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Bishops’ National Pastoral Marriage Initiative: What is it, and how will it help?

OMAHA, Neb. (The Catholic Voice) - Even though it’s been more than three years since the U.S. Bishops’ National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage was approved, the initiative is hardly a household word.

That could begin to change over the next several months, as the bishops prepare to release a pastoral letter on marriage and plans are developed for a variety of pastoral resources.

Valerie Conzett, director of the Archdiocese of Omaha’s Family Life Office, said the pastoral letter from the bishops will be released this fall, and is expected to focus on marriage commitment.

That topic will be addressed as a promise to stay married, as a vision of what marriage can be in the world today and as a means of growth in a marriage.

The essence of the letter, Conzett said, is to “reinforce the value of marriage.”

Conzett said the general lack of awareness about the initiative was expected during the early stages of the project, which will continue for the bishops through 2011.

Much of the early work centered on information gathering, including focus groups with married couples, separated or divorced persons and single adults. Married couples involved in focus groups include interfaith couples and couples in second marriages.

Other focus groups involved priests, and the information gathering also included consultations with social scientists and theologians, and discussions on marriage preparation and marriage enrichment.

A national research project focuses on Catholics’ understanding of marriage. Results of a survey conducted as part of that research is outlined in a story on page 12.

Reversing the trends

According to the bishops’ Web site on marriage — ForYourMarriage.org — the bishops’ focus on marriage was prompted by the ways marriage has suffered in recent years.

“The persistent high rate of divorce, rapid rise of non-marital cohabitation, and falling marriage rate testify to its (marriage’s) social decline,” according to the site. “
The bishops believe that the Catholic Church can make a distinct contribution to shaping public awareness about the value of marriage.”
Through the initiative, the bishops hope to: offer a Catholic witness on marriage, its meaning, value and sanctity; work with people on public policy, laws and strategies to support marriage; strengthen marriage ministries; and support dioceses and church organizations to help in this work.

As the bishops move toward the pastoral letter, local dioceses are being encouraged to promote marriage, the Web site and the initiative.

Conzett said her office has printed cards about the Web site, distributed information to the clergy and used parish bulletins to increase awareness.

Her office offers training and resources, as well as retreats relating to marriage and family enrichment, Conzett said, but much of the activity will be at the parish level.

Holy Family Parish in Lindsay, for example, had a special couple blessing at one weekend’s Masses, plus offered a marriage enrichment program, attended by 65 couples.

More than 55 participants from 25 parishes (14 rural and 11 urban) recently completed training in the Strengthening Catholic Families: Marriage Enrichment and Parent Training program. The program outlines some of the “how to” as well as available resources. Those parishes are considering a variety of programs to serve people at the parish level.

While programs that draw attention often are those designed to help couples with some of the practical aspects of marriage (communication and finance), Conzett said the bishops also will look at the spiritual side of marriage. Not being open to the Holy Spirit often is a factor in marriages failing to grow, she said.

“Spirit is mystery, surprise and paradox and often does not provide answers and certainty which are so valued by contemporary culture,” she said.

“The spiritual journey, which is the vocation of marriage, is an invitation from God to couples to grow in holiness throughout their lifetime. God’s grace is the resource which allows them to respond faithfully throughout their lifetime.”

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Catholic Voice (www.catholicvoiceomaha.com), official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb.

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