Why does the Church require several months of preparation before marriage? Why should I go to a celibate priest for help with my marriage?

by Father Gregory Haman

Father Gregory Haman

I hear questions like these from time to time. Sometimes couples are so enthusiastic to get married that the normal six-month preparation period seems far too long to wait. Most couples, however, don’t have a problem with it because they had already planned a much longer engagement. It’s not rare for couples to be engaged for a year or more before their wedding, which sometimes works fine but often brings its own problems into their relationship (which would be a subject for another article).

Preparation for a Catholic wedding includes several components that are standard practices in most dioceses. Couples will meet with a priest for several sessions to discuss the spirituality inherent in healthy marriages and how their relationship fits into the wider marriage between Christ and his bride, the Church. The process also includes a weekend seminar that addresses common questions and experiences in marriage, as well as several classes in Natural Family Planning so that the couple can learn the art of becoming one flesh with each other. Lastly, a couple’s preparation may include meetings with a couple who has been married for several years and acts as a mentor of sorts to help the younger couple get married with solid expectations.

But all of this returns us to the question: why so much time spent meeting with a celibate priest, who never has and never will be married? The priest (or perhaps a deacon) will be the one who officially witnesses your wedding, and it’s his task to ensure that the necessary parts have been completed. Naturally, the skills and the personality of the priest will make some of them very good at preparing couples and some less so, but the biggest benefit always comes when the couple themselves are fully invested in the process.

In my experience with couples, most are not looking for best practices from someone who’s done the same things. Their needs are not about balancing budgets or figuring out the best way to get their children from one activity to another (if the couple is already married). If they came to me with those questions, I would tell them they’re asking the wrong person. What most couples are looking for when they’re struggling is hope. They need to learn how to be honest and bring up the things they are not dealing with. They want to understand where God is at a moment when their marriage feels so difficult. Father Mike Schmitz — who through YouTube has become a Catholic mentor for thousands — says (quoting a movie), “Love is not a feeling, it’s an ability.” The passion of young love can make us think that we will automatically love each other well, even for the rest of our lives. No problem! But then we get into the reality, and problems arise.

What does Father Schmitz say will make us better at love? Loving is ¬choosing the good — that is, what is best — for the other person. What would be best for the other person needs to be the guiding question for any relationship. What is best during an argument? To understand. What is best when sharing expenses? To spend them carefully and openly with one’s spouse. What is best when showing affection? Seeking to love in the way one’s spouse needs it. Those things might seem obvious but in real life, they can easily get lost and it is helpful to have someone to sit with and talk it out.

What makes Father Schmitz so insightful? Pope John Paul II said those who spread the Gospel must be “experts in humanity.” Those who spread the Gospel take up a wide swath of the church, but priests are central in that swath because they have the official responsibility and their whole lives are called to be a proclamation of the Gospel. All of that is not to say that a couple should only seek a priest’s help. I would never recommend that. Professional counselors are equipped with tools and experience that many priests are not.

Still, do you know your priest to be a prayerful? Is he humble and gracious when interacting with parishioners? Does he seem to speak with wisdom cultivated by the life he lives? If you see these qualities in your priest (and I wish we were all that way!), I'm sure he would be a very capable help for your marriage.

Father Haman serves as pastor of Holy Rosary Church in LaMoure, Assumption Church in Dickey, and St. Raphael’s Church in Verona.

Editor’s Note: If you have a question about the Catholic faith and would like to submit a question for consideration in a future column, please send to news@fargodiocese.org with “Ask a Priest” in the subject line or mail to New Earth, 5201 Bishops Blvd. S, Suite. A, Fargo, ND 58104, Attn: Ask a Priest.