A couple's destructive fighting and drinking can change their besieged children forever.
Good marriage preparation is a key element in helping couples deal with the many problems families face in today's society, representatives of four Eastern Canadian dioceses told the Canadian bishops at their recent plenary assembly.
Serge Vallée, director of the Montreal Archdiocese's Family Office, said those who do pastoral ministry with couples are at the heart of a war, a struggle against the prevalent gender theory.
At the direction of Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine, marriage preparation is now called accompaniment towards the sacrament, Vallée said. The stress is on preparing for a lifelong vocation.
Some couples say that because they already live together, they don't need to prepare. The challenge is how to reach these families, he told the more than 80 bishops present at the assembly in Sainte-Adele, Que.
"We want the vocation to be highlighted."
Couples come in full of love, but afraid of fighting, of breaking up, he said. His office teaches them that marriage is a "sacrament of humility" because couples cannot do it alone; they need God. It is amazing how receptive they are to this message.
The office also takes care of separated, divorced and remarried Catholics. Their approach is one of welcoming, of walking with them, Vallée said. "It's unbelievable the need that couples have and extraordinary to see the hope. We see them reborn."
Working with those who have been broken helps the facilitators understand the mission of evangelization, he said. In sharing groups, they try to let separated, divorced and remarried Catholics know they are welcome in the Church.
It takes extra faith to say "I am separated and divorced and want to remarry," he said. Most of these people exclude themselves from the Church.
Amélie Martineau-Lavallée, who is responsible for pastoral ministry to families in the Quebec Archdiocese, said many who present themselves for marriage preparation have not only been living together, they already have children.
"Some arrived wanting to be married, but not having been baptized or confirmed," said Martineau-Lavallée.
Now preparation for marriage includes the Alpha Course, a course in basic Christian evangelism through video-taped talks, a meal together and a discussion. Quebec is also including sessions on John Paul II's theology of the body, she said.
Martineau-Lavallée said Quebec is challenging families to take up their role as "domestic churches."
The diocese is making an effort to follow up with couples after marriage.
But families must take up the role of mission, catechesis, witness and prayer.
A child who prays in the family will understand better what prayer means in Church, she said.
Dennis Costello, director of Toronto's Catholic Family Services clinical programs and services, said the instability of marriage is a major focus for those working in family life ministry.
Previous generations placed a high value on marital commitment; they stuck it out through thick and thin, Costello said. The present generation values intimacy more.
"Good marriage prep takes place over time when the presenters yak less and the couples talk more," he said. A main task in marriage preparation is to get the couples having the "conversations they need to have."
They "may not be devout sons and daughters," but "it's a moment when we might fan the flame of faith alive in them," he said.
Good marriage preparation can make the Church's teaching on marriage become relevant to the couples' everyday life, he said.
Costello said his office sees huge stresses on families: housing problems; disparity of income; people working two or three jobs to get by; unemployment and even hunger.
Toronto has as many food banks as McDonald's outlets, he said.
For him a key focus is the "abuse of conflict in marriage," either involving physical violence or emotional abuse. "When parents are in conflict, the children who love the parents are torn apart."
In emotional abuse, a woman might endure being called obscene names, or told she is a "piece of rubbish" leaving deep wounds that are "very hard to see," he said.
Costello recalled how then-Archbishop Collins gave a speech on the topic, and instead of using social science jargon, he said. "When we don't treat each other as beloved children of God, it's wrong. It's evil. It's a sin."
People have been reluctant to speak about this issue for fear of upsetting others, but Costello encouraged the bishops to raise this issue. "For women who feel isolated, scorned and ashamed, the fact that our Church reaches out to them gives them a lift."
Dan Moynihan, youth ministry specialist for the London, Ont., Diocese, pointed to the variety of family types, from single parent, divorced, blended, same-sex, those with grandparents living them.
Moynihan used statistics compiled by Dr. Christian Smith at the University of Notre Dame in the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) begun in 2002 that mirrors what he suspects is happening in Canadian dioceses.
They hope to "recapture Catholicism as a comprehensive way of life," he said, guiding families to understand how to live their lives "faithfully between the Sundays."
Parents have been too dependent on Catholic schools, and parish volunteers for their children's catechesis, he said, noting often "the most significant role the parents have played is dropping off their child."
Moynihan said he wished parishes would increase resources to convince Catholics to move away from the sense of "sacraments as objects to be desired" and instead see them as "realities to be lived."