Catholic Priest in Uganda Calls for Strengthening of Church Marriages to Curb Cohabitation

Fr. Lazar Arasu, Director of Don Bosco Refugee Services, Palabek in Uganda during a talk with the youth at the refugee camp. Credit: Fr. Lazar Arasu

A Catholic Missionary Priest in Uganda has raised alarm over the rise in cohabitation among the youth in African countries and called for the strengthening and support of the Sacrament of Matrimony to nurture responsibility and foster faith in families.

In a reflection shared with ACI Africa, Fr. Lazar Arasu who is at the helm of the Don Bosco Refugee Services Palabek in Uganda’s Catholic Archdiocese of Gulu expresses concern about young people who are contemplating marriage, but, unfortunately, are deprived of role models.

“The institution of marriage is in serious crisis today - culturally, socially, legally, and spiritually. Disintegration of marriage and the institution of family affect every fiber of the society in people’s daily lives. Nevertheless, no one seems much worried,” Fr. Arasu says in the Tuesday, August 3 reflection.

He adds, “Young people, who are contemplating marriage, unfortunately have too few good examples to follow. They are unable to receive the needed counseling and mentorship. It is not uncommon to see Priests and elders admonish the courting couples to cohabit before accepting the Sacrament of Matrimony, as a precautionary measure.”

According to the Indian-born Priest who has been ministering in Africa for the past 30 years, the biggest pastoral challenge in the East African countries is the neglect of the Sacrament of Matrimony. 


“I find pastoral leaders in various levels are very quiet on the persisting issue. Maybe they don't want to ‘rock the boat’, so as not to lose the Christians or not to upset them,” the member of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) says.

The current situation, Fr. Arasu says, is an escalation of “a crisis that begun in the 1960s”, owing to the people’s polygamous nature.

He says that because of polygamy, many older women are not married in Church, thereby denying the young ones the example of living sacramental lives.

“We witness three generations of Christians who have failed in the reception of this vital Sacrament,” he says, and explains, “Mostly due to polygamous issues, many grandparents who are now in their 60s and above are not married in the Church, parents who are now in their 50s and the young people of today who are unfortunately not bothered about this sacrament or they are pushed to this unfortunate condition.”

“I make this reflection based on my pastoral experience in Uganda,” the Priest who is currently working with refugees and in school programs in Uganda asserts.

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Fr. Arasu finds it “regrettable” that relevant institutions in the society are unwilling “or unable” to seriously address the issue of cohabitation, which the Priest describes as “a thorn in the flesh” of the social institutions, both temporal and spiritual.

He acknowledges that Christianity is a new aspect in East Africa, having been introduced in the region just about 110 years ago.

The Catholic Priest notes that though there are signs of maturity in faith in many places, there is “a serious need” for consolidation of faith and faith practices such as marriage and other social issues. 

He says, “Within the larger African culture there are many variations among the tribes and ethnic groups that should not be overlooked or generalized. But with the strong impact of globalization, urbanization, and mobility of people many western ideas and other secular values have strongly creped in, often with bad consequences. Cohabitation is one such practice. Now it has taken a deep root in the African society, it will not be easy to root out this unhealthy practice.”

According to the Salesian Priest, cohabitation is not just a big blow to the Sacrament of Matrimony. 


The practice, he says, also has many ill effects on the society, traditional values of sexuality, marriage, upbringing of children, and family. 

Fr. Arasu says that cohabitation has, to a large extent, destroyed many cultural values built for several years or centuries. 

“Often African cultural ethos is built around the family and its structures. Now with the collapse of family, which is the basic social unit, many other cultural values have lost their meaning or weakened,” he says.

In his interactions with the youth in East Africa, Fr. Arasu has discovered that young people have various explanations for cohabiting and living in the notorious “come we stay” arrangements.

To justify the arrangements, young people highlight the high rate of divorce in society and say that they are spending some time together “to see if things work out”. Some say that they are saving money for marriage.

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“It is not uncommon to meet cohabiting young couples vehemently defending their living together,” the Priest says, and adds, “They argue that it is the best way of coming to know each other and there is no other way of knowing each other and their compatibility better. Here compatibility also means if their female partner can really bear children.”

Fr. Arasu says that other young people find it better to separate during cohabitation rather than after church wedding, hence the infamous saying, ‘I am only trying, if it works, I will wed in the Church.’ 

Still, there are others whose only problem is paying bride price, the Indian-born Priest says.

“These are the reasons, excuses and procrastinations cohabiting couples give for their status quo, besides manifesting fear, ignorance and doubt, often times in a hidden way they portray a sense of self-interest, poor upbringing, disregard for culture and traditions, disrespect for elders and institutions they lead, overdependence on material things, failure to discern and make decisions and contempt for religious values and institutions such as the Church,” the SDB Priest says, and adds, “Surely, culture, society and the Church are losing their grip on people.”

“Marriage is the first casualty of today’s secularism and materialism,” the Priest asserts, and adds, “Though there is a high level of emotions and feelings involved in the union of man and woman, the institution and the sacrament of marriage is above emotions.”

Marriage, according to Fr. Arasu, involves a long period of education including counseling, catechesis, and other structured preparations. It also involves a lengthy process of discernment and finally a thoughtful and prayerful decision. 

The Priest quotes Pope Francis who expresses regret that “Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will.”

He says that for Christianity and especially for the Catholic Church, marriage is a sacrament, an external sign of an internal grace, instituted by Christ and performed by the Church. 

“Marriage reflects God’s covenant with people; it is not a contract that can be based on breakable conditions and situations,” he asserts.

“Pope John Paul II who visited Africa numerous times reminded us not to allow the African family to be undermined or scoffed at on its own land,” Fr. Arasu says in his reflection shared with ACI Africa.

He notes that while so much time and energy is being given to the formation of Priests in the Catholic Church, very little seems to be going on to prepare ordinary Christians for married life. 

The Missionary Priest underscores the need for the Church to realize that building good Christian families is a way to create good leaders for the Church and society.

He makes an appeal to Dioceses and Parishes in Africa to ensure that thorough preparations are made before marriage, by elevating marriage as “a priority pastoral activity.”

Additionally, married couples should be accompanied in Parishes, chaplaincies and other pastoral entities so as to help the couples to journey well in their marital challenges and understanding deeper the daily living of Christian marriage, Fr. Arasu says.

“As married couples grow in their family life, Dioceses and Parishes should help them to build a matrimonial and family spirituality,” he further recommends, and adds, “This should also involve parenting skills and other family issues such as family planning and other moral challenges related to sexuality and family life.”

“Let us keep in mind that only a healthy family spirituality will help the Church and family to grow, bring vocations and make the Church relevant in the challenging and changing times in Africa,” the Salesian Priest says.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.