Planning Your Catholic Wedding
Preparing for a lifelong marriage
After you contact your parish to make arrangements for your marriage, you will most likely be asked to enroll in some sort of formal marriage preparation program. Here's what to expect.
While many engaged couples focus on preparing for the wedding day, the Church encourages them to spend their engagement preparing for a strong, lifelong marriage—and the responsibilities and challenges that come with it.
Some couples view the Church’s marriage preparation requirements as an unfair burden; they “just want to get married.” But according to one study, most couples (nearly 94 percent) who completed a marriage preparation program found it to be a valuable experience, especially in the early years of marriage (see "For Your Marriage"). There is also growing evidence that marriage preparation programs significantly reduce the risk of divorce.
Marriage preparation programs take different forms, but they all aim to help couples talk about issues that may not have come up while they were dating, such as finances, raising kids, chores, family backgrounds, conflict resolution, and gender roles. Marriage preparation programs also supply couples with proven strategies for overcoming tough times.
The formal marriage preparation process varies from parish to parish, but it usually involves one or more of the following ingredients:
- a pre-marriage relationship inventory such as FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding & Study) or PREPARE (Premarital Preparation and Relationship Enhancement)
- a weekend retreat for engaged couples, or alternatively, a series of weekly evening marriage preparation meetings (such as Pre-Cana or Engaged Encounter)
- a course in natural family planning (NFP)
- marriage preparation sessions with a married couple who act as mentors
- marriage preparation sessions with a priest, deacon, or lay minister
Inter-faith couples (a Catholic marrying someone who practices a religion other than Christianity) may wish to spend extra time exploring issues around their different faith traditions during the marriage preparation process; fortunately, there are many resources available to help. See the "Inter-faith marriage resources" section of the "For more information" heading below.
Following is a brief overview of the first three types of marriage preparation.
Most Catholic parishes will require you to complete a pre-marriage inventory as part of the marriage preparation process. These inventories typically involve a series of questions that each person answers individually; usually they take about an hour to complete. Although they look like a test, there is no "wrong" answer: the inventories simply take a snapshot of each person's experiences, attitudes, and beliefs. As the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy points out, "The accuracy of the results depends on the honesty and insight of the partners when they answered the questions."
There are several popular pre-marriage inventories:
- FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding & Study)
- PREPARE (Premarital Preparation and Relationship Enhancement)
- PMI (Pre-Marital Inventory)
- FACET (Foundations Applied Conversation and Education Tool)
Each of these inventories work on the same basic principle. Researchers have identified several dozen factors that predict future marital satisfaction—things like individual personality traits (e.g., emotional health, values, attitudes, and beliefs); couple traits (e.g., couple communication and conflict resolution skills, degree of acquaintance, similarity of values and goals); and personal and relationship contexts (e.g., family background characteristics, age at marriage, and parents' and friends' approval of the relationship). By analyzing each person's responses to questions about these factors, the organization that created the inventory can provide couples with a personalized map of the issues they most need to focus on during the marriage preparation process.
Pre-Cana is the name many parishes and dioceses give to their marriage preparation program; the exact format varies, but it usually involves a day-long or weekend retreat, or a series of short sessions; typically, sessions are led by a team that might include a priest or deacon, married Catholic couples, and possibly a religious brother or sister. (Cana is the name of the town in which Jesus attended a wedding; see John 2:1-11.) The Pre-Cana team generally presents on various topics, from the spirituality of marriage to more practical issues. Time is usually provided for couples to discuss these issues themselves.
Catholic Engaged Encounter is a weekend retreat for couples engaged to be married in the Catholic Church. It is led by a team of married couples and a priest who present on topics such as ambitions, goals, attitudes about God, sex, money, children, family, and your role in the Church and community. The members of the presenting team discuss these issues in the context of their own experience, sharing their personal stories. The main focus of the weekend, however, is to provide time for couples to privately reflect on and discuss these issues. There is no structured group discussion. "We will not tell you how to live your life," the Engaged Encounter website says. "Our stories are meant to encourage you to explore your own attitudes and expectations. We will offer some good ideas and tools to help the two of you to continue growing closer through the years."
Another marriage preparation option, offered by the Diocese of Colorado Springs, is Catholic Marriage Preparation Online. Couples work through the program at the CMP website at their own pace, supervised by a CMP instructor. Although the program is offered by the Diocese of Colorado Springs, the online component is available to all couples, making it a good option for couples living far apart during their engagement period. As with all marriage preparation programs, you will need the approval of your pastor before using CMP to fulfill your marriage preparation requirement.
