By Elizabeth Davies, Director of Volunteer Recruitment, Training and Formation at Marriage Care
A year ago, on April 8th, the long-awaited papal exhortation The Joy of Love was finally published, concluding two and a half years of worldwide consultation and deliberation on marriage and family life. The document’s key themes of mercy, discernment and pastoral accompaniment are well lodged in our hearts now, though, like Mary, we may still be pondering (and no doubt will continue to do so for some time yet) their fullest meaning and implication for our pastoral practices.
This time last year, Marriage Care’s Chair of Trustees, Kit Dollard, welcomed the Pope’s reference to ‘new pastoral methods’, saying that “we hope to take a central role in making this a reality in our dioceses”. At the same time Marriage Care was entering into a research partnership with Roehampton University, supported by the Charles Plater Trust. We aimed to explore how Marriage Care’s Catholic ethos shapes the way we provide, and couples experience, our services. We wanted to see more clearly how our work embodies Catholic social thought and to discern where our own pastoral methods might be renewed.
We know from research that it is couples from lower socio-economic backgrounds who are most likely to experience relationship distress. We know also that a healthy couple relationship improves their own and their children’s life-chances. So the information, skills, time and space we offer through our marriage preparation courses all help to relieve relationship poverty by equipping couples for healthier relationships, enabling them to reflect together on their relationship, values, sacrament and future. Equally our relationship counselling services, offered regardless of ability to pay, are there for the more difficult times, especially for those who live below the poverty line. In this way, our work clearly offers an ‘option for the poor’. However, we also found other ways in which Marriage Care’s work reflects Catholic social teaching.
Among these were questions of solidarity. As Pope Francis has said recently, it takes great courage today to get married. We know that many couples have experienced the effects of marriage breakdown and fear it for themselves. A sense of uncertainty and vulnerability can hold them back from giving themselves totally to each other in complete trust. We want to be a source of hope for them, so that no matter what difficulties they encounter, they learn it is possible to work through them, even if sometimes that means accessing professional support. One couple told us that their experience of our marriage preparation day “opened both of our eyes. That is something that will stick with me. Whereas before I would have seen counselling, as [something] you only go [to] when you’re really in trouble.”
Our volunteers were also interviewed as part of the study. Their responses highlighted a deep concern for the dignity of each person, a welcoming and non-judgmental attitude that is woven throughout the process and content of our courses. In many ways, we seem to represent the ‘smiling face’ of the Church to the couples we meet: “It’s almost like us opening a door that they may decide they want to come through later.” “We’re there to show that they’re welcome and it doesn’t matter where they are at the moment, we’re just glad that they’re coming back now; even if it’s only temporary.”
We found too that Marriage Care supports the call to community, family and participation that underpins all Catholic social thought. Our work waters and fertilises the seeds of the domestic Church, which have been planted by God through the relationship of the couple with each other. What we recognised was that not only is the ‘spirit at work’ within the confines of the marriage preparation day, FOCCUS© sessions and in counselling sessions, but that there is also preparation going on spiritually within the couples before and after: “I walked away from it not feeling like someone had tried to sort of convert me … I found it engaging … I thought it was good.”
In a recent address in Belfast, Cardinal Vincent Nichols noted two central axioms of Pope Francis’ vision for the Church: time is greater than space and reality is more important than ideas. At the heart of these two axioms, he said, are the need to supply a concrete sense of belonging to those we serve and a respectful regard for the reality of a person’s life. Marriage Care is already guided by these principles and making them a reality in dioceses. In the next phase of this research project we aim to facilitate a series of local conversations to further enable our volunteers to discover this. At a national level, we are examining the formation implications of this research for ourselves and for the wider Church community.
Marriage Care delivers counselling and marriage preparation services through a network of 53 centres, more than 100 counselling locations and the sheer dedication of over 700 professionally trained and accredited volunteers.
If you are interested in volunteering for Marriage Care please visit www.marriagecare.org.uk
If you would like to make an appointment for marriage preparation or for counselling, please use our Freephone number 0800 389 3801
This article first appeared in the CSAN ‘Caritas in Action’ column in the Catholic Times on 07.04.17