Being single, the nearest I have got to being involved in marriage preparation was when I was asked to give a talk to the parents of the First Communion children in the parish, some five years ago now. Near the beginning of my talk I spoke about the idea of the husband-wife relationship in a marriage as being a sign of the relationship between Christ, who is its head, and the Church. So, the husband represents Christ and the wife represents the Church, which can also be seen figured as the Virgin Mary. This signification is essential to an understanding of marriage as a sacrament and not just as a community in human society, albeit that the community in human society aspect has a divine origin "from the beginning". It is, of course, why the Church teaches that a sacramental marriage is indissoluble.
What struck me at the time was that the parents listening to me might well have not heard that said to them before; and they almost certainly would not have had any help as to how that aspect of the sacramental character of marriage can be lived out in daily life. As I write this post, I am reminded,too, of the bidding prayers that I wrote for my sister's wedding - they were the only place in the ceremony where explicit reference was made to marriage as imaging the relationship between Christ and his Church - and the appreciation of them that was expressed afterwards.
I am prompted to comment on this by a post at just doing my best, describing the blogger's experience of a marriage preparation course. It is a very calm and dignified post, but the following extract gives some idea of the blogger's evaluation of her own marriage preparation course (but do follow the link and read her entire post):
I was hugely disappointed that the organisers were so desperate not to offend people who don't follow the Church's teaching that they ignored that teaching altogether and actually went out of their way in some cases to indicate that they didn't follow it either. I truly believe that a course which purports to be Catholic should actually be Catholic. Where you have a mixed marriage, I think that the non-Catholic spouse should know what it means to be married to a Catholic. If they don't hear it on a Catholic marriage preparation course, where else are they going to hear it?
I have wondered for some time now whether the preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage should not perhaps mirror more closely that required for the other "Sacrament at the service of Communion", Ordination. That requires up to six years of preparation, sometimes longer ... well, perhaps I am not suggesting that for marriage! But other aspects - a human formation, a spiritual formation, a pastoral formation and a suitable philosophical/theological formation could be put in place. A bishop should perhaps define for his diocese a minimum standard of formation that should be received before a couple may marry, rather like the minimum requirement for studies before ordination that is contained in Canon Law. It would be interesting, too, if both partners to the marriage were required to write to the parish priest requesting the Sacrament, in a form of words that makes clear their understanding of what marriage is. Perhaps some form of pre-marriage retreat should also be expected. If this seems "over the top" to some, I would respond that it reflects that what is being sought is not just "marriage" but the reception of a Sacrament, and it is this latter that requires a sacramental type of preparation.
Some aspects of the human formation do appear to have been present in the preparation day described in just doing my best's post (communication). Spiritual and theological formation appears to have been pretty much absent. A pastoral formation could be very interesting, responding as it does to Familiaris Consortio's discussion of the role of families towards each other and towards society as a whole [comment made from memory, so I might not have got this quite right].
Whilst it would be wrong to make the demands of marriage preparation unecessarily burdensome, I think it is clear that the one day course described is not sufficient. I have no doubt that it should be possible to provide a preparation that is authentically Catholic, that is pastorally appropriate for non-Catholic partners to marriage, and responds in an authentically Catholic way to those couples who come to marriage preparation after already starting to live together.
POSTSCRIPT: I have just visited the Marriage Care web pages that describe their aims in marriage preparation. Without being uncharitable, and recognising that it is at the service of the common good for a (Catholic) organisation to offer marriage preparation to those who are not Catholics, the inadequacy of their statement of aims as a preparation for Catholic sacramental marriage is quite transparent. Their preparation programme would need to be supplemented by additional provision in order for it to be satisfactory for sacramental preparation.