Where did the idea of a Pre-Cana program come from?

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The Cana approach was to discuss real marital situations in the context of a life of faith.

It’s a real boon to the lay church that we have the whole Cana movement. Before the Second Vatican Council, the notion of having a vocation to marriage was not well developed. Although great preparation surrounded the choice for vowed religious life or priesthood, virtually no formation was undergone for the Sacrament of Marriage. When a Jesuit priest John P. Delaney gave a retreat for married couples in New York in 1943, the concept was novel enough for a write-up in America magazine. 

This gave some Catholics in St. Louis the desire to try something similar, asking Jesuit Edward Dowling to create a program for them. Dowling’s retreat in 1944 was first called a Cana Conference—a reference to the wedding feast in John’s gospel at which Jesus performs his first miracle. These retreats quickly took on the aspect of a movement, became formalized into a program in Chicago under diocesan priest and justice activist John Egan. Egan also promoted Pre-Cana Conferences for engaged couples preparing for marriage.

What made these conferences unusual is that they didn’t stick to the narrow lane of an average retreat: all spiritual talk with little practical application. The Cana approach was to discuss real marital situations in the context of a life of faith. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, unlike the severe lecture style of most retreats of the period. Laypeople appreciated attention being paid to the all-important vocations of marriage, child-rearing, and community-building by their church. Before long, the Cana movement went nationwide, and diocesan offices to promote the ministry were assembled.

The success of Cana and Pre-Cana led to experiments with the format for other formerly unrecognized groups in the church. Those who’d lost a spouse could attend Naim Conferences: so-called after the story of the widowed woman of Naim who elicits the compassion of Jesus in Luke’s gospel.  Bethany Conferences, named for the presumably unmarried biblical siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, were developed for single Catholics. These programs were all popular in the 1950s and 60s, but the Pre-Cana movement alone left an endurable mark on marriage formation preparation in the United States. Engaged Encounter, Marriage Encounter, and Second Marriage Preparation programs today owe some debt to Cana for focusing pastoral attention on the needs of families to be prepared for their great and singular work in the church and society.

Scripture: Cana John 2:1-11; Naim Luke 7: 11-17; Bethany Luke 10:38-42; John 11:1-44; 12:1-8

Books: The Cana Movement in the United States, by A. H. Clemens (Catholic University, 1953)

The Mission of Love: A Sacramental Journey to Marital Success, by John Curtis, Michael Day, et.al. (Dominican New Priory Press, 2018)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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