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Marriage planning: Church helps couples before and after vows


Dialog Editor

Rita McDowell had only been director of the diocesan Office for Marriage and Family Life for about five months when she got a 260-page memo from “the boss” in Rome on April 8.

The hefty document was Pope Francis’ exhortation, “‘Amoris Laetitia’ (“The Joy of Love”) on Love in the Family,” in which he addressed how church programs can prepare engaged couples for family life.

Call it an updated mission statement for the diocesan office that oversees marriage preparation courses for about 300 couples each year throughout Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.


McDowell found the pope’s new “exhortation” on marriage and family “absolutely beautiful.”

Pope Francis’ words “really hit home with the people that I’m serving and working with, married couples,” she said.

Best of all, most of the pope’s ideas for pastoral guidance for new families — meetings with couples before they wed, group discussions between engaged and married couples, an evaluation of the couple’s expectations, and even presentations on possible risks and problems that arise in married life — are already in practice in the diocese.

“The Joy of Love” addresses many issues that engaged couples are dealing with, McDowell said, world-changing issues and different outlooks on marriage, not to mention couples who are already living together when they take marriage prep courses.


‘True to the faith’

“I say to people in this office, ‘this is our time to talk to them. We might not see them again until they have a baby baptized,’” McDowell said. “So we have to love them and show compassion and understanding while still staying true to the faith.”

Pope Francis “is really on the pulse of the people,” McDowell said. His “The Joy of Love” didn’t change church teachings, “the teachings are the same, but it’s a different way of presentation — the compassion and love that’s there and the understanding.”

Rita McDowell, director of the Office for Family Life

Rita McDowell, director of the Office for Family Life

Just as the pope called on families to participate in the sacraments, McDowell said she tells couples “we’re all called to be saints. The saints are ‘up here’ and we’re trying to get there and we work on that.

“I always say to them, ‘if you can go to confession before you get married, that’s a wonderful thing.’ And we talk about how helpful that can be and the grace we receive from the Eucharist.”

McDowell, 42, teaches all the marriage preparation courses with the help of “witness couples” around the diocese.

(See list of marriage prep courses, locations and dates on page 9)

A part-time theology faculty member at Immaculata University, McDowell has a master’s degree with a concentration in morality from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary’s religious studies program and she’s completing coursework for a doctorate in theology from La Salle University.

Diocesan marriage prep courses include explanations of Natural Family Planning (NFP).

McDowell says she tells couples, “I know this might be tough for you, but think about it. At least read about it, or if you come to a time in your relationship when you are ready to have children think about trying NFP.”


Prepared for bumps?

What about the pope’s advice that couples should be prepared for bumps in the road?

McDowell sad marriage preparation sessions include a “conversation and education tool” called FACET, a survey about expectations on married life that couples fill out separately. Their answers — about roles, values, finances, work, communication and faith — are mailed to experts and the couples receive evaluations of their responses that point out the strong and possible weak points in their relationships.

Pope Francis also recommends in “The Joy of Love” that the church seek to maintain its connection for couples after their marriages.

McDowell said she’s thinking about creating diocesan family events.

l A Family Service Day is on the calendar for July 23.

l Plans for a family day sponsored by the Marriage and Family Life Office at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania on May 22 is also in the works.

And McDowell wants to hold a version of the “Newlywed Game,” that also includes questions for long-wed couples in the fall.


First anniversary calls

Newlywed couples are also beginning to hear from McDowell’s office on their first wedding anniversary.

“One I called a few weeks ago had just delivered a premature baby,” McDowell said. “Her mother was in the room with her [at the hospital] when we called. The mother puts her on the phone and she starts to cry. She said, ‘Thank you very much for calling, I didn’t even think about my anniversary, I was so scared.’

“I used it as an opportunity to talk to her,” McDowell said.

“I called her back to see how the baby was. She felt it was God’s way of letting her know it was going to be OK. You never know how God’s hands are at work there.”

Pope Francis’ new document says that he wants couples to “embark upon marriage as a life-long calling” and, with the church’s help, both understand the sacrament, overcome difficulties and deepen their love.

McDowell, married for 20 years with four children, knows about the challenges of marriage and family life in the 21st century.

Plus, she’s read the pope’s “memo” and her office embodies the help Francis wants the church, through the diocese, to offer married couples and families to stay true to church teachings and faithful to each other.


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