community where Christians live (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2105). This preparation, both implicitly and explicitly, constitutes one aspect of evangelization, so much so that it can deepen the strength of the Holy Father's affirmation: "The family is the heart of the New Evangelization" ( … ). The preparation itself "is a responsibility which first concerns married couples, called to be givers of life, on the basis of an ever greater awareness of the meaning of procreation as a unique event which clearly reveals that human life is a gift received in order then to be given as a gift" (EV 92).

In addition to religious values, abundant good and values that strengthen solidarity, respect, justice and forgiveness in personal and collective relations flow from marriage as the foundation of the family. In turn, the family, based on marriage, expects from society "a recognition of its identity and an acceptance of its status as a subject in society" (Gratissimam Sane, 17), and therefore to become "the heart of the civilization of love" (Ibid., 13).

The whole diocese should be involved in this task and offer the proper support. The ideal would be to create a diocesan Commission for marriage preparation, including a group for the pastoral care of the family, composed of married couples with parish experience, movements and experts.

The task of this diocesan Commission would be formation, follow-up and coordination, in collaboration with centres on various levels involved in this service. The Commission should in turn be formed by networks of teams of chosen lay persons who work together in marriage preparation in a broad sense and not only in the courses. It should have the help of a coordinator, normally a priest, representing the bishop. If the coordination is entrusted to a lay person or a couple, a priest's assistance would be advisable.

All of this should enter into the organizational context of the diocese with its corresponding structures, such as possible areas headed by an Episcopal Vicar and vicars forane.

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