On Sunday 10 October we will celebrate Life, Marriage and Family Sunday throughout the Archdiocese and, in doing so, recognise the central role that marriage and family play in building flourishing homes, parishes and societies.

Many couples will tell you that a joyful marriage does not just ‘happen’. It requires the concerted effort of both spouses to grow, heal, forgive and pursue each other in order to fully live out and experience the vocation of marriage.

One couple in Melbourne’s west, Fergus and Renee Prien, are helping spouses discover the importance of growth in marriage and of sharing married life with others. The Priens have started St Anthony’s Married Couples, a group for married couples in their parish, St Anthony’s in Melton South, which is dedicated to fostering and supporting thriving marriages in their community.

‘The marriage ministry basically involves facilitating formative and social get-togethers for married couples to further develop the skill sets we each need to flourish in our marriages, families and in Christian discipleship,’ says Fergus. ‘Our motivation for starting the group was first and foremost because after a few months of being newly married, we realised that we still had a lot to learn about living the sacrament of marriage. The marriage preparation we had received had been incredibly useful; however, we also saw in our own lives that we needed more input on an ongoing basis than even the best “one and done” event could provide.’

Reflecting on their own experience of marriage, and listening to their married friends, Fergus and Renee identified fostering community and support among married couples as one of the greatest needs. ‘We also reflected upon the fact that the married couples whom we consider role-models for our own marriage universally shared how important it is to be around other people in the same state of life as yourselves and that you need to always be proactive in learning the skills you need to address both ongoing and new challenges. All of these factors contributed to our decision to organise a parish-based married couples ministry as a way of addressing what we considered to be a need that was not being completely addressed in both our own marriage and for the marriages of our friends.

‘The large-group social get-togethers (COVID restrictions allowing of course) are in one sense an excuse for families to meet and have a bit of fun together. Hopefully they lead to new friendships being formed and old ones being strengthened, which in turn lead to opportunities for socialising between individual married couples outside of the group get-togethers. After all, we learn just as much from each other at the dinner table as we do by attending talks by experts.’

Given that the married couples group has not been able to meet recently due to COVID-19 restrictions, Fergus and Renee offer this advice for couples who are struggling in lockdown:

‘Every married couple will be different, but instead of binge-watching Netflix or building and emptying one’s wine cellar, this time is as good as any to schedule in time together to learn more about each other, having honest conversations about the things that are important to each of you but that were getting neglected in the busyness prior to lockdown and that you want to be a part of your life going forward, and identifying one or two areas that you would like to grow in as a couple and then implementing a plan to follow.

It might sound counterintuitive if a couple is struggling with lockdown together, but spending time together fostering positive experiences can be a good use of the ample time many of us find ourselves with now that in-person socialising is temporarily not possible. We schedule in wine and cheese nights, movie nights and board-game nights with each other. If married couples are feeling isolated, Zoom catch-ups and games nights with friends and families can also be a good idea.’

Growth in marriage may be a long process, with many challenges and struggles, but as the couples of St Anthony’s Married Couples in Melton South can attest, the task is made easier when done in community with others. Other married couples empathise with the hardships and offer encouragement by sharing their own stories about how the grace of God can strengthen, renew and free spouses from the struggles of marriage.

‘Happy marriages do not happen by accident; they take a lot of reflection, hard-work and course-corrections’, Fergus says. ‘We think of the parish marriage ministry as one way of facilitating opportunities for both ourselves and other married couples to regularly refocus on the task at hand, learn how to get better at living our stage of life and, in so doing, allowing each of us to experience the journey in all of its fullness—a journey that God intends for us to take together.’

We pray for all married couples at this time as we celebrate the joy of marriage and family life, asking God to aid spouses in their vocation towards growth, healing, reconciliation and a full life together in Christ.

In our own Archdiocese, one way of commemorating the joy of marriage has been the marking of significant wedding anniversaries through the annual Anniversary Mass celebrated at St Patrick’s Cathedral. This year, the Mass was to be celebrated on Life, Marriage and Family Sunday on 16 October. However, unfortunately due to the lockdown, this will no longer be possible.

Instead, parishes may like to mark Life, Marriage and Family Sunday in their own circumstances, varied as they may be. Below you will find some resources to help your parish celebrate the occasion and, in particular, the joy of married life. Recognising the different situations parishes may find themselves in, the resources can be used in a variety of settings and include a prayer for married couples, renewal of wedding vows and a prayer of the faithful. While some resources will be more appropriate for a liturgical setting—and could perhaps be used in livestream Masses or in public Masses (for those in regional areas)—other resources might be included in parish bulletins or emails to parishioners.

Resources for Life, Marriage and Family Sunday (10 October)