Discernment, Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage/Parenting Advice

I write this simply because I am often asked about these issues. There certainly isn’t anything special about me or my wisdom with respect to them (I am, in fact, markedly in need of growth!), it’s just that I recently went through all of this: my wife and I have been married for just over two years now and we have a 18 month old son (with child #2 on the way). Before we dated, I was in seminary, and immediately before that I was discerning my very vocational calling itself. Therefore, within the past few years I’ve gone through each item of the title of this page.

I am not trying to make this any sort of a comprehensive overview of these issues, so I’m just going to present yet another post in bullet-list format. Far better Catholics than myself have written on this in a more comprehensive format, and I recommend their works heartily. (One great book is Marriage is for Keeps by John Kippley). I know that important things are being left out of this article; I’m just presenting those individual points I’ve found either most often neglected in practice or most often left-out of advice given on these topics.

Finally, know I am literally nauseated by the thought of anyone looking up to me in these realms; I was and am light years away from being a model discerner/boyfriend/fiance/husband/father (so please don’t look up to or imitate me. Look up to and imitate the saints and above all Jesus, Mary, and Joseph instead). Therefore, feel free to take all that follows with a big grain of salt (I won’t be offended!). I share this not because I think I am worth imitating — I know I am not — but simply because I cannot in good conscience keep hidden these pieces of advice that are so rarely given. So please, at least prayerfully consider it all — because whoever you are, there is likely a point or two (at the very least!) that you’ll feel like automatically outright rejecting, for I have gone for specificity here instead of the “safer,” more general, platitudinous advice. I do this because I know that specific, practical advice is usually much more helpful, even though it is riskier to give because it does not always apply.

Discernment:

  • Discernment is about following without fear your calling, which is simply the most ardent desire of your heart (that is, aside from when miraculous signs are given — which, while rare, must indeed be followed when given. They are not wrong to ask for, but also do not have to be asked for).  A valid calling arises from internal attraction, not a sense of external imposition.
    • Examples of a sense of external imposition:
    • “Ugh. I have to become a priest because there’s a priest shortage today and I need to help that.”
    • “Ugh. I have to get married because my parents what grandchildren.”
    • “Ugh. I have to get married because that’s what the social circles I hang out in expect.”
    • “Ugh. I have to enter this order now because I’ve told people that I’m thinking of joining it and they’re excited about it and I don’t want to disappoint them.”
    • “Ugh. I have to go in this particular direction because it’s the direction that is the most objectively holy, even though I’m really not feeling it.” (see below)
  • The supernatural callings– priesthood and consecrated religious life — must be given preference due to their objective superiority to marriage (their superiority is Church teaching, don’t bother disagreeing!), and the fact that human nature itself is not intrinsically inclined toward them. So if you’re 50-50 between marriage and one of these, then go with one of these. Be sure to give yourself ample opportunity to feel this draw to the supernatural: come-and-see weekends, lots of time with the Blessed Sacrament, frequent Communion and deep prayer afterward, friendships with priests and religious, detachment from worldly things, etc. (incidentally, those things are very important no matter what your vocation is — except come and see weekends.) An absence of any one of those things can easily make a true supernatural calling be overlooked; and what a tragedy that would be.
    • But if despite that availing of yourself, you still lean towards marriage, then don’t feel guilty in going in that direction! There are plenty of married people who have ascended to the highest heights of heaven, and there are also plenty of priests and religious in hell. Pay no heed to the fact that the vast majority of canonized saints were not married. The vast majority of unmarried priests and religious are also not canonized saints! It is useless to apply statistical analysis to those the Church has chosen to canonize. Just look up to and imitate their virtue. Objective superiority is meaningless outside of where you — subjectively — would flourish. You will flourish where the pure desire of your heart brings you.
    • If you do think you might be called to a supernatural vocation, tell very few people and ask them to keep it quiet. Trust me, you don’t need everybody harping you on how your vocational discernment is going; it isn’t their business. Not even your parents have to know, if you think they will vigorously strive to exert their own will upon your discernment.
  • You are called to be (and can indeed become) a saint here and now, even not knowing — or not having yet followed — your vocational calling. Look up to (and pray to) Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati in this regard. You might die before you even find your vocation! In that case, your vocation was to become a great saint while discerning. Therefore, you must not permit the discernment process to rob you of your peace and make you anxious. God is in charge. Trust that, and trust Him.
  • Remember that being a perpetual bachelor/bachelorette is not a good situation. Contrary to what you often hear, the “single life” is not, in and of itself, a vocation (a great piece on that can be found here, by Monsignor Pope). It is not good to always be just  “on the market,” as it disposes you toward distraction and fickleness. It is not healthy to go about your whole life eyeing members of the opposite sex to try and figure out if they’d make good spouses and, if so, try and woo them or figure out if they are also interested in you. The world exalts this stage in life — but Wisdom says it is better not to dwell in it.  I don’t mean to unduly stress those who are currently seeking out a spouse — I just mean to caution against intentionally remaining in that state for years and years.  If many years have gone by and you haven’t found a spouse (even after perhaps trying an online Catholic dating website — which is not wrong), and are convinced you aren’t called to priesthood or religious life, then perhaps it is time for you to consider taking a vow as a consecrated single — indeed a valid calling (and certainly far better than just settling for someone that you don’t truly feel called to marry). This is just general advice: only you know if/how/when it applies to your situation.
