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How “lovely” it is to get married (in Milano)

An investigation into how future brides and grooms and premarital courses have changed

He is nearly 37 years old (36.6), she just over 34 (34.2). This is the average age at which people get married for the first time in Milan. According to data from Council Statistics relating to civil and religious marriages in 2011, there  has been a continual increase in the average age at which one pronounces the fateful yes. In 2001, men crowned their love story at 32.5 years old, women at 30.3. In comparison with the national average we can say that in Milan couples wait to marry on average four years longer than in the rest of Italy. This data is the premise  that allows us to understand the  new structure of paths of marriage preparation in the Ambrosian diocese.

The snapshot of the situation does not claim to be highly defined, given the characteristics of the dioceses, which cover a wide and diverse territory that currently includes four provincial capital cities (as well as Milan, Monza, Lecco and Varese), but also many small towns in rural areas, especially in the south and the mountainous north.

In the diocese marriage preparation is an area in which the Christian communities have put a lot of thought and effort. On average 8-9 meetings are proposed, variously managed in relation to resources ( the presence or absence of  prepared couples, the contribution of the Christian-based counselling), and the point of view of the parish priest, in charge of the wedding couple’s proposal. In recent years, these routes are the focus of a strong process of rethinking especially as to the language, methods, and the new ecclesial and social situation.

We must bear in mind that the demand for religious marriages is undergoing a sharp decline in Italy (less than 23.3 percent in the last 5 years) and that in 2011 the number of the civil celebrations overtook religious ones in the North as well. This does not mean an overtaking in the absolute sense, as the second marriage of people who have already been married in a church, but who cannot be marry religiously, are also counted. The tendency towards a  contraction of religious marriages has also been clearly recorded in our diocese - estimates say that in the decade from 2001-2011 recorded religious ceremonies fell from 23,539 to 6,969 - and this has influenced pastoral practice: so if in the past every medium-sized parish held at least one premarital course annually, now the decline in demand and the reorganization of parishes into pastoral communities has led to the offer of preparative courses beyond a parish level and at two distinct times of the year.

The church leaders of the more sensitive communities are usually in fact willing to provide tailored courses for couples with difficulties related to work and logistics. More and more often close to the wedding day, couples are only able to come to meetings at the weekends, this is because they are forced to stay away from Milan for work reasons or finding in this city an easily accessible midpoint which is reachable from distant locations. Aside from the regret felt for a progressively secularized context that the reduction of the courses demonstrates, the new situation has often resulted in an increase in quality, as it has stimulated a gathering together of the strengths of different parishes and led to a comparison of different experiences, which have often taken place in the absence of debate and inquiry.

We are well aware that those who ask for Christian marriage today are more motivated, they do it because they believe that through this choice there is something to gain for themselves and for their family, they feel that the religious sphere has a particular value that guarantees depth and roots for the future. One cannot therefore disregard these expectations and hopes. There are only a few but they are good, it is often said, and never before as in these predicaments has the Church been aware of the preciousness of the people it meets and the urgency of a serious and incisive proposal from the Christian point of view. The good ones mustn’t be lost!

The statistics are not able to adequately describe the most surprising phenomenon of recent years which is the explosion of the practice of premarital cohabitation, very widespread even among those seeking Christian marriage. This is a radical change of mentality, given that even the majority of believers nolonger approach marriage in the form of fides , but in an experimental way. They want to try before they decide, this is the reason most frequently suggested. This change also imposes its linguistics adjustment, since precisely in the paths of preparation courses for marriage the "fiancées" have almost disappeared, giving way to various pairs of "future spouses". Preparation for marriage is thus faced with a new type of user; and the structure of the course will depend on understanding the characteristics this user. Some data can help us: in larger parishes in urban areas cohabiting couples form about 95 percent, in other areas the percentage varies between 60 and 75 percent.

Amongst these around 30 percent already have a child, and frequently they have already been married civilly. Recently a couple who accompanied a group of engaged couples in the south of the province of Milan described to us the following composition:  of 10 pairs of participants, 8 were cohabiting. Among them 3 had at least one child. One, was asking for a religious marriage after 12 years of having lived together and already had three children.

Being asked to interpret these changes, the priests and pastoral workers we interviewed agreed in attributing the success of cohabitation on the persuasive character of current attitudes, which which it is hard to resist even among young people who have grown up in religious families in circles close to the Church. More deeply, these young people seem to share with their peers a fear regarding the success of a binding relationship: a trial period is thus reassuring.

However these couples report that job insecurity is also behind the decision to live together, that discourages taking on a responsible commitment. This motivation is not unfounded if the data of national research by the Centre for Italian Family Studies in 2008 suggests that in the north 65 percent of engaged couples were dependent on fixed-term contracts and 2.6 percent were unemployed.

Another new element is the significant correlation reported between generation and marriage: to become a parent is an important step that seems to mark a change in the perceptions of the couple’s relationship which, after the birth of a child is felt to be more important and therefore requires an extra step. Marriage is perceived as a celebration of achieving an important existential threshold: you do not live only for yourself, it gives institutional weight to the relationship, it restores the social importance of the family institution, which the younger generation usually find difficult to perceive in a context marked by the loss of community and civic consciousness. The ecclesiastical paths show a joyous rediscovery of this complex of meanings and their potential significance. Organisers note a considerable interest on behalf of participating couples and many of them claim to have drawn from the courses long-term inspiration in pursuing the journey of a couple.

The organisers with more experience note however, that the change described leads to the consideration that what could be taken for granted 20 years ago in terms of convictions and appropriate behaviour according to the Church's Magisterium, can now only be proposed as a culmination of a journey that begins on this occasion, with the rediscovery of the values of '"loving one another as Christians" in the paths of preparation for marriage. The Christian communities, starting from the parish secretaries,  as Pope Francesco pointed out, are therefore called to accept all the various existential situations of the people who come knocking on their doors asking for marriage according to the Church’s understanding.

A grateful welcome, since those people living together have already been shown to be able to do without the guidance of the Church, however they come back with a request that more and more often is not influenced by social conditioning and is therefore genuine, even though sometimes a little confused and in an embryonic state. Communities, therefore, have the task of accepting and aiding growth, aware of their delicate and very important task: to help pick up the threads of a faith often neglected for years, around the dream of a life together from which much is expected. A task of evangelization, but also of "humanization". We have not in fact yet referred to the high percentage of marriage breakdowns, a clear symptom of the fragility of an era that is living a moment of evident uncertainty as to its fundamental anthropological references. But it is clear that the situation which is described encourages Christian communities to take on this profile also, giving a cultural slant to the evangelical wisdom of relations.

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