Becoming a marriage-building parish: 8 strategies for success

Categories: Around the Diocese,World Meeting of Families

Local marriage and family life director offers practical ideas at world meeting

By Joe Towalski
The Visitor

Strengthening marriage and family life in today’s secular culture is no easy task, says Chris Codden, director of the Office of Marriage and Family in the Diocese of St. Cloud.
But parishes that are willing to consider multiple approaches and create an intentional plan can help to build a strong culture of marriage despite the challenges.


Chris Codden, director of the Diocese of St. Cloud’s Office of Marriage and Family, presents a workshop titled “When I was Hungry: Providing for the Material and Spiritual Needs of the Family at the Local Parish” Sept. 23 at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Photo by Joe Towalski/The Visitor

And, the challenges are many in central Minnesota, around the country and around the world.

“An increasing number of couples are not marrying. When you look at youth and young adults, an intentional outreach to them is to say that marriage is possible and that marriage is joy-filled,” Codden said Sept. 24, the third day of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. “I think that’s why they’re scared to death of marriage. They’ve seen the break-ups in their personal lives.”

And too many newly married couples don’t understand that a marriage license isn’t an automatic ticket to happiness.

“You have to work at it,” she said. “Parishes need to assist couples throughout their lives to help them achieve that happiness.”

Codden, who also serves as a consultant to the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, presented a workshop at the international family gathering about how parishes can assist couples and families at every stage of their development. Her presentation, titled “When I was Hungry: Providing for the Material and Spiritual Needs of the Family at the Local Parish,” offered tools and strategies for clergy, parish staff and lay people.
The building blocks

Pope Benedict XVI called parishes “the family of families,” said Codden, who formed her comments around the bishops’ 2009 pastoral letter on “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.”
Based on the letter, she offered eight building blocks and strategies for becoming a marriage-building parish:

  • Building leadership.
    Parishes or a parish cluster should form a team for those who minister to the vocation of family and marriage, Codden said. Members should be from a variety of backgrounds, be articulate and have a passion for family life.
    “Most will be from the laity because that’s where the vast majority of us live out our everyday lives,” she said. “They could be newly married, married couples with children in Catholic schools, married couples with children in religious education, couples in second marriages, empty nesters, divorced persons, single persons and parish staff, including religious education, youth ministers, pastoral associates and the pastor.”
    The team must evaluate and prioritize goals, develop a plan and have access to ongoing educational opportunities for themselves, she said.
  • Forming youth and young adults.
    Parishes should ask for main questions, Codden said: Does our parish provide programs and effective catechesis that help youth and young adults discuss, understand and defend the unique meaning of marriage in the face of contemporary challenges? How does our parish witness to youth about the importance of marriage — does it include married couples as catechists and the sacrament of marriage as part of vocation talks?
    Do we consider parents’ understanding of church teaching and help them to be on the same page as the church? And, is there a mentality in our parish that confirmation is graduation? If so, what are we doing to ensure youth understand that religious education is a lifelong process?
  • Preparing for the sacrament.
    “The old assumption that couples approaching the church for marriage know and live their faith is so many times no longer the case,” Codden said. “Part of our marriage preparation should involve a very welcoming and extended invitation to participate in the life of the church and the sacrament they’re about to enter into.”
    Marriage preparation is most effective when it involves clergy, lay leaders and mentor couples, she said. Parishes should also pray for engaged and newly married couples at Mass and other times.
  • Creating a culture of life.
    “This affirms the gift of children as precious, unrepeatable gifts from God,” Codden said. “It acknowledges and supports the vocation and role of parents as primary educators of their kids and assists them in building their domestic church.”
  • Strengthening the married.
    “Do we as a parish consider our married couples as finished products, or do we nurture them throughout the life cycle?” Codden asked.
    Parishes should offer marriage enrichment programs and small faith-sharing groups that help couples address relevant topics such as communication, finances and theology of the body.
  • Pastoral care for those in need.
    “As a family of families, is our parish a place where people can go in crisis for assistance or get a referral?” Codden asked. Parishes need to provide access to good counselors who protect the marriage bond and provide ongoing support after an initial crisis.
  • Divorce healing.
    “As a parish, do we provide support for persons through the initial trauma of divorce?” she asked. It is essential to provide programs rooted in Catholic teaching and that also help children cope with the impact of divorce in their family.
  • Worshiping and prayer.
    “Our No. 1 assignment for engaged couples is to go to Mass,” Codden said. “If they’re getting married in the Catholic Church, that’s where they need to put their heart, and learn about that in their parish. … Do we help them become part of the family of families, regularly participating and building the domestic church?”

Providing inspiration

The World Meeting of Families is helpful to people who work in family and marriage ministry, Codden said.

“It’s the realization that everybody is in the same boat, no matter if they’re coming from Vietnam, or South Korea or Africa,” she said. “We’re all in this together and worried about the family. So, hopefully, there’s the motivation that we have to do something.

“Second there’s the inspiration the meeting provides,” she said. “I’m hearing what other people are doing. We all can do something when we get back home. That momentum will hopefully carry on to those who didn’t come here. Just start with something and be intentional with your focus.”