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By Mary Rezac, Catholic News Agency, Feb. 10, 2019
– When Mary Rose Verret first welcomed Douglas and Elizabeth into her home, Douglas’ boots squished with the sewage he worked with, and Elizabeth smelled of french fries from her fast food job. Douglas was also just a few years of out jail.
Burnt out after years of ministry, Mary Rose didn’t think she would have anything in common with this couple, whom her pastor had asked Mary Rose and her husband, Ryan, to mentor through a process to convalidate their marriage in the Church.
“It was a difficult, complex situation that on paper didn’t look like it was going to go well,” Mary Rose recalled. Often, she saw couples like Douglas and Elizabeth disappear from the Church as soon as their marriage was blessed.
But when Douglas opened up about how he found Jesus in prison, and about their desire for a sacramental marriage in the Church, Mary Rose was humbled.
“On my end, working with this couple, I thought I was going to teach and I was going to form, and Ryan and I thought we were going to give everything to them,” she told CNA.
“But when we started listening to them and the husband’s experience of getting to know Jesus at a bible study while he was in jail, and the relationship he had with Jesus, and how he wanted to make things right with God, and how he wanted to have a marriage in the Church and he wanted Jesus to be part of their marriage, it was very humbling…and it really changed the way Ryan and I lived our ministry and lived our faith and lived our marriage,” she said.
The Verrets founded Witness to Love, a Catholic marriage prep renewal ministry, several years ago with the intent to give newly-engaged couples an older mentor couple of their choosing in the Church that could walk with them through marriage preparation and beyond.
Now, they are launching a Witness to Love track specifically for couples who are seeking to have their civil marriages blessed by, or convalidated in, the Catholic Church.
“We saw that with Witness to Love, in the parish where we started this, engaged couples were benefitting so much, but we were seeing couples who were having their marriage blessed who didn’t go through Witness to Love, they met with Father a few times…they were getting divorced quickly, some of them even a month after having their marriage blessed,” she said.
Couples seeking to convalidate their marriage in the Church make up a significant percentage of sacramental marriages in the Church each year – roughly 20 percent, Mary Rose said. In 2017, the total number of sacramental marriages in the U.S. was 144,000 – meaning approximately 28,800 of them were convalidations.
In response to this growing need, the Verrets tweaked their marriage prep program to offer a track specifically fitted to couples seeking convalidations in the Church. They interviewed couples seeking convalidations and looked at best practices throughout the country for bringing them into the Church. Many couples seeking convalidation would do so around the time their children needed sacraments – baptism or communion or confirmation. It was a time they could reconnect with the Church and felt they needed to “get right with God,” Mary Rose said.
But old approaches of bringing these couples into the Church weren’t working – couples would fail to connect with the Church community and drop off, or even divorce, shortly after they received the sacrament. That’s where Mary Rose thought the Witness to Love mentorship model could work.
What sets Witness to Love apart in marriage convalidation preparation “is every other mentor model out there says: the Church is going to choose and train and assign mentor couples to you. You don’t know them, you didn’t pick them, you don’t know how old they are or their background,” she said.
“And we’re telling this to a generation that doesn’t trust the Church, many of whom have been abused, have a pornography addiction, haven’t been to church in 15 or more years. And we’re asking them to talk to complete strangers, who are like uber Catholics, about their faith life and sex life and we wonder why it doesn’t work out.”
The choice in mentor couples provides the “skin in the game” for the marriage prep couple and the room for the Holy Spirit to work, Mary Rose said.
Beyond that, the program is tweaked to match the language that civilly married couples use, and to emphasize how the grace of the sacrament builds on the natural goods of a civil marriage.
“There are two ways of looking at marriage. One is just on the natural level – you’re living together, balancing a checkbook, you have kids, you share groceries – you know, life,” Mary Rose said. “And there’s a lot of natural goodness there, but there’s also a lot of natural challenges and we have fallen nature. So the grace of the sacrament helps you get through some of those things, love through things, grow through things, work through things, offer things up, pray for your spouse,” she said.
“The reason that we have the grace of the sacrament is that it’s impossible, on a human level, to love completely, totally, freely and fruitfully. It is impossible,” she noted.
“With the grace of the sacrament, you just have to ask God everyday to please help me keep my wedding vows,” she said, which also differ in wording and intent between civil and sacramental marriages.
Often, couples who have convalidated their marriages become the best witnesses of the grace of the sacrament of marriage, Mary Rose noted, because they know what it’s like to live without it.
“When they have their marriage blessed, if they are formed, then it’s a whole different experience, because if they just have one or two quick meetings and then never really understand this grace they receive, they can’t really tap into it.”
Going through the process
Meghan Reily and her husband Brendon were high school sweethearts who met in middle school, dated through college and got married civilly in 2016 – Meghan was Catholic, Brendon was not.
