By Peg Hensler, NACFLM Region IV

CELEBRATES the vocation of marriage in worship and community life.

 Worshiping & Prayer Assessment

When asked about the most important qualities that Catholic couples need for successful, lifelong marriage, the typical responses from engaged couples might include – great communication, honesty, trust, loyalty, acceptance, just to name a few.  Rarely do young adults preparing for Catholic marriage list worship and prayer as necessary elements of a strong marriage, yet those of us who minister to engaged and married couples understand that the “faith” components of the marital relationship are as essential as the love and self-sacrifice that couples give to each other every day in happy, healthy marriages.  We’ve all heard the phrase – “families that pray together stay together.”  This simple statement is made manifest in the lives of real married couples and their families who regularly practice their faith together.  These are the families that seem to exude that wonderful sense of marital joy and family wholeness that all of us hope to achieve.

Sharing in the Eucharist together as a couple is the highest form of worship in Catholic marriage.  It is the source and summit of our Catholic faith, and the font of marital grace, that infusion of divine energy that enables us to take on superhuman qualities in the midst of the everyday joys and challenges of marriage and family life.  Married couples that work hard to keep the marital graces flowing are most successful when they make intentional connections between their faith lives and their daily family lives.  While Sunday worship and involvement in their parish community are obvious priorities, so is the daily attitude of thankfulness for all of God’s blessings, including the gift that spouses are for each other, and the supreme gifts that children are for their parents.

As Catholics, we believe that we are all members of the one Body of Christ, and as such we are all interconnected.  We are all branches on the vine that is the person of Jesus Christ; each family adds a new chapter to the story that tells of our common salvation history.  Nothing demonstrates our interconnectivity better than healthy, holy married couples and their families who invite Jesus to walk with them on a daily basis, and who glorify God in prayer and in action.  Interfaith couples, though they can’t share the Eucharist together, can still be “eucharistic” and unified in their approach to family life.  Together they can be thankful for all of God’s generous gifts, and they can pray for marital strength and endurance.  Let us always recall that when Jesus returned in glory to the Father, he promised us we would never be alone.  He left us the Holy Spirit to provide for all of our spiritual needs and he showed us how to worship and pray that we might always welcome the Spirit of God into our homes, our marriages, our lives.


By Bonnie Mack, NACFLM Region IV

STRENGTHENS couples to renew their commitment & grow in the skills for a happy & holy marriage.

EDUCATES all members about the nature & purposes of marriage as a natural institution & a Christian sacrament.

 Strengthing the Married Assessment

I’m sure you’ve heard the sentiment expressed many times.  We do a great job of preparing couples for marriage but unfortunately, we leave them at the altar.  There are a variety of logical reasons for this, but to become a marriage building church we need to be intentional about supporting the sacrament of marriage and the couples living out their vocation.  Strengthening marriage involves a combination of both educating and renewing/enriching couples to help them grow in their love for God, each other and their neighbor.  This entails helping couples understand the nature and purposes of marriage as a natural institution and a Christian sacrament.  But it also involves helping them renew their commitment and grow in the skills for a happy and holy marriage.  A parish leader oftentimes knows this but translating it to the folks in the pews, is difficult.

“If you build it, they will come,” may be true in the movie, “Field of Dreams,” but doesn’t necessarily translate in parish marriage enrichment.  Too often a parish feels frustrated because a great program and speaker they selected, fun activities and great food they chose, good publicity they handled for the event was done and few couples showed up.  Folks were too busy, not interested or…fill in the blank, and therefore it is determined to shelve marriage enrichment for a while.  When this happens, we suggest you take a step back and assess your approach to strengthening marriage.  Essential ingredients and therefore a strong suggestion for parishes interested in supporting and strengthening marriage is threefold:

Under gird everything you do with prayer

Gather a core group of parishioners interested and invested in marriage who together can address this building block of marriage in a holistic way

Find out the desires and needs of your targeted audience then build accordingly

Under girding your efforts with prayer seems like a no-brainer but is too often the forgotten ingredient or the afterthought.  After we make our plans, we’ll ask God to bless our efforts.  What about asking God for His wisdom, direction and help as you begin and relying on His strength and provision as you progress?  From inception to delivery depend on Him.

