My own Pre-Cana day was a disaster. My future husband had the flu but due to our work schedules, it was the only Saturday we could make it before our wedding. We had no choice but to go. We spent the day with what seemed like a hundred other couples sitting at tables listening to talks by well-meaning people who obviously felt that their purpose was to scare us out of getting married. I don't think anyone said anything positive about marriage the whole day. During one of the talks, several young women left the room in tears. It was truly awful.
Surely, there had to be a better way to prepare people for marriage. I was thrilled when, a year later, the pastoral minister asked my husband and I to be part of the pre-cana team at our new parish. Their pre-cana program was in its second year. The four main talks, focusing on spirituality, communication, sexuality, and finances were all being given by couples who had been married 30+ years, but the evaluations the previous year suggested that the day could be helped by having the perspective of some younger couples. In response, they recruited four "newlywed" couples, all married five years or less to contribute to the day by giving little presentations on some of the challenges early marriage presented. I gave a talk on coping with busy schedules (my husband and I both were working full-time and going to graduate school at the time - we saw each other about 5 minutes a day!). My husband spoke on misunderstandings. Other talks focused on outside stresses, the changes that parenthood bring to a marriage, in-laws, and coping with change.
Being part of that pre-cana program was a wonderful gift. Even though my husband and I had been married a little while at that point, I felt I learned so much from listening to these older, wiser couples. They didn't gloss over the difficulties that marriage presented, but they were overwhelmingly positive and encouraging and were even willing to laugh at themselves! You could see the love that these partners had for each other, even after all those years and all the ups and downs.
The following year I was recruited to give the natural family planning talk which has been my domain ever since. After nine years, three of the older couples have resigned from the team (although the couple who gives the sexuality talk, who are now in their late 60s and have been married for 44 years, are still going strong!). Other couples have joined the team, blessing all of us with their insights. Meanwhile, the "newlyweds" that were recruited so long ago have now all been married 10 - 15 years and have become great friends in the process. Our children go to school together. We see each other at mass and parish functions. Being on the pre-cana team, where we share some of the intimate details of our lives and relationships in order to help others, has only served to strengthen our connection.
Hopefully, the engaged couples who have passed through our program have benefited as well. Unlike the program that my husband and I attended, we try to make this day about them. Yes, we impart information and share our stories, but almost every presentation includes time and activities for them to do with each other - alone. Our day is intended to prompt conversation. If these couples can lay the foundation for working out their differences and cooperating with each other, then we have done our job. If we can invite them to consider some issues that may not have crossed their minds, we have accomplished much.
Engagement is such a wonderful time in a person's life, a time of hope and looking to the future. Marriage preparation in the Church should be a hopeful experience as well. It is always so great to see these young couples so much in love moving toward the day when they will become one. They are embracing marriage at a time when the world doesn't support marriage anywhere near as much as it should. It is the hope of all of us on the pre-cana team that we can offer that support and encouragement, that we can show examples of loving marriages that are surviving and thriving despite the challenges that marriage presents. That should be the goal of all marriage preparation programs.