Once Meghan discovered that her marital situation was keeping her from the sacraments, she talked to Brendon about having their marriage blessed in the Church.
“After much discussion and prayer, we decided to go through the process. I think that shows a true testament to Brendon’s character,” Meghan told CNA.
“I could tell that this was something that was important to her and for the Church,” Brendon added, though he admitted to being “a little apprehensive at first.”
“Opening up about your relationship is something that is very personal to me,” he said. But going through this, I have never felt closer to Meghan than I do now. Same with our mentor couple. I’ve known them for several years, but I feel like they are family now too. They will always be someone who we can call on for anything.”
For their mentor couple, the Reily’s chose a couple that Meghan had known since childhood.
“We were in the same parish and I grew up with their daughter. We became best friends and her family was like a second family to me. Since I was always so close to them, Brendon got to get to know them when we were dating,” Meghan said.
“When asked who to choose as a mentor couple, it was a no-brainer for us. Their love for God and putting Him right at the center of their family is exactly the type of environment we want to have for our family.”
Meghan said the mentorship and the program of Witness to Love brought a “self-awareness” to their marriage that they hadn’t had before. It gave them tools to know and love their spouse better, and to work on virtues together.
“It was both challenging and rewarding. It in a way forced you to have those difficult conversations you don’t necessarily want to have,” she said.
“While we have been civilly married for two years, we are nowhere close to having it all figured out! The workbook provided great tools to give you insight on how you are wired and how your spouse is wired so you can better understand each other and how to handle situations, or discover what things you need to work on that you didn’t think was even an issue,” she added.
Brendon said the program changed their relationship by emphasizing that “it takes three to get married” – the couple and God.
“We are much more open in sharing what’s on our hearts so that we can pray for each other and build each other up,” he said.
Much of the content of Witness to Love is virtue-based. It encourages couples to examine different virtues – love, honor, courage, respect, humility, and so on – and how those virtues can best be lived out in a marriage.
“By learning the virtues, you are growing closer to God and understanding fully how much He loves you and how you need to love your spouse in return, because God loves your spouse that much and He put you together by His grace,” Meghan said. “Doing that, well, that’s what gets you closer to Heaven – knowing how to love and accept someone for all of who they are.”
Meghan and Brendon’s marriage will be blessed in the Church this March. Meghan said she would “absolutely” recommend the Witness to Love mentorship program to other couples in similar situations.
“It’s definitely something I’ll want to reference going forward in our marriage,” she said.
Responding to the needs of the Church
When Bishop Joseph Strickland was first made bishop of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas in 2012, strengthening marriage and family life was one of his top priorities.
“I wanted to really focus on marriage formation because in some ways I think we find ourselves needing to rebuild Christian society, and the stronger the marriages are, the stronger the families will be, the stronger (the faith of) the children will be, and I think that’s where we can begin of a joyful revolution of deeper faith,” Strickland told CNA.
About a year ago, the Diocese of Tyler began using Witness to Love’s marriage prep program – “I liked the solid theology on marriage and the beautiful presentation of what the sacrament of marriage is about for us as Catholics,” Strickland said.
Located in a minority-Catholic area, Strickland said he sees the need for good convalidation formation continuing to grow, as more couples delay marriage, or decide to come back to the Church later in life.
“There are so many couples that need convalidation, and we’re really encouraging and wanting to support those couples,” he said.
Having worked on a marriage tribunal for years, Strickland said what appealed to him about Witness to Love, besides being theologically sound, was that it didn’t feel as “bureaucratic” as some other marriage and convalidation programs.
“You’re having to talk about this very personal information with a priest that you don’t know, maybe you don’t feel you’re that comfortable with them, maybe you’re not Catholic or haven’t been practicing your Catholic faith for a long time,” he said.
“So I think to have the mentor couple, who would be someone who is faithfully living their Catholic faith, to help them feel like they’re welcome and to navigate any issues they might have…would be important especially for couples who may have been married civilly for quite some time and have had a number of kids and are having to negotiate some significant complexities.”
Mary Rose said the mentor couple relationship is so key to Witness to Love because it works both ways – the convalidating couple receives formation, but the mentoring couple is also challenged to examine their marriage and “step it up”, so to speak, in order to be a good example. She said some mentor couples have told her that being asked to mentor another couple is what saved their own marriage.
“It’s kind of a dead end if you don’t open at least a crack for the Holy Spirit, and in Witness to Love that risk has always been allowing the couples to choose their own mentor,” she said.
“But it’s that invitation, that personal relationship – it’s a two-for-one evangelization effort that has made all the difference and transformed parish communities, because instead of a couple coming through the Church and never seeing them again, their mentor’s marriage is renewed, the community is renewed.”
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