Use the Resource Guide’s assessment for Strengthening Marriage with a core group of parishioners who desire to promote marriage holistically.  Evaluate your parish and use the checklist to determine what you are presently doing, can realistically do and what you might want to do sometime in the future.  Begin to put the lens of marriage building and specifically, strengthening marriage, on everything.

Lastly, make sure you find out what people in your parish are interested in or see as a need.  Research tells us if people perceive a need and are invested in the process, they are more likely to attend.  Rather than “building it” and hoping they come, incorporate their ideas and needs and involve them in the process.

The thoughts of the Bishops (below) expressed eloquently in Love and Life in the Divine Plan, can be fleshed out in a myriad of ways to strengthen the married.  May God guide and bless us as we begin.

“As a couple grows in virtue, they grow in holiness.  In other words, the couple acquires, by prayer and discipline, those interior qualities that open them to God’s love and allow them to share in his love more deeply.  Couples instinctively understand this when they speak about their marriage being a means of leading each other to heaven…

“Communication and relationship skills are crucial to building such intimacy.  As spouses learn to improve their communication, they can better respond to each other’s needs for love, acceptance and appreciation.  They deepen marital intimacy and strengthen their practice of chastity.

PREPARING for Sacramental Marriage

 By Steve & Kathy Beirne, NACFLM Region I & II

PREPARES couples to celebrate and live a Christian Sacramental Marriage.

Preparing for Sacramental Marriage Assessment

Formal marriage preparation in the Catholic Church began in the 1940’s in Chicago with the birth of the precana movement.  Pastors began to see that couples approaching the church for marriage had very little idea of the seriousness of the sacrament they were entering, and the importance of the job they were taking on.  Courses began to be offered to acquaint the couple with the different aspects of married life – from the mundane areas of finance and the mechanics of sex (often taught by a banker and a doctor) to the loftier ideas of sacrament, covenant and vocation, more often taught by a priest.

The humble beginnings of the precana program bore fruit, and marriage preparation has become an expectation for couples entering marriage under the auspices of the Catholic Church.  While the types and forms of this preparation varies, there are usually some common elements.

Some clergy presence is usually involved.  The program may be led by a priest or deacon, or the clergy may just supplement the instructional part of the preparation with individual meetings with the couple, administering the PMI to assess the couple’s readiness and freedom to marry.  The clergy person is also determining whether the couple has a faith dimension in their lives.  It does not have to be a fully developed expression of faith even the beginning of a spiritual life is enough to welcome them into a deeper relationship with God through the church.

Some form of skills building is introduced.  Couples learn about negotiating a lifelong relationship, about communicating across genders, about understanding one another’s family and family style, and many other aspects of healthy relationships.

Instruction in what the Catholic Church means by marriage – the theology and tradition, the principles and practice of a Catholic marriage is discussed, a process that is often an eye opener for the engaged pair.

So why does the Catholic Church require marriage preparation when so many other churches and venues in our society do not?

Because marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic Church it is treated with special importance.  Just as a priest goes to the seminary to prepare for his ordination, and the adult being baptized goes to RCIA, Catholics being married attend marriage preparation.  You may say, but a priest’s preparation is years long and the catechumen’s is months long.  Why is marriage preparation so much shorter?

The answer is that we believe marriage preparation begins in childhood, and has been going on for a lifetime!  From the earliest experience that a child has of a married couple (hopefully, his or her parents) ideas are beginning to form about this special union called marriage.  Remote preparation is often subconscious.  Children watch how married couples treat one another, see how they are portrayed in the media and in popular culture and ideally have conversations about them with their parents and other caring adults.

Proximate preparation begins when couples begin dating.  The young person begins to understand what it takes to build a caring, growthful, intimate relationship.  How do you reveal your deepest values to someone else?  Is the other person able to admit that they have faults?  Can they show their caring side?  Are they respectful of the values and norms you were brought up with?  Can you handle the demands of a relationship, and as the bond with one special person emerges, can you see it lasting a lifetime?

When that choice is made, and the two people believe that they have found “the one,” then immediate preparation begins.  It is important to remember that it is God’s grace that brings these couples to the Church.  Perhaps their reasons for seeking a sacramental marriage may be superficial and they may present obstacles that will need to be addressed but each year thousands of young and not so young couples approach their parish looking to be married.  The Church recognizes that a unique opportunity for evangelization and formation of couples is given to us during this teachable moment.  It is our responsibility to cooperate with God’s grace and warmly welcome each couple.

