Preparation for reception of any of the sacraments is a task taken seriously by the Church, especially if that sacrament involves a lifelong commitment. Think of the years of preparation required for priests before ordination, or even the lengthy preparation for children to receive first holy Communion. Surely, the life-changing commitment to marry another person should require adequate time to prepare, including sufficient time to get to know one’s intended partner for the whole of life.

The burden is upon the Church — especially the parish priest and the people — to provide formation to a couple on the meaning of marriage, its commitment, its holiness, its public witness and the sanctity of life that accompanies authentic Christian marriage. It is the responsibility of the Church to arouse and enlighten faith within the couple preparing for marriage. It is not the responsibility of the couple to prove their readiness or worthiness, a fact brought out clearly by Pope St. John Paul II in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (see No. 68).

There is no specific period of time required or suggested by the universal Church for a couple to date or otherwise prepare for the Sacrament of Matrimony. Because culture affects how courtship and marriage are celebrated, this is something left to the various local conferences of bishops. This is spelled out in Canon 1067 of the Code of Canon Law. In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has outlined in general terms what this preparation should include, but leaves the specifics to each diocesan bishop. They do not specify a minimum time for preparation.

Most dioceses have established a preparation period for the couple to reflect on the lifelong commitment of marriage and its sacred nature, and to learn more about holy matrimony as a sacrament. The flip side of this preparation period is that the Church’s minister who will officiate at the wedding must gauge the readiness of the couple to enter marriage as well as their understanding of their commitment. This takes time.

In most places the minimum preparation period is from six to twelve months and includes a minimal amount of formal instruction and spiritual reflection by the couple.