Marriage formation leaders explore catechumenal models for marriage formation backed by Vatican

July 11, 2023

Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, blesses an icon of Sts. Anne and Joachim during a Mass at a gathering of Catholic marriage formation leaders at Circle Lake Retreat Center near Houston on June 26. The icon was specially painted by Al Sauls for the three-day conference that drew more than 90 Catholic marriage and family life leaders from around the United States and Canada to discuss approaches to the Vatican’s new document titled Catechumenal Pathways for Married Life, prepared by the Dicastery for Marriage, Family and Life. (Photo by James Ramos/Herald)

PINEHURST — A hand-painted icon of Sts. Anne and Joachim accompanied nearly 100 marriage formation leaders during a June 26-28 conference, where they explored new ways, namely a catechumenal model, to form men and women for their vocation to marriage.

The Eastern-style icon depicted the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding crosses while standing in a verdant pasture between mountains seen in the background. Much like how Mary’s parents presented her to the Lord, marriage formations earnestly focus their ministries on presenting faithful and formed men and women to God and His Church through the Sacrament of Marriage.

Through focused small-group discussions and conversational plenary sessions, catechetical and marriage formation leaders from some 40 dioceses and ministries from the U.S. and Canada considered ways to pursue a catechumenal model for marriage formation backed by the Vatican -- a model with similarities to the baptismal catechumenal roadmap for men and women who join the Catholic Church.

Under discussion was how to renew the process of marriage formation based on the new model proposed in the "Catechumenal Pathways for Married Life" document issued by the Vatican's Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

Christy Wright, director of family life at Christ the Redeemer Parish in Houston, said the conference reflected much of what she’s experienced as a longtime catechetical and marriage formation leader in the Archdiocese.

She saw a parallel in Pope Francis’ call to accompany those in the margins and to walk with men and women on the road to marriage.

Wright recognized that for many couples, a Catholic wedding is sometimes just a box to check on a couple’s endless list or a demand of a grandparent or in-laws-to-be, but the experience can be a way to draw couples, and their families, into the life of the Church, especially before and after the wedding.

“What do we do to follow up? That’s the challenging part, to bring them back to the church after the wedding Mass,” Wright said. “Couples often don’t realize that the bride and the groom are truly the ministers of the Sacrament of Marriage, that the priest or deacon is simply the witnesses of the couples’ new wedding covenant.” Wright attended the summit with her husband Deacon Jim Wright, who serves at St. Angela Merici Parish in Missouri City.

In his homily at the gathering’s June 26 opening Mass, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo recognized the attendees as people “dedicated to marriage and to family life.”
“There is something more at stake,” he said, noting how an anti-Christian culture has grown. He also noted how a Catholic marriage can be an encounter for an unbaptized person to come to know Jesus.

Cardinal DiNardo also echoed Pope Francis’ message in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia that “what we need is people not only to be passive receptacles of marriage preparation, but active agents of marriage preparation.”

“It’s always one of our beautiful duties is to allow young couples and others who are coming to the Sacrament of marriage to appreciate that they are the agents of their own formation,” he said.

Reflecting on the Gospel of John, where two disciples see Jesus after having been baptized by John, Cardinal DiNardo also recalled Jesus’ message to “come and see.”

If marriage formation leaders, as well as Catholics, become agents of love, we can discover where Jesus lives with His Father and how “He wants that community to be ours,” Cardinal DiNardo said. And because of this, the Spirit will always be working throughout the process, he said.

At the conclusion of the Mass, Cardinal DiNardo also blessed the icon, specially commissioned for the gathering and painted by Houston-based artist Al Sauls.

The gathering also welcomed a special video message from Gabriella Gambino, under secretary of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

She emphasized three points: vocation, with a catechumenal model reframing marriage as a vocation with grace, perhaps not as just an event; interconnectedness, with the family as the center of all pastoral work much like a synodal effort; and discernment, understanding and growing skills to “read the signs of God.”

She also encouraged attendees to become “more effective” in “proclaiming the vocation marriage” so that young people can learn their vocation as a family and as part of the Church.

Panel sessions discussed the impacts of the message, as well as the Dicastery’s new document.

Julia Dezelski, director for marriage and family life ministries at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), helped lead the summit, which she said was “a unique means of inspiring and affecting action at all levels of the Church to respond to the desire expressed from St. John Paul II to Pope Francis of establishing a catechumenal process of marriage preparation.

“Catechumenal Pathways is the culmination of the Church’s long-anticipated call for the renewal of marriage prep modeled on a catechumenate which precedes the Sacrament of Initiation or a pathway similar to what takes places in Order of Christian Initiation,” she said.

The summit, held at Circle Lake Retreat Center near Magnolia, was sponsored by the Scanlan Foundation, the USCCB’s Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, Witness to Love, University of St. Thomas-Houston, and the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.