Many (but not all) dioceses and parishes require couples to complete a course in natural family planning (NFP) as part of their marriage preparation. Here is how the U.S. Catholic bishops describe natural family planning in their Standards for Diocesan Natural Family Planning Ministry:
NFP is an umbrella term for certain methods used to achieve and avoid pregnancies. These methods are based on observation of the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman's menstrual cycle. Couples using NFP to avoid pregnancy abstain from intercourse and genital contact during the fertile phase of the woman's cycle. No drugs, devices, or surgical procedures are used to avoid pregnancy.
NFP reflects the dignity of the human person within the context of marriage and family life, promotes openness to life, and recognizes the value of the child. By respecting the love-giving and life-giving natures of marriage, NFP can enrich the bond between husband and wife.
Natural family planning is not "the rhythm method," which is based on calendar calculations of the woman's typical menstrual cycle. Natural family planning relies on the couple's observation of variations in the woman's temperature and the characteristics of cervical mucus.
In order for natural family planning to be effective in avoiding or achieving pregnancy, couples should complete a course provided by trained instructors. NFP courses are available in most dioceses; they typically involve six sessions. Ongoing support is provided by NFP counselors. See the links below for more information on NFP.
In recent years, natural family planning has grown in popularity among many younger Catholics as a result of enthusiasm around the "theology of the body." The theology of the body was originally expounded by Pope John Paul II in a series of talks between 1979 and 1984, and has since been further developed as a way of understanding the spiritual meaning of human sexuality; for an overview, see "An Education in Being Human," by Christopher West.
For more information
Some marriage preparation homework
Visit this page for a quick overview of some key discussions and practices for the engagement period.
Why prepare for marriage?
Marriage: love and Life in the Divine Plan
This 2009 pastoral letter from the U.S. Catholic bishops is intended to be a "theological and doctrinal foundation... to help and encourage all those who are moving toward marriage." This 60-page document would be a useful resource for couples looking for an in-depth understanding of the Catholic sacrament of marriage.
"If anything, marriage accentuates the mild differences you have while dating," says this page at ForYourMarriage.org. Offers tips, sample questions, and resources for tackling the key issues of faith and spirituality, children, finances, careers, intimacy/cohabitation, conflict resolution, commitment, and values.
National (U.S.) Marriage Preparation Programs
Lists half a dozen pre-marital inventories, about a dozen common marriage preparation programs, and a handful of media resources.
FOCCUS pre-marriage inventory probes couple's mutual understanding
This article discusses the FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding & Study) inventory that is widely used as a first step in Catholic marriage preparation.
Sample Questions on the FOCCUS Inventory
For couples who want to get an idea of what to expect when taking the FOCCUS inventory.
Interfaith marriage resources
Marrying Someone of a Different Religion
This lengthy article at ForYourMarriage.org offers advice to couples preparing for a mixed religion marriage, with special advice for couples preparing for a Jewish-Catholic wedding or a Muslim-Catholic wedding.
Marriage to a member of a non-Christian religion (PDF)
Formal guidelines (intended primarily for pastors and lay ecclesial ministers) from FamilyMinistries.org, an outreach of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
MarriagePreparation.org, a ministry of the Redemptorist Order, sponsors this web page for engaged or married couples from different faith backgrounds. Includes an overview of Church teaching on interfaith marriages as well as links to useful resources.
Natural family planning resources
Couple to Couple League
The Couple to Couple League is one of the oldest providers of NFP training.
Natural Family Planning
This section of ForYourMarriage.org briefly explains Catholic teaching on contraception and Natural Family Planning in an easy-to-understand question-and-answer format, with links to further reading.
A more in-depth explanation of Natural Family Planning, with extensive links to additional resources, from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Church documents on marriage preparation
Analysis of Diocesan Marriage Preparation Policies
An overview of diocesan marriage preparation policies, from the USCCB.
Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage
This Vatican document is written primarily for bishops, pastors, and others ministering to couples preparing for marriage; it provides the pastoral and theological basis for marriage preparation, as well as norms for marriage preparation programs.
Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples: An Informational Report
This report from the U.S. Catholic bishops contains information on the growing trend toward couples cohabiting (living together) before marriage; it also describes how many priests are approaching this issue with couples. This is important reading for engaged couples who are living together.