Look around the chapel during your average Sunday Mass, and you're likely to see a mix of older couples, families with school-age kids, families with toddlers and babies, and...maybe a small handful of engaged or newlywed young couples. Certainly, there are exceptional communities of Catholic young adults across the country, yet those preparing for or just starting to live out the married vocation is a specific, and often rare, subgroup.
Mary-Rose and Ryan Verret observed this lack in their home diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana and set out to determine exactly why so many young couples didn't continue receiving the sacraments after their weddings. Recalling their own marriage prep experience with a sponsor couple, the result of Mary-Rose working in the diocese's Marriage and Family Life Office at the time--she wasn't allowed to sign off on her own marriage prep certificate!--the Verrets embarked on months' worth of interviews with Catholic couples in the diocese. Relationship, invitation, and joyful witness, it turned out, were essential factors in sustaining couples in faith during their engagement and beyond. Though unsurprising, the real question was how to address this need for true discipleship in marriage prep.
The result of the Verrets' work is Witness to Love, a fresh approach to Catholic marriage prep that's rooted in relationship. Unlike other models in which brides and grooms are assigned to a sponsor couple, Witness to Love couples choose and approach their sponsors themselves. Engaged and sponsor couples meet periodically throughout the engagement period in the sponsors' home, along with the pastor who will preside over the wedding. The couples are also encouraged to attend Mass together several times and to go on a double date or two outside of their meetings.
The program's fruits, as evidenced by the dramatic change in the divorce rate among Lafayette Catholics in the first few years of marriage, and in the increased level of involvement in parish life by young couples, make the Holy Spirit's hand in this ministry clear, and the number of participating parishes and dioceses is growing. Mary Rose Verret, Witness to Love's Founder, and Catherine Rose, its Parish Outreach Coordinator, gave us more details about their start and what the mentorship process looks like in the real lives of their couples.
Witness to Love began in 2012, four years before Pope Francis' Amoris Laetitia, which reflects on marriage and the family in the world. The program truly addresses the need the Pope highlights for solid, comprehensive marriage prep that invites engaged couples into the fullness of authentic, sacramental love. Any thoughts on Francis' exhortation?
We have read Amoris Laetitia and feel so affirmed by Pope Francis’ words. Pope St. John Paul II, in Familiaris Consortio, made it clear that Catholics must integrate couples into their parish and into the Church. In my experience, however, that was largely ignored before we started Witness to Love. So, in response to John Paul II, and now encouraged by Pope Francis, Witness to Lovepersonally invites engaged couples into the life of faith, through relationship and through the experience of friendship and trust. Building friendships is what encourages these couples to come to Mass and engage with their faith.
New ministries usually arise as a means to address a previously unanswered need. What needs did you perceive in existing marriage prep initiatives, and what sets Witness to Love apart in the way it meets these needs?
In most marriage preparation, there isn't a high expectation that couples might desire the challenge of really growing in faith; of really establishing a relationship with Christ, and so that challenge isn't offered. Many of us marriage ministers have lost hope, and we do our best to either squeeze engaged couples into a minimum number of classes or to present the most they will tolerate before deciding to opt for an easier civil ceremony. Hopefully an NFP class. Maybe classes on the theology of marriage and on conflict resolution.
But couples are capable of great things: of conversion, of opening the door to receive the beautiful teachings of the Church on marriage and human love. The Witness to Love marriage prep ministry is intensive, yet not overwhelming. It draws the couple in. It involves engaged couples working with a priest or deacon who catechizes them, along with a mentor or sponsor couple who accompanies the bride and groom.
The unique aspect of this mentorship is that it's deeply based on friendship, attraction and trust. The engaged couple chooses their mentors either from their own circle of qualified friends or from a “pool” of couples at their local parish. Because they choose their mentors, there is a much deeper sense of commitment and responsibility in this relationship for both couples. Thus, the engaged not only receive basic teachings on the sacrament of marriage; they are invited into deeper participation in the life of the Church through the friendship and witness of their mentors.
Mary Rose, you and your husband-who has a counseling background--conducted dozens of interviews with couples as you were putting the program together. What, specifically, were some of your findings (the good and the bad), and how did they shape the program content?
Many or most young couples are isolated from the insights of close, loving friends and family who can provide a valuable window into marriage, not because they want to be alone, but because they don’t know how to meaningfully connect with couples who they do admire. This led us to realize that the young couple who admires the marriage and family of another couple, from afar, needs permission and encouragement to invite that other couple into their lives; they need them to walk with them to the altar and beyond. So, through Witness to Love, we coach an engaged couple to reach out and grab onto a living lifeline through relationships of mentoring and evangelization.
The engaged and mentor couples are required to continue meeting periodically after the wedding day and are encouraged to spend time together outside of meetings. What effects have you seen on each of the couples in a mentoring relationship? Can you share a few specific stories of the fruits of these relationships?
We have repeatedly witnessed the way that both couples—the engaged and veteran mentor couple—are blessed and enriched by the relationship they gain through Witness to Love. For the engaged couple, their need for a witness to sacrificial, enduring marital love is filled. It is beautiful to see the subtle way engaged couples state and restate their unmet desire to see a model of married love they can point to and say, “There it is! There is someone living out marriage in a way that I admire and desire for myself.”