  • Discernment is by its very nature uncertain. Don’t allow yourself to become filled with anxiety because you “just don’t know” what you’re supposed to do. No one knows what he is supposed to do! Certainty is reserved for the Deposit of Faith — Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium — and this Deposit of Faith does not tell you whether you should be a priest, religious, consecrated single, or spouse & parent. Besides, ultimately, you cannot decide wrongly; because so long as you follow your universal vocation (which is holiness — love), then God will work everything else out for your good (cf. Romans 8:28). Even if you have to change course along the way, don’t worry: there is no shame in leaving seminary or a religious order (before final vows) if you realize it isn’t your calling, nor is there any shame in leaving a relationship with another person (before vows) if you realize you have a supernatural calling! (Though do be especially careful in that latter situation not to lead someone on. And don’t date someone “just to try it out” if you in fact feel called to a supernatural vocation — relationships should never just be “tried out,” anyway, but should only be entered into if you really feel this person could be your spouse. That is using a person as a means instead of an end, and is gravely immoral; not to mention you are risking abandoning a valid supernatural calling).
  • Is the restlessness killing you? Just start moving in a direction, and beg God with all of your heart to firmly close the door to it if it not be His will. That is a very powerful prayer. Promise Him that, no matter how drawn you feel to a certain vocational direction, you will not go in it if it involves sin.
    • To be more precise, what I mean by a door closing is, for example:
    • Feeling very much called to be a religious brother or sister in a certain order and only a certain order, and being turned down by them.
    • Feeling in love with a certain person, but being turned down by him or her.
    • Feeling in love with a certain person, but having a disagreement on something far too fundamental for it to be wise to start a family with him or her. (Though Ideally these matters are settled before you even begin going on any dates with someone — more on that later)
    • Feeling in love with a certain person, but not being granted an annulment from a previous marriage.
    • Regarding these door closings: the world, through which the devil often speaks, says “never stop fighting for what you want, no matter what.” But you, as a Christian, are called to understand the balance between, on the one hand, slothful indifference to circumstance, and, on the other hand, stubborn insistence upon the self-will (And I will assert without hesitation that the latter sin is worse. You must let God steer — so ignore the world when it says that).
    • Also, don’t mistake a bump in the road for a door closing. Feel extremely called to the priesthood in general but are turned down by a certain diocese or order? Try another, if you feel at peace with it. Feel extremely called to marriage with a certain person, but have a disagreement with or issue with that person, which is nevertheless not fundamental and will not seriously hamper your ability to raise a holy family? Don’t break up — a true calling to marry someone does not mean that everything will necessarily work out easily, and even the “perfect match made in heaven” requires effort to work. And I hope it goes without saying that someone’s past, no matter how dark –if he or she is repentant– should not be a stumbling block. “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.” James 2:13
  • Advice regarding the demeanor/comportment you should have in this phase of life toward non-family members of the opposite sex (and by non-family I mean non-siblings/parents. Cousins should not be generally exempted from these guidelines):
    • Avoid intimate solo conversations (in person, email, phone, etc.) with a member of the opposite sex you know you would never marry; someone who clearly doesn’t share your Faith who you merely like the thought of being around because you appreciate his/her beauty and personality. This type of advice that I here give is extremely out of vogue today, but it is very important. Did you know, to give a related example, that the Magisterium actually cautions against co-education? Friendships with members of the opposite sex are good, but you have to be honest with yourself and be sure to apply completely different criteria to them than to friendships with members of the same sex. 
    • Flirting should never exist in your dealings with anyone (flirting can be certain words, tones, looks, touches, etc.) whom you are not discerning marriage with. Even certain perhaps seemingly innocent compliments can lead someone on. It is crossing a boundary which should not be crossed unless you are mutually feeling as if you are called to one another.
    • Spending a little one-on-one time with a person of the opposite sex may be okay to get to know him or her — but do be cautious. Do not put yourself in an occasion of sin, and do not risk causing scandal. For example, avoid:
      • offering to take a multi-day trip with a person of the opposite sex. Significant road trips with a person of the opposite sex who is not your spouse should be out of the question.
      • not guarding your heart or acting in purity, or acting like you are too good to fall. For example, having “sleepovers” with both sexes (“Oh but we’re all good Catholics, we won’t fall into sin!”), or even “crashing on the couch for the night” at the apartment of a friend who is the opposite sex. Even if you do not feel attracted to this person, it is still inappropriate behavior. And remember that we are all sinners, and can fall at any time, especially when we put ourselves in near occasions of sin; pride always comes before the fall.
        • Now charity always comes before avoiding occasions of sin, and obviously these boundaries have instances where they must be flexed (e.g. someone is over and a terrible storm hits which would render his or her drive back home to be extremely dangerous). Here I just lay out general advice, and I leave the details to your conscience.
      • Avoid continuing friendships with people you used to have a romantic connection with. Furthermore, do not hold onto any things of theirs, or pictures of them, or something they gave you, remaining attached to that part of your past and reminding you of it. It may be hurtful to your future spouse to see you still talking a lot or spending a lot of time with that person. If nothing else, you’re wasting your life looking back on the past.
  • Social media, while indeed having potential Godly uses, is dangerous. So many youth (and increasingly, adults) waste their lives (and sin) by vainly trying to make themselves look impressive on their Facebook pages, or aimlessly clicking around to see superficial details of what is going on in other people’s lives. Again, while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Facebook (and other things like it), and quite the contrary I see it used in many Godly ways, I still usually recommend deleting Facebook accounts. I know my life benefited greatly from doing just that several years ago, just as it did from permanently giving up TV when I was in college. You must have the courage to honestly ask yourself, about the various things in your life “is this helping to make me a saint or not?” Cast away those things that do not.

Courtship:

(I use “courtship” and “dating” interchangeably simply because I don’t think that Catholics should necessarily have to invent a new lexicon other than that which the world is used to — but courtship truly is a much better word, and its definition should guide this phase, for “dating” is often taken to simply be an end in itself, whereas “courtship” is rightly recognized as a mere means to the end of marriage.)

