Last year, the Vatican published Catechumenal Pathways for Married Life, a document outlining the Church’s desire to accompany and evangelize couples seeking the sacrament of marriage in a more intentional way.  This “pathway” is meant to draw couples into deeper conversion through various phases of formation that ideally begin long before they are even engaged. Pope Francis writes that in the same way the catechumenate “is part of the sacramental process for the baptism of adults, so too may the preparation for marriage form an integral part of the whole sacramental procedure of marriage.” 

(Catechumenal Pathways for Married Life, 7)

We may hear this and assume the Church is creating an unnecessary obstacle course for those desiring marriage. But the vision outlined in this document is not new. Pope Francis even says this is an urgent implementation of what Pope St. John Paul II proposed in Familiaris Consortio. A marriage catechumenate is a way for the Church to accompany couples in their unique situations before and after the wedding day. Pope Francis says, “The goal is to walk an important stretch of road together with couples in the journey of life, even after the wedding, especially during moments of crisis or discouragement.” (9)

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the call for a marriage catechumenate is that this is something that profoundly impacts the entire Church community and, in a particular way, married couples. 

But isn’t marriage preparation something only engaged couples need to worry about? The short answer is: no! In fact, this document states that “married couples themselves — who vary in age and years of married life are the primary agents of this pastoral care, as they offer their experience to assist those who participate in the catechumenal journey.” (95)

This means the marriage formation process cannot be something that ends at the altar when we exchange vows. Instead, ongoing marriage formation is a way in which parishes can strengthen the community and transform the culture. Marriages that continue to deepen their understanding of the graces available to them through the sacrament become witnesses of hope and joy for those around them. It creates an environment of accompaniment and support. It also reminds us that marriage is not something that we “keep to ourselves.”

As couples who have celebrated this sacrament, we are called to be icons of God’s love in the world. We know that being faithful to our vows is important, and that, as couples, we should prioritize opportunities to pray together and find ways of growing together in our relationship over the years. By placing this within the context of a “marriage catechumenate,” the Church is reminding us that we, too, are called to be missionary disciples, and we have a distinct capacity to do this in and through our marriage. 

It may be tempting to think that missionary discipleship is something only certain couples or families are called to. Perhaps you are thinking, “Well, that sounds nice, but the Church could not possibly be talking about families like ours! Discipleship and evangelization are for people who have their act together!” Family life may be messy, imperfect, and not without challenges, but every family is called to holiness, and every marriage has been made for mission.  

As Pope Francis has said, “The Church is good for families and families are good for the Church.”(Amoris Latitia, 87) Seeing this through the lens of the marriage catechumenate means we have an opportunity to discern how God is calling us to be evangelizing spouses, and what that may look like in our individual family. 

So, how do we respond to the marriage catechumenate as married couples? The first thing that comes to mind when we talk about ongoing formation are the programs and events available through the parish and diocese, such as small groups or retreats offered throughout the year. Those things definitely have a place as the Church seeks to invest more deeply in the pastoral care of marriages. However, before seeking out a ministry to sign up for, or even feeling the burden of trying to take on more than you already are as a family, I want to invite married couples to reflect on a few very important things:

First, do you know married couples who you consider to be missionary disciples? Hopefully, we all know at least one couple that we can say has had a positive influence on our own marriages, and perhaps they have even been mentors. What is it about those couples that have made such an impact on you? Often, these are couples who evangelize more with their joy than with structured catechesis and theology degrees. 

Next, reflect on the different seasons of your married life. Are there times in your marriage when the Church has supported you in a particular way? Are there times in your marriage when the Church could have done more to support you through a certain situation or season? Inevitably, most of us will experience a time when we have felt that a need was not met in our family’s journey. What is it that God might be calling you as a couple to do to fill that same space for another couple or family?

Finally, ask yourselves, “Have we discerned our mission as a married couple and as a family?” Maybe you are thinking, “Right now our mission is simply survival mode!” As a wife and mom, I hear that loud and clear. Some Sundays we do well just making it to Mass on time! Or maybe your children are grown, or you have been married for several decades. Is it still possible to discern your mission as a married couple? Yes! 

And what if our marriage and family is currently experiencing a lot of brokenness and hurt? The Church still wants you! It may be that the most important thing that we do as a couple is not to lead a certain ministry or initiative, but to let Christ love our family where we are and allow his merciful love to heal us. 

A catechumenal pathway for marriage is an opportunity for the Church to invest more deeply in the formation of couples. A pathway for married life is an opportunity for ongoing conversion, discipleship, and evangelization. If each of us takes the time to discern the mission God has for our marriage and our family, the impact on our homes and parish communities will be profound.