When we speak of our responsibility we are referring to the entire faith community including the ordained priest or deacon, the lay couples who share their sacrament and the church’s teaching about marriage, and finally all the faithful of the parish who pray for each engaged and newly married couple.  Ultimately, it is far more than preparing a couple for their wedding day.  Marriage preparation is also a way for the faith community to invite the couple to join a parish that will support them throughout their lives.

Programs can take on many different forms.  Some employ a one-on-one sponsor format.  Some are held in a group setting, and even those vary from a one day type of program to a series of several meetings.  Engaged Encounter and some other programs use a weekend retreat style.  Most recently, online marriage preparation is also available.  Many programs utilize a premarital assessment tool that raises issues for couples to discuss that they may not have had a chance to discuss earlier.  Marriage preparation is a gift to the engaged couple, and the people who staff the programs are a gift to the Church.  When believers come together to offer these programs to engaged couples it is a visible sign of the words of St. Paul: There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.  There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.  (Corinthians 12:46)

Pastoral CARING

By Lorrie & Don Gramer, NACFLM Region VII

PROVIDES CARE to couples and families in times of difficulty and loss.

 Pastoral Caring Assessment

“By the time a married couple in trouble comes to see me, the whole house is on fire…I wish we could get them assistance when it’s only a pan fire on the stove.”  This acknowledgement by a compassionate pastor highlights both the need for a better way to help couples in crisis and an opportunity for a better plan for pastoral care for Marriage in the Parish.

We’re reminded here of the words from the Pastoral Letter “Follow the Way of Love” by the US Bishops, as they encouraged married couples to “renew their commitment regularly, seek enrichment often, and ask for pastoral or professional help when needed.”

Yes, we do hope couples renew and enrich their marriages regularly and often and why it is important that a MarriageBuilding Parish provides plenty of opportunities to do just that.  Learning skills, gaining new insights, making a couples retreat, all these and others serve couples well in the ongoing work that it takes to make marriages healthy, holy and fulfilling.

But what can a couple do when the tough times get too difficult?  When one or even both lose their job?  When sickness takes over their life?  When they are having difficulty communicating?  When infertility or a difficult prenatal diagnosis comes there way?  When pornography or infidelity is a problem?  When a spouse dies?  When…?  When….?  When…?  What kind of pastoral or professional help is available to the couples in your parish who are in need?

What we are proposing is something we began calling Marriage Care a few years ago.  Marriage Care is what we have come to identify and describe as the parish ministry for couples in crisis, couples experiencing difficulties, couples in need of prayer and support, couples in need of direction toward resources and referrals, couples in need of community, all within a safe, trusting environment.

To us, it’s having the parish become the first responders, Marriage 911, if you will.  And what would this look like?  A married couple or spouse in need calls the parish office and request Marriage Care.  Within 24 hours, he or she has received a return call from the Marriage Care Minister, either the parish priest or a capable staff person or competent married person/couple, who chats with them briefly on the phone, answers some initial questions and invites them to meet.  Making that initial call to the parish is often quite difficult for a couple/individual in need, so our response must be quick and compassionate.  Explain that we aren’t marriage counselors, but we are trained and prepared to assist them in this time of difficulty.  And, we want to offer the spiritual support of their faith community.

What will that session or sessions look like?  First, let’s talk a little, to make them comfortable and to get to know each other a bit.  Then ask if you can pray with them.  Ask the Lord into this situation through His guidance and grace of their Sacrament, as together you map out a plan of recovery or assistance with this couple.  Be bold in your prayer.  Pray in a heartfelt, open way calling on God and the intercession of any of His Saints to enter into this situation and bring hope, help and healing.  Encourage them to take their situation to pray each day, too.  You might even have a prayer formula or suggested prayers that they can personalize and pray together in the coming weeks.  We are working on a prayer book of novenas for married couples in difficult situations that can be used based on the situation.  It will be called “Take it to Prayer” and we believe will assist couples to pray through the difficult times.  It’s important to remember, many couples have never prayed together, especially in their own words.  Let’s help them get started, as we know it is through prayer that many of life’s most difficult situations and decisions can be faced and where God’s grace can be received.