  • First off, you should settle the important questions with someone before dating him or her; these questions can be easily touched upon in innocent conversation between two people who are merely friends, so why wouldn’t you do this first? I don’t mean minor questions that wouldn’t prevent a holy marriage if disagreed upon; I mean questions referring to your most closely held views on Faith and Family; issues such as family size/openness to life, the fundamental approach to religious education of children, who should work/ who should care for the children, what general types of careers you would both be okay/ not be okay with, what the purpose of life is (to become a saint!) and what this means in daily life, etc. (Please note that I’m not saying this to those who are already in a serious relationship with someone, with whom these questions have not been settled, and is not a devout Catholic. That is a much trickier situation and must be approached with great prayer, discernment, and ideally, spiritual direction. Rather, I offer this advice to single people who are striving to ensure they approach this phase of life with the best mindset.)
    • However, once these matters have been settled, and if you are both free to date, if you seriously think that you could possibly be called to the other, and if you both feel at peace with the thought of discerning marriage together (which of course implies that you have talked about the idea of marriage!) after bringing it to God in prayer and maybe even seeking counsel from one or two holy persons — then start your courtship! Don’t impose pointless and arbitrary rules upon yourself that basically amount to putting God on a leash, rules like “I’ll only date someone until we’ve first been friends for X number of months/years.
    • On a related note, when it comes to discerning marriage with someone who is not Catholic, I cannot help but advise against even entering into a relationship with someone who is not Catholic and does not want to become Catholic. I’m not saying it’s never God’s will… but I cannot help but caution against it in general. If you think you are called to this, be sure to at least try and feel out whether the other is willing to make the move to become Catholic. And consider that for the vast majority of Church history, it wasn’t even Canonically permitted for a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic. Don’t assume you can change someone who shows no signs of wanting to change in that way on his or her own. You’re not God! Now I will certainly qualify this advice by readily admitting that I know of many holy marriages that I am very thankful exist which did not have relationships that started this way. So again, just general advice here. Perhaps a middle-ground approach would be dating someone who is not Catholic if there seems to be openness, but keeping major “emotional distance” until that person indicates both a desire to be Catholic and a willingness to make it happen. 
  • Prayer is everything. But once you are dating, your own prayer life is not enough. You need to have a prayer life with the person you’re dating. If you see problems arising in your relationship… before sounding an alarm, or consulting one of a million self-professed “relationship gurus,” how about instead asking yourself honestly if your relationship with this person is grounded in God — grounded in prayer?
    • Find a way to anchor your conversations in edifying content instead of mere vain and idle banter. A great way my wife and I did this when we were courting was by always reading three pages of the same spiritual book each day; automatically, the contents of these pages became what we talked about during the day (we did this with several books, but our favorite was St. Faustina’s Diary.)
    • Please consider daily Mass and daily Rosary — as often as possible, together. Even if separate, you will naturally find yourselves discussing the day’s readings, the homily you heard, etc. And Marian devotion is utterly essential for any relationship, and there’s no more sure way to anchor your life in that than the daily Rosary.
    • Fast and sacrifice for each other.
    • If, after a time of trying, you are just finding it utterly impossible to have a serious prayer life with this person and ensure that your conversations are serious, edifying, and enjoyable, then you probably are not called to this person. Just as a person’s relationship with God can largely be judged on his prayer life, which is simply conversing with God, so too a human relationship can largely be judged on the value of its conversations. 
      • Further: if things didn’t work out the first time, or the first two times, with a certain person, then the third time is probably not going to be different. (You’re inevitably just delaying finding your future spouse, and you are holding back the other person from finding his or her future spouse!) Lots of vacillation is probably a sign that you should seek your calling elsewhere.
  • Never overestimate your own strength when it comes to chastity. If you do, then God will permit you to fall in order to humble you. Settle your boundaries from the onset — agree to them formally (even if this needs to be written down and signed by both of you!). Bear in mind that it is an objective grave sin to intentionally indulge in sexual pleasure (of any sort, to any degree) with one to whom you are not married. I won’t tell you whether or not to kiss before you’re married, but I will tell you that this kissing — if it occurs — must not be passionate. Focus more on avoiding occasions of sin than depending upon your own strength to preserve purity (e.g. go for walks together — I cannot encourage walks strongly enough — besides being great for preserving chastity they also encourage good conversation, meet at Church, meet at the park, spend time together within sight of others, etc.)
    • Concerning falls: Remember that it doesn’t matter how many times you fall. It honestly does not matter if you fell in a serious manner for the 10th time in a single day. Just go back to confession. Jesus is always, without a single exception, happy to forgive, if you are sorry. Being sorry doesn’t require being convinced the sin will never happen again — it simply requires trying to not let it happen again, and taking reasonable steps to avoid its near occasion.
  • Dating isn’t a game, or a hobby. This isn’t just “what young single people do to have fun.” You’re discerning giving your whole life to this person — act like it. Once you start seriously dating, you need to at that very moment stop thinking of yourself as your own. Forget about your “freedom,” as that is the devil’s favorite “virtue.”
    • Remember what I said above at the bottom of the Discernment section: that’s even more important now.Subtly say goodbye to exclusive friendships and activities with other members of the opposite sex. It is inappropriate and (even if not openly admitted) hurtful to the person you are dating to continue having long phone conversations, solo get-togethers, walks/jogs/runs, dances [excepting innocent group dances e.g. contra], etc., with other members of the opposite sex.
      • Do not have a friend who is of the opposite sex (who is not yet your girlfriend/boyfriend) be your “sounding board” in things you are struggling with, or be your main source of getting advice if you just need to get some things off of your chest. This can lead to forming the wrong kind of friendship or attachment if such conversations are private.
      • Furthermore, remember again that flirtatious behavior with other members of the opposite sex needs to end (it shouldn’t have even been there in the first place, anyway.)
      • If all of this makes you feel like you’re “on a chain,” then please don’t confuse that feeling with being called out of your relationship — that feeling is simply a withdrawal symptom from being deprived of something that probably shouldn’t even have ever been a part of your life. Count it a blessing!
