Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley has launched a campaign in which Catholic priests across the state will promote marriage through sermons and postings on bulletin boards and lead prayers for the institution's survival.
The unusual effort, which will include the printing of a million prayer cards for distribution to parishioners, comes in response to a what church officials say is a crisis in which fewer men and women are getting married .
The initiative comes less than two weeks after an effort failed in the Legislature to put a measure banning same-sex marriage on the statewide ballot. The Roman Catholic Church has opposed same-sex marriage, saying it weakens matrimony between men and women.
But a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston said the Church's push has little to do with the vote and had been in the works for months.
"The decline of marriage has been over a very long stretch, and it's been something that has been a deep concern in the church for a very long time," spokesman Terrence C. Donilon said yesterday.
In a blog item posted on the archdiocese's website on Friday, O'Malley said, "In our country, more and more people are opting not to get married but instead to cohabitate. In Massachusetts, the government has redefined marriage away from its original purpose, which is so intimately connected with having and raising children.
"Certainly, the vocation to marriage, which is the way most people live out their discipleship, is something that is very, very important. And it certainly is being obscured in our modern and secular culture," he wrote. ". . .We hope this campaign will help people to refocus on the sacramental meaning of marriage."
The campaign will also include an educational program in the fall with video presentations and speakers, including married couples, focusing on the sacrament of marriage. That program is expected to continue for at least a year, church officials said.
Church officials said the campaign would also be launched in the Worcester, Fall River, and Springfield dioceses.
From 1986 to 2006, the number of Catholic marriages recorded in the Archdiocese of Boston has plummeted, from 12,274 to 4,519, about a 60 percent decline , church officials said.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the number of marriages in Massachusetts has dropped in recent years, too -- from 47,696 in 1990 to 39,074 in 2005, the latest year for which statistics are available.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is in the midst of a multi year National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage to respond to the declines, the archdiocese said.
"We're clearly concerned in the Catholic Church that the whole state of families is being redefined, and the ruling last week was very unfortunate. But this is something that is larger than the debate that's currently going on," said Donilon. '
Edward Saunders, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Church, said a million prayer cards were recently printed, and up to 800,000 would be distributed in the coming weeks in Catholic churches and communities in the state.
Saunders said the prayer "asks for the Lord's help and intercession in helping individuals recognize the importance of the vocation of matrimony and . . . for His help in the challenges that they may encounter in this vocation."
About 18 months ago, the conference's family life and pro-life subcommittee began talking about the need to focus on boosting marriage. The committee decided to launch the effort on the day that commemorates the Feast of St. Thomas More , a married man who cherished the vocation of marriage. On Friday, the Rev. Richard Erikson, vicar general of the archdiocese, gave a sermon discussing the importance of marriage. During the Mass, the first few dozen prayer cards were passed out. "The need for all this is identified by the statistics," Saunders said. "The trend is going in the opposite direction to what everyone would want, and our hope is to make people stop and think about the importance of marriage in our society."
The campaign is the most intensive since a 1999 effort, called "In Support of Life," intended to rally parishioners against assisted suicide, Saunders said.
Carisa Cunningham , a spokeswoman for Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in New England , said, "The political process has come to an end, and we will be living with same-sex marriage for the foreseeable future, so it is hard to see what impact this would have outside the church. We do consider marriage an important ingredient to strong communities. . . ."