By Annette Alleva
The North Star Catholic
COVID-19 dashed many dreams, taxed our souls, took our lives. No one in the world has been left unaffected. Those planning to wed in the Catholic Church, preparing to commit to a lifetime with one they love, hit a huge bump in the road at the start of their marital journey. Planning the celebrations of sacramental love, attending to the details of dreams, and examining the implications of their impending commitment all came to agonizing halts as couples, worldwide, postponed or canceled weddings. Some pivoted to alternate and never-imagined plans. All grappled with concerns about gathering families, travel, expenses, and a new way of living in the coronavirus pandemic this past year.
On the path toward a spiritual and natural milestone, Catholic couples were at various marriage preparation stages with their parish deacons or priests. They hoped to have face-to-face discussions with their prospective spouses and their mentors. They hoped to experience and share with other couples a weekend-long retreat through Engaged Encounter. As these steps toward the altar were modified in unanticipated ways, many contemplating marriages likely placed their hopes and plans on a back burner as they pondered an uncertain future.
Deacon Mick Fornelli, at Saint Patrick’s Parish in Anchorage, has been helping couples prepare for marriage within the Catholic Church for over 14 years. He has counseled as many as 25 or as few as 18 couples in a given year. In the past year, he assisted only a handful, a few of whom ultimately married, with mandates and restrictions in place that limited their choices and expectations, but not their commitment to each other.
At Anchorage’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, pastor Father Henry Grodecki is actively preparing several couples for this monumental step. “I start my preparation telling them the only thing necessary for a Catholic wedding is the couple, two witnesses, and me.”
He notes, however, “that marriages are down, in a pervasive culture that does not want to make a permanent commitment.”
The United States has experienced a steady decline in marriages for several decades. Disproportionately, Catholic marriages have dropped even more steeply. Economic, social, and cultural influences have contributed to the decisions to marry, though no one factor can easily be identified. As Father Grodecki stated, “there is no stigma for living together.”
Though times have changed, many are willing to commit to a lifetime together in Holy Matrimony and explore what that means in the world today.
Saint Patrick parishioners and lifelong Catholics Shelby Carlson and Thomas Langdon had planned to marry in the Catholic Church in August of 2020. According to Carlson, following their engagement in August of 2019, they “hit the ground running” with the required preparations outlined by the Church, attending in-person sessions with Deacon Fornelli. “By the time the lockdown happened, we had vendors, the venues and other details in place,” she said. By June, the couple knew their plans to celebrate their nuptials with elderly family members in Colorado could not take place.
To gather family and friends meant a lot to these lifelong Catholics. “We want as many people to be there as possible, but we want them to be safe. The wedding wasn’t just because of us; it was because of them,” Carlson added. They continued meeting with Deacon Fornelli via Zoom and completed an approved and required program through CatholicMarriagePrep.com. They are currently planning to complete a session on Natural Family Planning, as well.
“We would have loved to be in a room with him [Deacon Mick], where we can see each other…but he adapted and worked with us,” Carlson said. “We went through week by week—and did it together,” Carlson appreciated the online program but longed for the experience generally offered through Engaged Encounter.
“There is a loss when it comes to the social aspect, but we didn’t lose anything in the intimacy” of the remote format, Carlson added.
Acknowledging what he termed “a degree of rigidity” in the requirements for couples to enter into a Catholic marriage, Deacon Fornelli emphasized, “We want to work with the couple. Everyone is entitled to a sacramental marriage. We provide an opportunity for that.”
An innocent misunderstanding of those requirements led bride-to-be Jordan Alleva (the writer’s daughter) to urge fiancé Tyler Thammavongsa to complete the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program at Saint Patrick’s parish for full communion with the Catholic Church. Alleva, a life-long parishioner who grew up in the community of Saint Anthony’s in Anchorage and received all of her sacraments there, said, “I originally thought both parties had to be Catholic. The Church shaped who I am. It put me on a path of treating people well, building a community, spending time with people who are on the same page…on the same journey.” Receiving the sacraments as part of life in the community “was just something we did,” Alleva said of herself and her four siblings. “I want that experience for our future family,” she added. “We do this together. We are a unit.”
Thammavongsa, whose relatives have a background in Buddhism, though some were baptized and partially catechized in the Catholic Church, grew up with limited knowledge of the faith to which he was about to convert.
COVID-19 not only upended the couple’s plans for a September wedding in 2020 but truncated the RCIA process for Thammavongsa, who was welcomed into the faith on a sunny day in June, months after (and with health restrictions in place) it should have taken place at this year’s Easter Vigil. By this time, the wedding date had been moved to June of 2021. Plans to complete required pre-marital preparations were also rescheduled.
“I wanted to do it for you,” Thammavongsa said, of his decision to marry both into a new faith and a new life with Alleva, which would entail certain disciplines to prepare for that new life.
They both look forward to the religious and spiritual preparation required of them while acknowledging the circumstances are less than ideal. “We need to spend more time together,” he stated.
As Alleva sees it, “the point of marriage is two parties coming together as one in front of a community that loves and supports them.” If family and friends could be included in only a minimal way (through Zoom or other remote witness), the couple was willing to wait. “It means more than just a couple, two witnesses and a presider,” Alleva said. “It is family, community, people who have known me since I was baptized in that church.”
While navigating a new normal, couples preparing for marriage are making choices they never anticipated. Faced with unimagined challenges, the process of preparing for a life-changing sacrament can afford them tools to navigate whatever comes their way. As they make and alter their plans, experience tension and resolve issues, “there are techniques learned in the marriage preparation programs to practice communication and negotiating skills,” Father Grodecki noted.
“If your pride and ego get ahead of you, it’s not going to work. If you’re not a team and if we don’t work together, it is not going to work,” Alleva said.
As couples look hopefully toward their futures together, they continue to demonstrate both their commitment to each other and the faith they have long or only recently professed. There is a renewed willingness, forged by a delay of their dreams, to work for what they increasingly value—a sacramental marriage in a world less inclined to commit to one and in the environment of a continuing pandemic, which will forever leave its mark on all of our lives.