    • Well, I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but we’ll see.” This is not a good approach to have. Go into this with the idea that you may very well be called to marriage with this person. Imagine how ridiculous a seminary would be that didn’t have the priesthood in mind for its first year students! So too dating must always have its end (that is, its purpose) in mind.
    • Be prepared to have the person you are dating not think that everything you do is perfect. That Romeo must think Juliet is perfect is a false, fantastical view of romance. Don’t bother shoutingBut he/she should love me for who I am!! Being called to each other means being called to help each other become saints — and as there are no more Immaculate Conceptions walking this earth, that cannot but mean helping each other to be rid of vices. Obviously this must be done with enormous care, prayer, and gentleness — becoming critical and negative is the far greater danger — but nevertheless correction will (or, at least, should) exist. So don’t let its existence throw you into despair or defensiveness!
  • For this reason, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife.” That’s not just Scripture — it’s Scripture that Jesus Himself deemed necessary to repeat in His own earthly life. It is incredibly important for you to realize that you leave your family of origin to find your own vocation. I will touch upon more applications of that in the later section on marriage, but this is also very important for discernment and courtship. So many potentially wonderful vocations are destroyed because an adult child allows himself or herself to be unduly attached to his or her own parents. (A deep relationship with your parents is a good and holy thing your whole life; all I’m calling out here is the undue attachment)
    • Dear friends, if you are 18+ (emancipated), then how to follow the 4th Commandment completely changes for you. You are no longer called to obedience to your parents — this is established Church teaching (see Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2217). Your parents cannot choose your vocation for you — their “vote” on your vocation is given by how they raised you; nothing more. It is fear and distrust of Providence (masquerading as piety) to let them tell you that you must or must not enter this order, date this person, etc. Parents often overstep their bounds in this regard (just read the biography of practically any saint!). It is your responsibility, as an adult child, to not allow this to happen, while above all always being very careful to maintain (for your entire life) enormous respect and honor for them. But consider what a tragedy it would be to not marry someone God was calling you to marry simply because your earthly parents disapproved and you were too cowardly to resist that. Yes, of course, parental approval is a wonderful thing to have, and indeed the man should ask his girlfriend’s father for permission before proposing. That does not mean that this proposal is absolutely contingent upon this permission being granted. 
    • Generally, you should not be hanging out for hours on end, day in and day out, with your parents after you are an adult (at least while you are a young adult striving to establish your own life — if a parent moves in with you in his or her old age, that is another matter). This lifestyle will breed an unhealthy degree of attachment to them and make you subtly forget that you are an adult, which will make following your true calling in life very difficult and unlikely to occur.
  • Some people say “when you marry a person, you also marry that person’s family.” Well, that isn’t true! You only marry that person. Don’t be dissuaded by the person you’re dating having a less-than-ideal family situation. You’re not marrying his/her family!
  • You should really enjoy yourself with this person! If you find that you don’t long to be with this person and don’t enjoy your time with this person, then you probably aren’t called to marry him or her. God doesn’t want you to go seeking out a penance in seeking out a spouse! In many ways your spouse will be your cross — yes. Leading a Christian life consists in carrying your Cross — and your vocation is your life. But that does not mean you go out seeking a cross in seeking a spouse!
  • Be sure to let the person with whom you are considering entering into a relationship know the major things about your past that they should know (before you are well into a dating relationship with them). No need to go into great detail on all your sins; this isn’t a general confession, and you also must ensure that you are not simply indulging an unholy and unhealthy curiosity on their part… but on the other hand you certainly have no right hiding major things from them, like whether you lived a promiscuous life in your youth, whether you suffer deep emotional scars from something, etc.

Engagement:

  • First of all, this shouldn’t take too long to happen, nor should engagement itself be very long. Let me be specific: I’d advise against dating for more than 2 years, and I’d advise against engagement being for more than 1 or 2 years. More like 6 months to 1 year of dating and 6 months to 1 year of engagement is ideal.  I know that Regina and I felt like our one year of dating was too long! Obviously when engagement happens is up to the man, but that is good and natural: women make decisions more quickly as they rely more on intuition, whereas men make decisions more slowly, as they rely more on syllogisms. Ladies: be ready with your “yes” no more than 6 months into dating — and if, after even one year of dating, you cannot be at peace with the notion of saying “yes,” then it might be time to break it off. Guys: if a full year has gone by and you still feel no peace with proposing, then, likewise, it might be time for you to break it off.
    • Do not arbitrarily delay marriage. News flash: you don’t need a degree to get married. How sad it is that this seems to be the default behavior; waiting until both the man and the woman have at least a Bachelor’s degree before tying the knot. Thanks be to God our ancestors didn’t think that way — most of us wouldn’t exist.
    • It is also especially important for the woman to remember (if she plans on being a stay at home mom, which I heartily recommend) that she should avoid accumulating unnecessary degrees and the burdensome debt that comes along with them. It is hard enough for a man to be the sole provider for a family today; don’t make it harder on him. Do you feel like you need a career to fall back on “just in case” things don’t work out? That is distrust in Providence. God is not pleased by all of our “Plan Bs.” Yes, obviously, we must be prudent in life. But more importantly we must trust God, and we must cross bridges when and if we get to them, not before. There are so many dignified jobs out there that do not require degrees; what is wrong with doing one of them in the meantime? It is demonic pride, which speaks through worldly pseudo-wisdom, that ties one’s worth to whether one has a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral degree.
  • Men: neither your worth, nor your love for your fiancee, is defined by the amount of cash you dump into an engagement ring. Please don’t buy into the worldly folly of thinking that an engagement ring must cost you at least 1 month’s salary. Do you think St. Joseph would buy Mary an ostentatious engagement ring? Of course not — were they to have lived today, I doubt that ring would even have a diamond on it at all.  