Likewise, when a married couple is asked to mentor an engaged couple, it is a huge compliment and boost for their marriage. We’ve heard from many mentor couples how excited and affirmed they felt by the engaged couple's request to work together. Mentor couples are given an amazing opportunity to open the doors of their domestic church and practice fruitfulness in a new way, through sharing the Gospel and the beauty of Church teaching and through witness to the good, the bad, and the hilarious of family life. Often, mentors help the engaged couple pursue abstinence before marriage, and they are sometimes asked to be the godparents of the newly married couple’s children! One of the most beautiful things to see is the way the ministry leads both the mentors and newlyweds to become passionately involved in the life of their parish.
You worked with psychologist Dr. Peter Martin in forming the course. How did his credentials and experience shape the content, and why do you think the psychological element is so essential in preparing for marriage?
When we first began working with engaged couples, we'd assign them a mentor couple, but we quickly observed that the couples didn't always connect, especially for the long haul, which was so important to us. A mandatory mentor couple was viewed as a requirement by the engaged couple, and that usually made meetings feel like homework, rather than a fruitful relationship of discipleship and friendship.
We made the prayerful--and somewhat desperate--leap to try out the idea of engaged couples choosing their own mentors, and the results were astonishing. We were seeing conversions for both couples, a desire to get involved in the life of the parish, and we saw couples continue going to Mass with their mentors after the wedding. Our divorce rate went from 23% during the first 4 years of marriage to 0%.
We reached out to Dr. Peter Martin, whose graduate work at the Institute of Psychological Sciences focused specifically on the virtues and their relation to attachment theory and the psychology of conversion. Dr. Martin helped us understand that personal choice was essential for a trust-filled relationship between engaged and mentor couple. Freedom to choose a mentor couple was key. While we knew our new discovery of the engaged to choose their mentors was bringing new life to our parish, we didn't know precisely why until this dynamic of trust was explained to us. When an engaged couple chooses a mentor couple (one who has been married at least five years in the Catholic Church, has a marriage that the engaged couple admires, is active in their parish, and is in good standing in the Catholic faith), two things happen: first, the engaged couple is attracted to the mentor couple and eager to connect with them. Second, the mentor couple is honored to have been chosen, and becomes well-disposed to open their home and hearts to the engaged couple--not just for a few months, but for a lifetime.
How do you address unique situations related to the approach of engaged couples choosing their own mentors, such as couples returning to church as they prepare for marriage who might not know many people in the parish, or couples who will be moving to or living in another city or state after their wedding?
The truth is that many couples today aren't connected to a community, they have little or no couple friends that are living by the Church's teaching, and they will move many times during their married life together. We take all of that into account. The discernment process of who to choose as mentors is explained to them. Plan A is that the mentor couple attends the same church as the engaged couple, the one where the engaged will be married. That is simple and easy, and it happens between 40-50% of the time. Other times, the engaged choose a couple who goes to another church, and here we weigh the value of what we hope will become a long-term friendship, requiring that couples from different parishes attend Mass together once a month.
If an engaged couple knows no one in the parish, we ask them to come to church three times and see if they know anyone, or if they see someone they'd like to be introduced to. We also encourage parishes to put exemplary couples in key, visible areas of ministry and to ask them if they are open to the possibility of mentorship. These “showcase couples” are vetted and formed. The parish keeps a booklet with their photos, bio and info. If an engaged couple cannot find anyone to approach, they are shown the booklet and asked to pick a couple they would like to be introduced to. But the engaged couple still has to do the asking. It's key!
If the engaged couple is moving to another state in the near future, we still encourage them to choose a couple whom they can turn to if they need help. Even if we need to be creative, we want to give all of our couples a lifeline.
Lastly, let's talk about your own weddings and marriages. What are each of your favorite memories from your wedding days? What's the most valuable advice you have for newlyweds/what do you wish you had known?
Mary-Rose: For both of us, it was the first glance when we first saw each other down the aisle of the church. It was a moment when time stood still, as if there was no one else there. I think we were both a bit teary-eyed and felt the power and the beauty of the Sacrament and the immense gift we were both giving and receiving. It was a life-changing day of healing and grace.
The most valuable advice we can give would be to live out your wedding vows each day. They are not just to be said one time. We have said them many times to each other, and they mean so much more now than they did on our wedding day. If you try to live out your vows each day you will always have a strong marriage! Put your vows somewhere prominent in your house where you can look at them. When examining your conscience, consider the words of your vows.
And always remember that the best way to have a strong marriage is to put your relationship with God first. Your spouse is not meant to hold your heart in the way that God does. Only God can read your mind, fill your heart, and heal your soul. If you expect your spouse to do all these things you will always be disappointed! You are married to get your spouse to heaven. That is your mission. Everything else is secondary.
Catherine: The sweetest memory of my engagement and wedding day was the way my husband and I remained focused on prayer and on each other. During the final 81 days before our wedding, we prayed nine novenas, back-to-back, to different married saints and blesseds, ending with the last novena prayer at our wedding rehearsal.
On the morning of our wedding, we met privately in the chapel so we could quietly exchange a few words before our wedding Mass. Also, we invited all of our guests to arrive shortly before Mass began to join us in a Rosary. Even though it’s not traditionally done, it was such a blessing to sit in the back of the church and hold hands as we prayed our last Rosary as an engaged couple.