Reflections on Marriage Prep Class, 25 Years Removed

The woman in the office of Visitation Parish near the Country Club Plaza looked at my wife-to-be, Lori, very intently.

“To be married in the church, you will need to participate in a marriage preparation class,” she explained. “It involves completing a workbook and attending meetings with a host couple. There is no way to complete the class in less than three months.”

It was January 1987. The sexual revolution had run its course and cultural commentators were still evaluating its impact on the nuclear family. There was little doubt, however, that divorce statistics were rising and with them, growing concern about the viability of the institution of marriage. For Catholics, marriage is Holy Matrimony — a sacrament, a distinction shared with more sobering church rituals like confession and last rites, neither of which evokes the warm and fuzzy feelings that most would normally associate with wedding bells.

Several years earlier “The Church” unveiled the marriage prep class, officially known as Pre Cana, and with it, an ironclad protocol required for any church wedding. Lori understood there would be new rules; still, hearing it directly and in stark terms — somewhat diminished the excitement of beginning a life together.

Choosing a dress? Picking bridesmaids? Not so fast — you’re late to class. And here are your workbooks. Get busy!

The church lady continued — “The goal is to make sure new couples are prepared for the responsibilities and challenges that come with the sacrament of marriage.”

Lori and I were in this together, despite coming to the faith topic from totally different paths. Lori understood that Catholics belonged in three groups — the disaffected, the regular and the devout — and then you had the elevated spot occupied by Larry and Ramona Keenan, my parents. Lori was on board and her approach set the tone for all the other tasks that awaited us. Still, there was much to do for 25- and 26-year-old adults who had arrived at this decision with a fair amount of maturity.

“Can you fail the class?” I asked.

“No,” said the church lady. “But it’s not unusual for some couples to decide they are not ready for the responsibility.”

Lori and I dutifully completed preliminary paperwork and left.

Two months later we were knocking on the door of our marriage prep leaders. Their charming Brookside home was brimming with crucifixes, statuettes and other iconic images of the Holy Family. The fridge showed photos of the four small children who occasionally could be heard giggling from above the stairwell.

There were a total of four couples at the class. One looked like they just finished high school. The boy was someone whose resemblance to Anthony Michael Hall in “Sixteen Candles” cannot be exaggerated. His fiancée was rail thin, wearing a cowl-neck sweater and said not a word. Another couple was older than Lori and me and seemed quite ready to get this behind them. The third couple was roughly our age and we had a fair amount in common except the husband-to-be didn’t view these sessions as an opportunity for humorous exploration.

Over four meetings, the awkwardness gave way to a collective mission and an admiration for a married couple willing to open up their home, share their faith and mutual devotion to raising healthy, happy and grounded children. Many years later, that couple, still very much in love, moved to Kansas and we became acquainted with them again.

The prep also included completing a workbook during a sit-down session at Visitation Parish. It was entitled “When Families Marry,” and, while cleaning out our basement last month, Lori and I found it.
This manual, using barely disguised topics such as “family attitudes” was about three topics — sex, money and sex. Reading it, some of the questions bore zero relationship to reality, like this one: “How would I feel about the woman initiating intercourse?” Or “How will I know if my spouse is in the mood for intercourse?”

Some sections of the book were incomplete, like the monthly budget. Others were noteworthy for the notations (and often cartoons) drawn in the margins. “Please pay attention!” “Stop squirming.”

There was a chapter about Natural Family Planning, followed by a Q&A. All of us have moments in our lives that test our restraint. This was one of those moments. I failed. Included were questions whose answers could give any prospective husband some serious misgivings: “When we have a marriage fight, will either of us tell Mom and Dad everything? Will we run home?” Or this one: “In my family the image of a real man was one who had a lot of muscles.”

Other sections would make Helen Gurley Brown blush, including a discussion of positions, foreplay and a couple of other subjects best left to the imagination. The sexual revolution, it seemed, was not entirely secular.

Through it all, Lori and I had a blast. That October — back in 1987 — we set out on our adult journey and have held the ship together for the better and worse, richer and poorer. Twenty-five years and four children later we know a faith-filled marriage has been at the core of our union.