  • Engagement is courtship in high-gear. Aside from the obvious things, you need to truly act like you are married in every morally licit way. The head and heart relationship between the male and female should be firmly in place at this point and respected by both (more on that in the marriage section). You should both be used to making decisions together — not individually. You will receive grace when the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is received which will benefit your relationship, yes — but you will not receive a magical transformation. The marriage you then have will largely be the logical continuation of the engagement you have now; grace builds upon nature.
  • Don’t let friends or family members tell you how your wedding has to be if they are insisting upon certain elements that you are not spiritually comfortable with. (Obviously it is always a good thing to be flexible with things that do not matter in God’s sight). Are they threatening to cut off financial help if it isn’t to their liking? So be it. Do you think Mary and Joseph’s wedding was extravagant? Not to mention, you risk cooperating with sin if you explicitly and specifically permit sin to flourish at your wedding — sacrilegious Communions with no warning whatsoever to non-Catholics or non-practicing Catholics who do not know they shouldn’t receive Communion; heinously immoral music at the reception; blatantly immodest bridesmaids dresses, etc. The world says these things must be part of any modern wedding. But you are not of the world. It is good to be flexible with unimportant details. It is not good to be flexible with sin, error, or occasions thereof.
  • I would also strongly advise against all the flashiness that comes with modern weddings: huge amounts of flowers, limos, ridiculously expensive dresses and tuxedos, insanely glamorous receptions, cakes that cost thousands of dollars, and the like (even secular studies seem to find an inverse relationship between the cost of the wedding and the duration of the marriage). Your wedding ceremony and reception can still be formal, beautiful, and dignified without all that. Regina and I had a very blessed and beautiful wedding ceremony and we were thrilled with our reception: buffet-style with delicious but basic food (and plenty of beer and wine!), a wedding dress that was a couple hundred dollars, 8 small, beautifully-decorated cakes from the local grocery store and sheet-cake to be cut in the back, transportation from the ceremony to the reception that consisted in my trusty beat-up old VW Golf, a great contra-band that cost a few hundred dollars to hire, etc. Everybody loved it.
    • Above all, simply refuse to permit wedding planning to become anxiety-filled and dissension causing. So long as you recite the vows in freedom, with the Church’s blessing, in the presence of at least two witnesses, then you are validly married. What else really matters in the end, so long as you have followed your conscience? How smoothly your plans for your wedding day played out won’t count for a whole lot on Judgment Day.

Marriage (and Parenting):

  • With marriage, as with all else: it’s all about God — hence, on our part, it’s all about prayer. Don’t abandon your former zeal in the spiritual life — rather, step it up continually!! Now, it must be admitted that satisfying the duties of your state of life (i.e. providing a dignified life for your family) come before things like daily Mass — but please be honest with yourself. Usually when we exempt ourselves from the essentials of the spiritual life recommended by the saints for the laity (that is: daily Communion, daily Rosary, weekly/monthly Confession, daily spiritual reading [especially Scripture], works of mercy), on the premise that State in Life comes first… it is not actually because there is any real conflict between them and fulfilling the duties of our state of life. It is usually because we don’t want sanctity enough. Pray for more desire for holiness, and remember that your desire for sanctity — closeness to God — should far outweigh all of your other desires.
    • You will be told by a million different sources that a good marriage is all about communication, and all marital problems basically boil down to insufficient communication. That is not true. Communication is important (and not just by doing the talking — listening to one another is important as well; always strive to be the one that does more listening! That is a healthy “competition”), but a good marriage is all about God’s grace. Bad communication is never the source of a problem; it is at worst a symptom. And too much communication can be an equally destructive problem — endlessly discussing some issue can sometimes become a far bigger problem than the issue being discussed!
      • Communication is, however, certainly an important issue worth broaching. Therefore I will say the following:
      • Women: the sooner you learn that your husband is not a mind reader, the better. Never assume he does (or should) know something that you want/think/feel unless you have clearly, explicitly told him using words that have agreed-upon definitions in the English language.
      • Men: the sooner you learn that your wife is an emotional being (much more so than yourself), the better. You need to be much more thoughtful and careful with wording, tone, etc., than you are naturally inclined to be.
      • Emotional, snappy, or uncharitable fights/arguments/”conversations” are not “okay, normal” things, despite the fact that you often be told they are just that. You should be able to talk through any and every issue calmly, reasonably, and, above all, charitably (even if it is difficult to do so). If the aforementioned type of fight or “conversation” occurs, a simple “sorry,” “it’s okay,” is not enough. You need to do an examination of conscience to see what you can do better as a couple to help prevent it from happening again. It might happen again, and if it does, do not assume its a tragedy — but what I here advise against is accepting such scenarios, pretending they’re fine, and taking no measure to rid them from your life. 
    • There are innumerable ways that discord can enter into your marriage and family. The best approach is not to memorize a special strategy or script to prevent (or respond to) each; rather, the best approach is to simply not leave room for it to enter. Let your days be dominated by too much good for there to be room for evil. For example, what are your family’s Sundays like? 10:30am Mass and then bumping around however you feel like around home all day? Be well assured that discord is right around the corner. But what room is there for discord if your Sundays consist in 9:00am Mass, then coffee and donuts in the parish hall, then a visit to talk, pray, and read with Grandma (and the other residents who never get visitors) in the nursing home, then a walk in the park, then dinner back home, then playing in the basement, then family Rosary and family spiritual reading, and then bed?
    • A joyful family life is among the greatest blessings God can give. But in this fallen world everything can also be a temptation — in this case, so great a blessing can become a great temptation to live an enclosed life. Do not let this happen. Make sure that works of mercy are regular (ideally at least weekly) — works of mercy that you gain absolutely nothing temporally from, so that your repayment is at the resurrection of the Just — sidewalk counselling outside abortion mills, visiting the sick in hospitals, visiting the elderly forgotten in nursing homes, having poor and lonely family-less people over for dinner, etc.
