Three things I'd tell the synod on the family about marriage

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Mike Jordan Laskey

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If Pope Francis had invited me to address the Synod of Bishops this week, here are three concerns about marriage and family I might have mentioned -- acknowledging that my perspective as a recently married, financially stable, childless, white American male is fairly narrow.

Catholic marriage preparation is a great opportunity. Don't miss it!

My wife and I had a great marriage preparation experience. We met with a wonderful mentor couple several times in their home and talked about standard marriage-prep things, but what really stays with us two years later is their witness: their deep love for each other and their children, their commitment to the parish community, and the way they strive to balance all that with two careers. "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers," Pope Paul VI wrote in 1974, "and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses." It was a blessing to add our mentor couple to the cloud of married witnesses that has inspired us on our journey.

Unfortunately, many of our friends have had less engaging experiences. We've heard stories about boring, lecture-based, classroom-style programs that gather dozens of couples but don't even have them meet each other. One friend described a horrifying family planning session that might best be described as an extended, pre-emptive scolding.

As many couples find their way back to the church during wedding planning after some time away, marriage prep programs that are welcoming, gentle and interactive are peerless evangelization tools that should help integrate the couple into the parish family.

A young family needs a supportive community to survive. Building authentic community is hard work.

The most powerful moment I remember from our wedding is the sight of 180 guests stretching their arms out in blessing over us as we stood at the front of the church, a visible sign of their pledge to support us in our married life. What a humbling, grace-filled moment that was. My wife, Gen, and I know that we can count on those people in difficult times. The trick is that almost all of them live far away from our new hometown.

Young adults are transient and often far from their families of origin, which are big challenges to finding a support network. Another challenge is our increasingly libertarian, individualistic culture: According to a survey conducted by the real estate website Trulia, only half of Americans know their neighbors' names.

This is where our parishes could come in. New Catholics who enter the church at the Easter Vigil continue to meet with their group of sponsors and teachers for months after their initiation through a process called mystagogia. They are reminded that the parish community still supports them and that the Easter Vigil was not a graduation ceremony from a program, but the start of something new.

In a recent email, my friend Isaac posed a question: What might a mystagogical approach to marriage prep look like? Could parishes invite mentor couples to check in on newlyweds at the three-month, six-month, one-year mark? Could parishes gather groups of couples for faith sharing, community service activities, and social events, with babysitting provided as necessary? Surely, many parishes are already doing these and other things to support married couples. But it would be so valuable for the synod to encourage church leaders to facilitate opportunities for newly married adults beyond traditional marriage and baptism preparation.

When thinking about ways to help make sure marriages last, don't forget Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Some challenging data from a recent research paper on marriage and divorce has been making its way around the Internet: Couples that make $125,000 a year together cut their risk of divorce in half when compared to couples that make $25,000 or less. (Other predictive factors include religious participation, size of a couple's wedding, and whether or not the couple went on a honeymoon.)

It's hard for our church's (essential and beautiful) teachings about the indissolubility of marriage to stick when families are struggling to put food on the table. I was reminded of Maslow's hierarchy of needs as I looked at the data: access to basics like food and employment and security are preconditions for things like moral reasoning and creativity. In a nation where unemployment among millennials persists at a dangerously high rate, faith-based work for economic justice in our churches should go hand in hand with catechetical efforts related to marriage. In addition to initiatives like providing emergency food and participating in legislative advocacy around issues connected to poverty, parishes might even consider hosting financial literacy programs for young couples.

While I'm not expecting to get a call from Pope Francis any time soon, why wait? The occasion of the synod is a great opportunity for all of us to reflect on how we might help our own local parishes respond to the complex pastoral issues that come with family life.

[Mike Jordan Laskey is the director of Life & Justice Ministries for the diocese of Camden, N.J. He blogs for the Camden diocese at]

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