Strengthening marriages and families in the Diocese of Trenton is one of Bishop O’Connell’s pastoral priorities. The diocesan Plan for Strengthening Marriage was developed by the diocesan Marriage Study Commission, approved by Bishop O’Connell and launched at the Marriage Summit in May 2015. The plan offers diocesan-wide objectives and particular strategies for the diocese and for parishes.
Building Strong Marriages requires a bold new perspective in the way we minister to married couples and families in our parishes. The marital relationship needs to be strengthened and sustained every day, in every situation and every stage of married life. The parish thus becomes the community of support for all Catholic families.
We need to bring the light of Christ into every human situation, meet all families where they are, and bring them into a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Our marriage plan calls all parishes to accompany married couples and families every step of the way, and to bring them into full and active participation in the sacramental life of the Church, where they encounter Jesus most profoundly by sharing in the Eucharist.
The diocesan Plan for Strengthening Marriage dovetails with marriage-strengthening efforts in the U.S. Catholic Church and abroad. Here in the U.S., our Catholic Bishops launched a National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage in 2005, and published a pastoral letter for marriage entitled Love and Life in the Divine Plan in 2009. The U.S. initiative remains a priority and is still being implemented in dioceses across the country.
In response to global concerns about Catholic marriage and family life, Pope Francis called for a Synod on the Family in 2013 in conjunction with the World Meeting of Families in 2015, and published his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, in 2016. Dioceses around the world are called to incorporate the teachings of Amoris Laetitia into all marriage and family ministry efforts.
In the words of our U. S. Bishops...
“The Church is built on a foundation of marriage and family life, which it cherishes as the school of a deeper humanity and a cradle of the civilization of love. For this reason, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI [and now Pope Francis] have emphasized that pastoral ministry in service of marriage and family life should be an urgent priority for the Church.
We urge a renewed commitment by the entire Catholic community to helping those called to the vocation of married life to live it faithfully, fruitfully, and joyfully. We pledge to be a marriage-building Church, drawing strength from God‘s grace while using creatively the gifts and resources entrusted to us."
As directed by the U.S. Bishops, our diocesan Plan for Strengthening Marriage calls for “a comprehensive and collaborative ministry to marriages.” The Plan is comprehensive because it looks at each phase of marriage preparation – remote preparation for marriage that begins when a child is born into a Catholic family, proximate preparation that takes over as young adults begin to seriously discern if marriage is their true vocation, immediate preparation when a couple becomes engaged, and after care – sustaining the marriage through every stage of married life.
The Plan is collaborative because its full implementation includes essential tasks for parish leadership and parish staff, educators, parents, married couples, volunteers and all who support marriage among the Catholic faithful. Marriage-strengthening efforts can only be successful with assistance from the entire parish community, and full diocesan support. Therefore each of the seven objectives of the Plan calls for actionable steps – some the full responsibility of the diocese, others the task of the parish with diocesan assistance when needed.
A common theme in the Plan is the role of married couples as living witnesses of what it means to be the sacrament of marriage – the true sign of Christ’s love for his bride, the Church. Among their roles, married couples can serve as mentors – to minister to engaged and other married couples out of their own experience. They may serve as teachers – perhaps to give a talk on marriage at a religious education class, a youth group meeting, or a young adult gathering. Others serve as Pre-Cana team members, helping prepare engaged couples for Catholic marriage.
One of the most important elements of the plan is “to establish a marriage ministry in every parish to provide intentional support and enrichment for married couples, including those who are struggling in their relationships or family situations.” In order to become true marriage-building communities, each parish will identify married couples and others with a passion for the Sacrament of Matrimony to form a peer-to-peer, Parish Marriage Ministry so they can work to build, strengthen, enrich, sustain and sometimes even save Catholic marriages.
The Department of Evangelization and Family Life’s primary mission is to lead each human person to an encounter with Jesus Christ, through whom salvation is offered. Evangelization brings about conversion – changes of heart, changes in thinking, changes in attitude and action throughout the whole of a person’s life. So it follows that in each phase of life, there must be opportunities to grow in faith and into intimate union with the Lord.
Every person belongs to a family. Marriage is the foundation of family, and families are the foundation of the Catholic parish. In the midst of the family and the parish community, people encounter Christ and learn to be his disciples. Family and parish are the primary environments in which evangelization takes place. The Plan for Strengthening Marriage supports and enhances efforts to evangelize the family in our parishes.
Together in Mission is a tool that has been created to help pastors, parish clergy and staff, parish ministry leaders and families become more intentional about evangelizing at every phase of life. It offers an organizing principle for understanding how the ministries of parish life are related to one another and how they can support the real lives of families growing in faith.
The Plan for Strengthening Marriage supports the five principles and priorities named by Bishop O’Connell for the Faith in Our Future initiative, but particularly with regard to evangelization, collaboration and service.
The basis of the marriage plan is to help all married couples experience the fullness of the marital relationship by living the sacrament as authentically as possible, and thereby encountering Jesus in the ordinary (and extraordinary) moments of daily life. The Plan is evangelizing by meeting couples where they are and helping them to see their homes and families as domestic churches and the source of new disciples.
The Plan is collaborative because parishes can pool their resources and pull from a wider pool of Catholic faithful to lead marriage-building efforts on the cohort level.
Lastly, the Plan is founded on the notion of service. Parish Marriage Ministry is fundamental to the Plan; all marriage-related activities in the parish fall within the umbrella of comprehensive marriage ministry. Married couples serve as both subjects and objects of marriage ministry in the parish.