    • Have a notebook of your daily prayer intentions. There are so many things that are so important to pray for each day (as a family!). That simply won’t happen if all you have is the vague, general intention of praying for this or that. And if you just try to go by memory, you’ll also leave important things out.
    • The daily family Rosary is perhaps the single most essential thing.
  • Remember that discernment is now over. Crosses that arise are just that: crosses; not opportunities to look elsewhere. If you wonder why your marriage isn’t “perfect,” like some other couples’ that you observe — stop wondering! Their marriage is not perfect. No matter how close to them you are, you only see the outside. If you find yourself even considering divorce (unless you truly have serious grounds for believing the vows were somehow invalid), then that is something you should bring to confession and be healed of through the Precious Blood of Jesus.
  • The fact that you are now married does not dispense you from the exclusivity you gave your spouse when you were merely dating. All sorts of sin, dissension, evil, and error enter into people’s lives when they start thinking of themselves as so spiritually advanced or mature in a certain regard that they no longer take care to avoid occasions of sin. That is pride — the root of all evil. Your spouse should still be the only non-family member of the opposite sex with whom you go on long solo walks, have long phone conversations with, dance with, etc.
  • Recognize from the onset that marriage is intrinsically ordered toward children. Don’t go avoiding conception by NFP for stupid reasons (and it should be assumed that if you have chosen to get married, then you are ready for children at that time!). And remember that large families are a blessing; not a burden, and not a curse. Unfortunately many today look at NFP as “legitimate Catholic contraception,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Please see the following quotes from the Magisterium, taking special care no to read your own interpretation into them, but especially heeding what I have bolded and the implications thereof:
    • Catechism of the Catholic Church 2368: “…For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality…”
    • Humanae Vitae 16: “If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile”
    • Casti Connubi 53: “…virtuous continence (which Christian law permits in matrimony when both parties consent)…” (In other words, both spouses must agree in order to use NFP to avoid conception. The wife cannot simply decide this on her own.)
      • This brings up an important tangent. Marital relations should be regular. Neither spouse has any right whatsoever to deny the other a reasonable request for the marital act; to do so is, in fact, a serious sin; classified as such by both Scripture (e.g. 1 Corinthians 7:3-5) and Magisterium. Marriages can easily fall apart if this teaching is not respected by both the husband and the wife.
    • Pope Pius XII Address to Midwives: “… If, however, according to a reasonable and equitable judgment, there are no such grave reasons either personal or deriving from exterior circumstances, the will to avoid the fecundity of their union, while continuing to satisfy to the full their sensuality, can only be the result of a false appreciation of life and of motives foreign to sound ethical principles.”
    • I don’t mean to stress spouses who have discerned that they are currently called to indeed avoid conception using NFP. I am certainly not calling your discernment into question. Furthermore I am not saying that your reason has to be so dire as “I am undergoing chemotherapy and an unborn child would certainly die.” I’m just saying: make sure to have the principles straight in your mind before you go trying to discern how to apply them to your life; because so many Catholic spouses do not even know these principles, hence they come to ridiculous conclusions, wherein avoiding conception by NFP is the norm instead of the exception.
  • The man is the head and the woman is the heart of the family; these aren’t optional roles for the traditionally minded: these are infallible teachings of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium. Follow them, and God will bless your family. Disregard them, and your family will not have peace. If you are inclined to reject this particular teaching, then I can only ask you to pray for humility and see 1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1, Pope Leo XII’s Immortale Dei 17 (i.e. “… authority of the husband…”),  Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubi 26 (e.g. “… subjection of the wife and her willing obedience [to the husband]… the man is the ruler of the family….,” etc.), just to name a few.  
    • JPII gave important qualifications and specifications to this teaching in his Magisterial documents on the dignity and vocation of women. (For example, a wife’s call to submissiveness does not mean she is relegated to the same status as a child under her husband or a servant of her husband — not in the least! She is an equal.  Nor does it mean that the husband is the sole decision maker who runs the family autonomously — far from it! Head and heart act together in guiding the body, even though head must have the final say and their relations must be properly understood.)
    • But JPII did NOT in the least alter or deny this infallible teaching! The teaching on the necessity of submissiveness of the wife to the husband (which is absolutely not the same thing as the subjection of a husband to his wife implicitly taught in Ephesians 5:21; rather, Ephesians 5:22-24 teaches how a wife subjects herself to her husband, and Ephesians 5:25-29 teaches how a husband subjects himself to his wife) always has been and always will be. It is just as permanent and unchangeable as any other moral tenet of Catholicism, which, as you know, is an all-or-nothing package.
    • Now I am certainly not insisting upon some sort of heavy handed, medieval application of this teaching. Different families will live it in somewhat different ways, and circumstances also certainly affect how to live this teaching. The important thing is to accept the principle and pray about how to put it into practice.
  • When you say “my family,” you now refer to your spouse and your children; not your parents, and not your siblings. You have, as mentioned before and as Jesus said, “left your father and mother.” You need to — right from the onset — be satisfied with spending your days with your spouse and children. Constant long trips to visit your parents or siblings, or hours on the phone with them daily, will be harmful to your marriage. So will consulting your parents or siblings on dissensions with your spouse (that is not their business), or worse, speaking any negative words to them about your spouse. When you need advice on marital discord, seek it from one that your spouse would not be offended by you approaching — for example, a priest. So long as he’s holy and orthodox, then years of hearing confessions give him more wisdom on these issues than even experienced married couples themselves have. However you could also approach a couple you and your spouse trust.
