In the last decade, I've attended more Catholic funerals than Catholic weddings. In fact, during that time, those weddings have been: my own, my sister's and a con-validation that took place during an Easter Vigil service (and may I just quickly remark on how beautiful it was to watch a married couple fully enter the Catholic Church in that setting!).
My experience, it turns out, is consistent with the latest statistics on sacramental marriage. In the Bay Area at least, the number of Catholic marriages has sharply declined by almost half in the last twenty years according the San Francisco Archdiocese. And this comes at a time when the Catholic population in the west is reportedly on the rise, and the wedding industry has infiltrated popular culture.
And yet, despite this boom of Catholics and cake shows, many of the lay faithful are saying “Yes to The Dress!” but “No to the Sacrament!”(When they choose to marry at all, that is). Why is this happening?
In all likelihood, these statistics are the fruit of decades of poor catechesis. Catholics who marry outside of the Church (many of whom attend mass and send their kids to Catholic schools) were probably never taught what the sacrament truly is and I believe that many would choose differently were they properly catechized about holy matrimony.
For me, putting into words how indispensable the efficacious grace of the sacrament is in my life is like the proverbial 'pouring the ocean into a glass.' I personally know how difficult marriage can be. But I also know that the 'marriage state' provides the best conditions for addressing the troubles that arise therein (which is one of the reasons why cohabitation is such an unwise choice - it doesn't provide the certainty of indissolubility implicit within the context of matrimony). Marriage is also one of the very few circumstances where conflict can be addressed in an un-ideologically driven way - in fact the only 'ideology' present between spouses should be the one pulls us closer to faith, and then the closeness to our significant other follows. And there we encounter God's unworldly wisdom in giving us any and all the sacraments to begin with: when we draw closer to Him using the means He has given us, suddenly we've created water-tight confidence in our worldly commitments also.
So how can we go about inviting couples to consider or reconsider marrying in the Church?
Maybe we should ask Mark Wahlberg what convinced him to stand at the altar. Come on, you have to give Marky Mark credit for having a Catholic marriage in the face of all the scrutiny of very anti-Catholic Hollywood! In some ways, it's consistent with his infamous 'go against the grain' attitude - would that we all had a bit more of that handy in our witness at times (and this is one of those times!).
Outside of that, here are three serious suggestions I thought of:
Suggestion 1: Instruct young ones about matrimony before they are engaged. Obviously, many Catholics aren’t going to sign up for pre-cana if they've already decided against a Catholic wedding, so earlier formation, during their teens especially, is crucial. Teachers, why not invite a sacramentally married couple visit your classroom and share the importance of holy matrimony with your students?
Suggestion 2: Parents, take a long, soul searching glance into the mirror. The greatest indicator that your children will have a sacramental marriage is if you are married in the Church. (Just watch, now that I've written this, my kids will be the ones to rebel against it. Thankfully I've already begun the brainwashing by making them watch our wedding DVD repeatedly. Oh no, wait - that's what my three year old daughter forces us to do. "I wanna watch mommy getting mawwied!" If ever a plan did backfire...)
If you are already civilly married, you can have a con-validation like the one I witnessed during that Easter Vigil service or a 'big' wedding like Marky Mark's (isn't that inspiring?). For those who are divorced or annulled, or have a spouse that refuses to marry in the Church, it is still very possible to teach your children a reverence for matrimony and all of the sacraments (whether you are able to receive them currently or not). Why not use your own experience to show how sacramentality or lack-there-of contributes to the strength or breakdown of a marriage?
Last suggestion, and this is for everyone: pray for engaged couples and talk to them.
If an opportunity presents itself, why not probe into whether a couple is open to discussing the sacrament? It doesn't have to be weird. “Is one of you Catholic?” “Do you think you’ll be married in the Church?” you may simply ask. Then, if they are willing to talk, don’t pressure, but respectfully offer your take, “Can you give me just five minutes to share why I think marriage in the Church rocks?” or “Can I just briefly tell you how having the sacrament really helps my wife and I, as a couple and personally?” etc. (Put your own spin on this).
Or simply ask them if they love Jesus, and, if so, gently suggest marrying in His actual presence. Remind them that the reception can be anywhere, and so why not have a Church service? Dispel any myths they may have heard about Church weddings being too expensive (they're supposed to be donation only). After that, assure them that you love them and that God loves them no matter what they decide. You can only plant the seed of truth that Jesus desires to be the guest of honor at their wedding. After that, it's up to them.
You may find these suggestions helpful or not, or you may know of better ones than these (leave a comment!) but hopefully this is a start.
At the end of the day, God created marriage and elevated it to sacramental status for a reason. Clearly He believes that the married state requires a grace that only He can give, so shouldn’t we believe this also?
Marriage is in decline in America, as the Pew Research Center reports and the issues surrounding why are multifaceted. But it doesn't have to be this way; we, as Catholics can do something about it starting with ourselves. A maritally fecund nation can exist again, but we Catholics must believe that marriage in the Church has no worldly substitute. The edification of the common good rests upon how much stock we put in the sacraments and natural law and a return to Holy Matrimony is critical for the recovery of the true meaning of marriage, for ourselves as Catholics and society today.