Not every engaged couple has a traditional work schedule or even lives on the same continent before getting married, so in-person marriage preparation isn’t always possible. Enter the age of Skype, where videoconferencing technology can make engaged couples feel as if they are sitting in a pre-Cana teacher’s living room even when each person is actually thousands of miles away.
Peter McFadden of Creative Marriages Inc. in New York City offers an online option for couples in difficult logistical situations. Through this program, Peter has taught actors on location in Australia and soldiers about to be deployed to Afghanistan. He has even given online marriage preparation to two Yosemite park rangers who were working almost round-the-clock hours far away from the nearest Catholic parish. “A park ranger’s not a 9 to 5 job,” Peter remarked. Neither are a lot of other careers, which is why it’s good to have an online option available.
The online sessions are more than just videoconferences with three people speaking face to face via computer screens. Peter’s system allows him to share photographs, Power Point presentations, and even short videos on the couple’s computer screens during the session.
To make sure the shortened program delivers the necessary practical and theological content, Peter asks the online students to do some work on their own beforehand. A few weeks in advance, couples fill out the FOCCUS questionnaire, which identifies areas of agreement or disagreement on issues like communication styles, parenting, and sexuality. Couples are also asked to read a few short essays summarizing talks that Peter gives in his small-group sessions. “99% of people do the homework,” Peter reported, and many also talk to each other about the FOCCUS questions and the readings before meeting him online.
The main difference between the Creative Marriages online program and the in-person program is thus not the content but the method. “There’s more small talk when you meet in person,” explained Peter. “The Net does promote more of a ‘let’s get down to business’ atmosphere.” In addition, Peter has found it easier to mediate fights when he sees couples in person. “Believe it or not, some couples will fight” during marriage preparation instruction, and it’s easier to see the danger signals expressed in body language when the participants aren’t sitting in front of a video camera, he stated.
Only about 10% of Peter’s students take advantage of the online option. Most of the other students meet in small groups at the Church of Our Saviour on Park Avenue in Manhattan, where my husband and I began teaching the pre-Cana curriculum we developed many years ago.
Because of a strong preference for in-person instruction, the Archdiocese of New York requires that couples who want to take online pre-Cana receive special permission from the Family Life Office. “Technology is a gift,” acknowledged Marga Regina, Marriage Preparation Coordinator for the Archdiocese, “but we can’t use it to alienate us from the community.”
Most people who ask to take online pre-Cana are already disconnected from the Church community, Marga noted. “They say they can’t make the time, but then many find out they can, and they love” taking pre-Cana in-person, she added. Catechists have to remember that they are teaching souls who ideally should be learning in community with an opportunity for confession “in a real church with a real tabernacle,” she stressed.
For couples who do have a legitimate scheduling problem, not just reluctance to make the time, Marga will recommend them either to Peter or to CatholicMarriagePrep.com. Catholic Marriage Prep gives couples a series of worksheets to download and complete, then instructors review the worksheets and offer personalized instruction and advice.
Peter echoes the Archdiocese’s preference for in-person rather than online pre-Cana programs. “I understand why people would be concerned about online education. There’s a right way to do it, and there’s a wrong way to do it,” noted Peter. Some types of online education have little or no real interaction with the students, and there’s a danger that students will take the program without paying full attention. An automated program with a pre-recorded voice and computer-generated alerts and quizzes would not fully implement the Church’s goal to prepare couples for the sacred and sacramental aspects of marriage, he cautioned.
Peter’s video-conferencing style of online pre-Cana instruction is full of personal interaction, but it only reaches one couple at a time. “The problem is that it’s not scalable, it’s not a solution for reaching out to 100,000 couples a year,” Peter explained. But if your focus is forming souls and not increasing the bottom line, maximizing personal interaction is the only way to go, online or off.