Marriage prep program seeks to create a 'joy-filled' union

Soon-to-be married couples have no shortage of reality television shows on which to draw for the "big" day.

They can tune into episodes of TLC's "Say Yes To The Dress" or its two spinoffs -- "Say Yes To The Dress Atlanta" and "Say Yes To The Dress Randy Knows Best" -- in which brides try on exorbitantly priced wedding gowns to the delight, or disappointment, of bridesmaids, parents, family, friends or even grooms. (Isn't that bad luck?)

Many other programs are out there as well, but all of the shows share a common theme -- that it's all about the wedding day.

Never mind that everything really important follows the wedding day -- the joys, sorrows, challenges, etc. Marriage isn't about one single day. It's about everything that comes after that, which some people know and some people do not.

The archdiocesan Office of Laity and Family Life brings that essential aspect of marriage into focus for engaged couples in St. Louis with the launch of a new marriage preparation program, called "Joy-Filled Marriage."

"Joy-Filled Marriage" was set to debut Saturday, May 17, with a two-day program at Ascension Church in Chesterfield. Additional venues for the two-day sessions in the coming weeks and months are: Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Church in Ferguson, Incarnate Word Church in Chesterfield, St. Joseph Church in Imperial, Cure of Ars Church in Shrewsbury and the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury.

The goal is to engage -- how appropriate! -- engaged couples in what should be their lifelong vocation. "Joy-Filled Marriage" is one of three marriage prep programs approved by the archdiocese. The others are Engaged Encounter and Agape.

"It's important to share with couples so that they understand what they're saying 'I do' to," said Julie Bostick, executive director of the Office of Laity and Family Life. "A lot of couples don't understand it's more than a trivial thing, just a part of their day. It's your whole life. We want to share that with them."

"Joy-Filled Marriage" engages couples right off the hop with a session on life skills, before facilitators delve into more weighty sacramental topics such as Theology of the Body. St. John Paul II introduced Theology of the Body early in his pontificate and later wrote about it in his encyclicals. Author Christopher West brought it to the masses in a number of books, most recently "Fill These Hearts: God, Sex and the Universal Longing" in 2013.

"With the old program, we only touched on Theology of the Body with the NFP (Natural Family Planning) section," said Jackie Torbeck, the office's marriage preparation coordinator. "This is based on the Theology of the Body."

Torbeck and her husband, Jake, went through marriage prep three years ago under the old archdiocesan program, "Today and All the Days of Your Life." The program was cutting-edge when it was introduced in the early 1990s. While its message remains solid -- Torbeck described it as "timeless" -- it is incomplete absent Theology of the Body, the cornerstone of the new program. In addition, the videos/DVDs that accompanied the old program were, shall we say, a bit dated.

The new program brings marriage prep into the 21st century. Engaged couples receive a goody bag, including a three-month subscription to the St. Louis Review, DVDs and books. They also get snacks, meals and refreshments in sessions at nice parish centers, as opposed to the stark gymnasiums or cafeterias often used back in the day. It's all part of doing business in 2014.

"Young people today, they expect more because they've been given more," Bostick said. "When you go to class, you don't want to have the little circles that you fill in with No. 2 pencils. Then, you'd think, 'Oh, my, the Church is in the dark ages.' We want to show them the Church is not in the dark ages. We want to engage them, bring them into the Church and make them feel welcome."

It's important work, particularly with number of marriages declining in the archdiocese. According to figures from the office of Pastoral Planning, marriages peaked at 5,082 in 1972 and hit a low of 1,807 in 2013, a decline of 64 percent in just more than 40 years. And according to Bostick, 50 percent of marriages end in divorce; 20 percent end within five years and 35 are over through 10 years. Also, too many couples get married only to disappear from participation in a parish, only to reappear when their first born is baptized. Then, they might be absent again until the child's first Communion. The aim is to make those absences disappear.

"We want to maintain that connection by showing them the Church really does care how they're doing," Bostick said.

The cost of "Joy-Filled Marriage" is $200, which might seem pricey to some, but compared to wedding gowns on "Say Yes to the Dress," that's a drop in the bucket.

For more information, call the Office of Laity and Family Life as (314) 792-7180 or visit www.archstl.org/marriageprep.

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