  • Remember that lust is no more permissible in marriage than anywhere; the sexual appetite may only be licitly followed in preparation for or during the marital act. Hence modesty in dress, conduct, etc., is still important even between spouses at home! (Albeit in a modified and less strict manner [I won’t bother with details], since it’s absence would not risk leading not to the intrinsic evil of fornication, but rather would only lead to unnecessary arousal). And remember that the marital act, when it occurs, should be from love, not lust. And precisely what occurs during it is not “anything goes.” You must always respect the dignity of your spouse and not engage in acts which are intrinsically perverse.
  • Be joyful and have a good sense of humor, but do not let giddiness, frivolity, silliness, and chattiness (or worse, gossip) dominate your demeanor at home. Whenever you see these attitudes prevail, be assured that discord and dissension are just around the corner. And remember St. Faustina’s words: a talkative soul cannot be sanctified. Families must be on guard especially against idle banter becoming a way of life.
    • Any non-supernatural virtue has a corresponding vice of excess; joy’s vice of excess is giddiness, and it is destructive just like any vice. Humor and playfulness should indeed exist between spouses, but must always be built on a foundation of seriousness.
  • Frugality and simplicity are essential. Do not derive your joy from material sources. Men — you are called to provide a dignified living for your family. This does not mean you have to provide the best home, the best cars, the best vacations, the best schools, etc. All these will do is force you into career paths that destroy your peace. Women: do not expect or ask this of your husbands; rather, assure your husband that you are willing to do with less and that you will not compare his providing with other husbands’ providing. Frugality and simplicity, aside from freeing the man from undue career pressures, will help you live a more free, more peaceful, and less cluttered, less debt-ridden life (all of which are also important).
    • Along with living an un-cluttered life, strive to have an un-cluttered house. Don’t let it become an obsession, but do remember that it’s difficult to not be mentally and spiritually affected by the physical nature of your surroundings. Similarly, do not turn your house into a shrine to your family; plastering every wall with countless pictures of each family member. You are already around them every day — you don’t need additional reminders to think about them! You need additional reminders to think about God. I’m not saying get rid of all family photos on the walls! I’m just saying keep it reasonable. Above all, I advise getting rid of the anti-tabernacle (that is, the television), or at least putting it somewhere that does not exalt it so much as to be the center of the family (as many do by placing it dead center of the primary living/family room where the most time is spent and having all of the seating in the room directed toward it instead of toward each other or the family altar).
  • Remember that our culture is truly diabolical. Your home needs to be a bastion of serenity, holiness, peace, purity, and prayer. Make no apologies for being diligent in discerning what you allow into your home from mainstream culture: books, movies, television shows, newspapers, magazines, music, websites, YouTube videos, radio programs, artwork etc. You must strive to allow no filth into your home. This duty is far more important than having the approval of more worldly minded people (even if these people are good Catholics; even if they are your own parents, siblings, or other close friends/relatives).
    • Along this same line, you should go further in shaping your family than simply saying “no” to what you deem sinful. Don’t be afraid to seek out, and live by, cultural norms that you find most fitting to fulfilling your family’s calling to sainthood. You need not agree with my own opinions in this regard, but I’ll readily share them. The point is, determine and follow your own standards deliberately and with prayer; not by allowing your family to simply drift into whatever is presented to it. The devil loves drifting. God loves intentional discernment. Incidentally, one wonderful way of taking stock of where you’re at as an individual and as a family is to ask: “What is now in my life/family that is a result of drifting? What is now in my life/family that is a result of an intentional decision that resulted from prayer?” Strive to reconsider things that fall into the former category and do more of the things that fall into the latter category.  
  • Remember your job as a parent is to help your children become adults; not keep them as children because you enjoy them in that state. Childhood is not an end in itself — it is ordered toward adulthood. Do not inundate your children (or your home) with idiotic materials or media like tele-tubbies, Barney, or whatever else like that is popular any given week — they essentially amount to character growth-stunters — but rather, focus on giving them materials geared towards children that nevertheless help them grow . The Chronicles of Narnia comes to mind. (Obviously there’s an intended-age gap there, but I’m hoping you see my point. Also, materials published pre-1940s seem to generally be reliable in this regard). Furthermore you should not allow the fact that you have children to turn your house into something more resembling a Chucky-Cheese’s than the humble home of Nazareth. You’re going to need to refuse to feel guilty over passing on the majority of what is given to you to a local thrift store (or better yet, donate to some charity in need of these items.)
  • The spousal relationship is superior to and must take precedence over the parent/child relationship. Obviously children require tender care and attention that spouses do not! The point is not to deny that, but rather merely to prioritize. It is similar to how the relationship between creature and Creator is far superior to the relationship between earthly spouses, even though the latter often requires more immediate attention and explicit care. Nevertheless, whenever faced with any sort of decision regarding whom to favor — spouse or child — spouse must always win. This is particularly important for the wife to keep in mind, for she is naturally (and rightly) more child-focused than the husband; whereas the husband must especially keep in mind the superiority of his vocation (his marriage/family) to his job.
  • Remember that, while your relationship with your spouse is the most important earthly thing you have, nevertheless your relationship with God is infinitely more important than that. And remember that on Judgment Day, you’ll stand before God alone. You need a significant amount of spouse-free time alone with God each and every day, and your entire life must be ordered first and foremost toward pleasing God, not toward pleasing your spouse (important as that latter end is).  We indeed please God by doing good for our spouse, but not always — sometimes serving Him involves displeasing your spouse. So be it. And let it be God, not your spouse, that you think of all day. For whatever you think of most, that might be your “god.”
    • It is also important to understand the natural limitations this places on your marriage. You are one flesh with your spouse; yes. But that, for example, does not make you sovereign over his or her thoughts. Do not pretend you have the right to turn to your spouse any time and ask, “what are you thinking about?” and expect to receive a totally open and honest answer. Similarly, do not pretend you have a right to be told of each and every happening in the prayer life of your spouse.
