If you're anything like me, this might sound familiar: You were raised Catholic, you don’t go to church regularly now as an adult, but you've always envisioned getting married in the church and feel it’s an important family tradition. However, you’ve heard that in order to do this, you have to attend the mysterious “Pre-Cana” classes. You may be wondering, what exactly is Pre-Cana? Don’t worry, it’s not like CCD all over again, and you won't be hearing lectures about going to church every week and going to confession. It’s more like pre-marital counseling, to help prepare you for marriage.
There are a few different options for Pre-Cana courses, depending on your diocese. Ours (the Diocese of Metuchen in New Jersey) offered two: Meet with our priests six times before the wedding, or attend a weekend retreat called “Engaged Encounter Weekend” with several other couples. Since my fiancé and I currently live 200 miles away from the church where we'll marry, it made more sense for us to do the weekend retreat rather than having to make six separate trips back to the Garden State.
Our priest actually recommended the Engaged Encounter Weekend, saying he's heard that couples get more out of the experience. Keep in mind, though, that there is a fairly hefty fee for attending this retreat — about $350 per couple when we attended, and the price goes up each year. The six Pre-Cana classes also cost money, but they are not quite as pricey as the weekend. Your priest will give you all the information when you first meet with him.
At my church, there was no set time frame for when to schedule Pre-Cana — just some time before the wedding! We did ours about a year in advance (but we had already been engaged for almost a year at that point). The Engaged Encounter weekends are held on just a few dates throughout the year, so you are a bit limited. There were couples at our retreat who were also doing it about a year in advance, while others were getting married just two or three months later. Choose what works best for you.
Be prepared for dorm-style living for the weekend. At our retreat house, there were hall bathrooms (but a sink and mirror in each room), and all rooms were singles — yes, you will be sleeping separately from your fiancé. But, on the bright side, I didn't have to share with a random roommate.
For me, the worst part of the weekend was the lack of sleep. They kept us up “working” until 11:00 that first Friday night — and after a day at work followed by a grueling five-hour drive to New Jersey, that made for a long and exhausting day. And if you're thinking you'll get to sleep in the following morning, you're going to be disappointed; there was a “wake-up call” (a knock on the door) at 6:45 a.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.
What to pack: Clothing is casual and comfortable. I packed a nicer outfit for mass on Sunday, but people also came in jeans. Because it's dorm-style, you may want to bring shower shoes, a bathrobe, towel, and a shower caddy. They will provide clean sheets for your bed, but on the last day, you will be responsible for stripping the bed and putting new clean sheets on it — no maid service! We also were asked to bring either a snack or water/soda for a group "snack table" donation.
What not to pack: Don't bring drugs or alcohol. Cigarette smoking was permitted outdoors only. Your diocese should send you an email about two weeks before the retreat with instructions for what to pack and what not to bring.
House rules: Aside from not sleeping together and no alcohol/drugs, the only other real "rule" was that you are not allowed to leave the premises during the weekend. Don't worry, you're not kept indoors all weekend with cabin fever — many of the activities and writings throughout the weekend will get you outside (weather permitting). You just can't leave the property. On Saturday night, we finished around 9:00 p.m., and my fiancé wanted to walk down the street to a bar and watch a game, but that was not permitted. Instead, a bunch of us gathered in the one room that had a TV and watched. I heard that a few guys actually did sneak out later, but I wouldn't risk it — you don't want to get kicked out and have to repeat the whole thing!
One other interesting procedure was that at every meal, someone had to volunteer to say "Grace." As a reward, the volunteer's table was the first to go up and get food from the buffet.
The major difference between the Engaged Encounter Weekend and Pre-Cana classes is that at EEW, there isn’t a priest present (aside from conducting a mass on both Saturday and Sunday, which you must attend). Instead, other Catholic married couples talk to you about their marital experiences. Some may be older, and some may have only been married for a year or two.
So what actually happens during the Engaged Encounter Weekend? It starts at about 8 p.m. on Friday evening and lasts until about 4:00 p.m. on Sunday. When everyone arrives at the retreat house on Friday, you do a little "meet & greet" with the other couples. Aside from that, the only other time you really talk to the other couples is during meals. The weekend is all about you and your fiancé communicating with each other.
Upon arrival on Friday evening, each person is given a spiral notebook. You will do a lot of writing in this notebook. The way it works all weekend is that one of the married couples will give a “talk” about something in their lives that relates to the topic being discussed, and they will pose several questions to you. When it's time to write your answers, you and your fiancé will be separated so that you each compose your own responses. After 10-15 minutes, you and your fiancé swap notebooks to read what the other wrote.
Then, you'll talk about your responses and see where you agree or disagree. I found this method to be really helpful because I’m more of an introverted person; I can express myself better in writing, so I felt that I was able to tell my fiancé some thoughts that I hadn’t shared with him before. I did hear some feedback from other couples, though, who really did not like the writing and felt it was tedious and unnecessary. Some said they doodled for 15 minutes, and then just talked to their fiancés when they met up. Depending on your personality, do what works best for you. They aren’t collecting and grading your notebooks on Sunday!