Cardinal Daniel N. 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. (Photo: The Catholic Spirit)

Jul 13 2023

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, lay and clergy leaders committed to marriage and family, were also earnestly focusing their attention on how to present faithful and formed men and women to God and his church through the sacrament of matrimony.

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 of Galveston-Houston.

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 can often be just a box to check on a couple’s endless list or a demand of a grandparent or in-laws-to-be. But she also said 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 told the Texas Catholic Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper. “Couples often don’t realize that (in the theology of the Latin Church) 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, Texas.

In his homily at the gathering’s June 26 opening Mass, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, 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 current has grown within the wider culture. He also mentioned how a Catholic marriage can be an encounter for an unbaptized person to come to know Jesus.

Cardinal DiNardo also recalled Pope Francis’ message in his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” about “enabling families to take up their role as active agents of the family apostolate.”

Likewise, the cardinal said, “what we need is people not only to be passive receptacles of marriage preparation, but active agents of marriage preparation.”

“One of our beautiful duties is to allow young couples and others who are coming to the sacrament of marriage to appreciate that they indeed (are) agents of their own formation,” Cardinal DiNardo said. “Or as baptized members of God’s people, they still continue a journey toward the sacrament of marriage.”

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 in the wider community, 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 Holy 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 event also welcomed a special video message from Gabriella Gambino, undersecretary of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life at the Vatican.

She emphasized three points: “vocation”, with a catechumenal model reframing marriage as a vocation with grace, 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” — with ministries working cooperatively and not in siloes to make this vision happen — 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, assistant director for marriage and family life ministries in U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, 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 place in (the) Order of Christian Initiation,” she said.

Attendees included several bishops, including Bishop Italo Dell’Oro, auxiliary for the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese, and Bishop Brendan J. Cahill of the Diocese of Victoria, Texas. Father Paul Hartmann, the USCCB’s associate general secretary also attended, alongside a number of other clergy.

The summit, held at Circle Lake Retreat Center in Pinehurst, some 40 miles northwest of Houston, was sponsored by the Scanlan Foundation, the USCCB’s Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, University of St. Thomas in Houston and the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

The event also was hosted by Witness to Love, a Lafayette, Louisiana-based marriage formation ministry co-founded by Ryan and Mary-Rose Verret.

In a statement, Mary-Rose Verret said the gathering was a “collaborative effort between lay couples and experts, seminary formators and clergy, bishops and diocesan leaders, and religious and movement leaders. Everyone came together with the common goal and vision of finding a concrete path forward.”

On that journey, she said the church could lead others in “missionary discipleship where every encounter we have with a couple or family will introduce and lead them to Christ.”

At Christ the Redeemer in Houston, Christy Wright said she hoped to continue leading other couples closer to each other and to Christ as they prepared for marriage.

“When couples start thinking about what it means that they are giving of their life to the other, and how it is a covenant, it starts to bring out that sacrament of oneness,” she said. “And on that wedding day, that extreme excitement and deep spiritual readiness for that commitment can be very apparent.” – UCA News