  • A clear demarcation of general duties between husband and wife, while not absolutely essential, will nevertheless definitely make home life much smoother, easier, more peaceful, and more efficient. Obviously you don’t have to do it this way to be a good Catholic, but it works great for us and I highly recommend it to anyone — man as breadwinner, maintainer of the  home/cars (along with being the one who takes care of anything that is particularly risky/strenuous/etc.), and keeper of finances/administrative items/etc. Woman as child-care provider and keeper of kitchen/dinner/laundry duties.  Needless to say there should be flexibility in this demarcation based upon circumstances. Dishes and diapers are not “below” a man’s dignity, and making money is not “above” a woman’s dignity. Children should be given chores as soon as they are capable of them. Furthermore it should be understood that even though the man is the breadwinner (ideally), that does not make the money that he earns any more his than his wife’s. It is equally both of theirs (the man could not make the money if the wife did not make the home), and the wife does not need to thank him for using that money on her needs just as on his own needs. I recommend that all money be held in joint accounts. 
  • It seems to me that there are two primary opposite extreme schools of thought competing for the minds and hearts of parents today regarding how they raise their children. Both are products of worldly people and groups, hence both are mixtures of good and bad. The important thing is that you do not fall hook, line, and sinker entirely for either extreme (any more than, for example, you would want to fall hook, line, and sinker entirely for the Democratic or Republican party), but rather prayerfully and carefully accept what is good, and reject what is bad, from each.
    • On the one hand are those who seem to think The Fall of Man never happened. These are the more extreme members of the crunchy-mom/attachment-parenting movement. This school of thought categorically condemns technological advancement being applied to agriculture (thinking any pesticide, preservative, refinement process, pasteurization, etc., is akin to toxic waste), exalts any motherly “instinct” or feeling to the status of an infallible oracle, condemns parents who ever let their babies cry it out, rebukes mothers who dare be without their babies for so much as one hour (therefore open-to-life attachment mommies can easily go 20 years without once being able to truly worship God in the Eucharist distraction-free), insists upon co-sleeping and breastfeeding [which it sees as Divine and condemns bottles, formula, or covering up while breastfeeding in public] for each child for years and years, condemns vaccines, insists upon homeschooling not because of its superior likelihood to result in sound faith and morals being taught, but because it sees something intrinsically wrong with children attending schools “away from their parents,” (thereby issuing a slap-in-the-face to all the canonized saints who started schools for children). It uses any “alternative” method for health despite the fact that many of these are not only scientifically without foundation, but also spiritually questionable (at best). For example, acupuncture, homeopathy, and chiropractic have all been categorized by the Magisterium as New Age — which the Church teaches is a “compendium” of “heterodox positions” (see Vatican document Jesus Christ Bearer of the Water of Life), but crunchy-moms don’t seem to care. The list goes on. There is no way to unreservedly pursue an extreme application of this parenting mentality without your superior relationships suffering: the one with your spouse, and the one with God. Again, many aspects of this parenting mentality are good and holy if a balanced approach is taken to them; all I here call out is the excess. 
    • On the other hand are those who seem to think that The Fall of Man is all there is (or, more specifically, that God’s design in how He created us need not be heeded). This was the prevailing mindset in the 20th century mainstream medical industry (though it is starting to fade even in that circle), and in itself it is a greater error. It insists upon an utter disregard for traditional wisdom in parenting for the sake of whatever modern western medical studies deem best (studies whose consensus is constantly changing). It sees no difference between mothering and fathering. It approaches every clearly designed-by-God trait of the human body and human relationships with suspicion (thinking them only to be the mere result of random evolution) and with an eye for “optimization,” advocating for a medical-industry solution to every problem. It advocates a pill for every problem and a vaccine against every imaginable germ. It sees doctors and “studies” as oracles — despite their regular manifest inability to see the totality of the person instead of just one symptom to fix or one risk to avoid — and insists upon always obeying them no matter the monetary or emotional cost. It insists that utterly peace-destroying preventative measures be taken against issues that only have a miniscule likelihood of occurring (e.g. “you’re a bad parent if you don’t get your child every imaginable vaccine”, “C-sections should be performed instead of natural births if there is even a small risk in the latter,” “giving birth at home like women have for thousands of years is evil because you’re daring to consider factors other than merely pondering what is the absolutely ‘safest’ route,”  etc.). Again, the list goes on.
    • The point is, avoid going for either all-out. If you realize that’s precisely what you’re doing, then you may have become an ideologue for a worldly cause (and allow me to refer you to When the Devil Goes into Damage Control Mode). At this point many of the more ardent members of the former (attachment parenting/ crunchy mom) group are probably thinking “Nonsense! My approach is simply a clear consequence of my Faith.” If you are a Catholic, then I can prove to you in a moment that is not true. Please look up what the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church — an authoritative, Magisterial document — says about agricultural technology, modern medicine, vaccines, etc.
    • Make sure that no parenting philosophy becomes a religion for you (for that is what the various proponents of many of them seem to regard them as); you already have a religion. And you don’t need a “parenting philosophy” anyway. You can simply take one day at a time, striving to trust God with all your heart in each of them, and looking to Him for the decisions you must make. 

So there we have it! Remember — re-read, if necessary — the admonitions I began this article with. Above all, be at peace. No one has gone about all of these things perfectly. We are all just weak and sinful creatures trying to be more like Christ, and often failing miserably. If only we love Him, then all things — all things — will work out for the good. So wherever you are in your life and vocation right now, and whatever has brought you to this point — give thanks to Him for it. It is all part of a beautiful and perfect story He is writing; a story which won’t make perfect sense to us (and might not seem to make any sense!) until we see it from the Other Side — when we are rejoicing with Him and with all the saints forever.