Couples who are not considering a church wedding should rethink their decision, says a priest

The declining percentage of Catholics who marry in the Church is sounding alarms worldwide.

In various Asian communities as well as in the US, Catholics are choosing not to receive the Sacrament of Matrimony for various reasons.

A study released in February 2008 by the Washington-based Center for Applied Research (CARA) in the Apostolate found that some 40 percent of younger married Catholics in the US had not married in the Church. It also said that marrying in the Church was not considered important by more than half of younger single Catholics who think they might marry one day. American Father Thomas Vandenberg recalled how one couple he knew “had no idea the Church had something to offer them that they couldn’t get from the local judge”.

There were also some young Catholics, familiar with parish life, who did not marry in the Church, said the priest of Seattle archdiocese who has long served as a Marriage Encounter leader and has written on marriage. One young woman he knew “apparently..., she hadn’t heard about the importance of getting married in the Church or why”, he said in a June 2010 speech in Cincinnati to the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers.

“Having spent most of my 48 years as a priest in parish ministry, what I can give best is a perspective that just might help us look at the Sacrament of Matrimony in a fresh, new way,” he told the conference. An often-overlooked dimension of the marital vocation is that when a couple marries in the Catholic Church, “their marriage is not just for them. It’s also for us”. He told couples, “As a sacrament you bring something of Jesus’ love into our lives.”

The love in marriage is needed by our world, Fr Vandenberg continued. “Disillusioned young people need to see that love is real.” The priest said to couples, “If we can’t turn to you to keep love alive, to whom shall we turn?” A sacramental marriage mirrors the depth of Christ’s love to others, Fr Vandenberg believes. It is a couple’s committed love that “not only conceived their children” but that “continues the creation of their children so they will grow up to be healthy human beings”.

Fr Vandenberg fears, however, that Catholics who marry outside the Church are unaware of “the critical role they could be playing in God’s plan to form and shape our world”. As with all sacraments, matrimony is part of the church’s “sacred treasury,” he said.

If Catholic couples in growing numbers are only having civil weddings, he believes a major reason is that they have “no idea what the Sacrament of Matrimony means”. That, he said, “has to change!” Couples need to hear how “precious, even crucial” they are to us all, he stressed. In a November 2009 speech to Ohio priests, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, said the Church is urgently concerned about marriage. One reason why is “the large decrease over the last three decades in the number of couples turning to the Church for sacramental marriage”, he pointed out.

The decline of marriages in the Church stands alongside a general decline of marriages in the US. Between 1991 and 2008, the number of marriages declined 10 percent in the US, but marriages in the Catholic Church “are down 42 percent”, Fr Vandenberg said. “If that isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.” He is not alone in describing a marriage as a sacramental vocation reaching beyond itself to serve and enrich the world with love.

The Fully Engaged marriagepreparation program developed recently by the Diocese of St Cloud, Minnesota, advises couples that the “great vocation of marriage” is “to mirror God’s deep love for all humanity”. - CNS

By David Gibson
Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years

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