Next, help them assess the situation…what’s happening, what are the problems they are facing.  Assist them with this.  One simple way might be to draw a pile of boulders and ask each of them on their own sheet to name them.  The Couple Checkup through Prepare/Enrich is another tool that can be quite helpful.  It can be taken and the results received right away.  Maybe all you need to do is ask the right questions.  It is important here that the Marriage Care Minister has very good listening, empathy and understanding skills, and uses them.  Some of these skills could be taught and used in the session like Power Listening Lite from World Class Marriage.  You simply ask one of them to talk and the rest of us listen for two minutes without saying anything, just positive nonverbal that encourages them to talk.  You can then ask the other spouse to share what they heard, and confirm if they are correct.  If not, the speaker shares again.  If the conversation continues, Power Listening can be used.

Another skill comes from PAIRS.  It’s called Emptying your Emotional Jug.  Questions are asked of one of them.  Start with “What makes you upset or angry?”  No one comments.  Then ask “What makes you sad?”  Again, no one comments.  You might need to ask the question several times before they get everything out.  The next question is “What are you worried or afraid about?”  Continue to ask until they have no more to say.  Thank them each time for sharing.  Finally, the last question is “What makes you glad?”  This can take a person through a very helpful process that ends in their being glad about everything from being there to solve their situation, to a renewed sense that their marriage is important, etc.  It’s important that they each are given this opportunity to empty their emotional jug while the other listens.

World Class Marriage, PAIRS, ARC, Mastering the Mysteries of (Sacramental) Love, PREP, and others are all comprehensive relationship skills programs.  While you won’t be able to take them through an entire class, there needs to be a referral source for relationship skills.  Consider taking the training to better use the skills with them, and consider offering marriage education classes at regular intervals in the parish or cluster of parishes.  As one marriage leader we recently heard said, we have to stop guessing our way through marriage.  We must become learners.  Being able to express yourself, being a good listener, being empathetic with understanding, are all learned skills.  These can all be helpful no matter what the crisis or difficulty is.  The next step is to let them know what is available to help them.  Make referrals.  It’s important that the Marriage Care Minister has knowledge of the resources, programs, counselors, and other sources of help to assist the couple in making a plan of recovery, of hope, of support.  Do your homework.  Learn about all the efforts that are available through your parish, your diocese, your community, through the web, anything that can be of help.  You might need to tell the couple you will have these ready the next time you meet, especially if you need to do more homework.

If you don’t have a list of Catholic Counselors, or at least Counselors who support Catholic teachings of permanence, openness to life and fidelity, get one put together.  Recruit through your parish bulletin, you may have some excellent counselors right in your parish and don’t know them.  Then take them to lunch and talk.  Interview them.  This will help you know their strengths and you can refer accordingly.  We have included here a copy of the questions one of the counselors in our diocese put together for this process.

Learn about other efforts to help troubled couples like Third Option and Retrouvaille.  Our local Marriage Encounter leaders have told us that at least 40% of the couples attending ME should be on a Retrouvaille instead.  Where can this discernment happen?  With the Marriage Care Minister.

Third Option is.  It can be set up in a parish or maybe better, a cluster of parishes.

Retrouvaille is

We would like to be clear here.  Marriage Care is NOT Marriage Counseling.  It’s marriage support and referral.

Be creative in how you Resource each individual/couple.

If communication is the problem, refer to a skills class in the area or to Marriage Encounter.  Know the dates and registration information.  Even help them sign up.

If you have a couple who is experiencing infertility, give them knowledge of the Church’s teaching on reproductive technology (available from USCCB Publications) and information on Natural Family Planning as a method to achieve pregnancy.  And, refer them to a support group within our faith community…and if there’s not one, help to create one.  One in six couples today are experiencing infertility.

When a couple receives a difficult prenatal diagnosis, refer them to someone in your faith community for support and connect them to Mary Kellet and Prenatal Partners for Life.  Mary’s son was diagnosed prenatally with a severe Chromosome deformity and advised to terminate the pregnancy.  Mary carried Peter to term and he became a precious member of their family.  Prenatalpartnersforlife.com offers the support a couple may need to do the right thing.

Elizabeth Ministries is also a wonderful resource for any need a couple may have during the childbearing years.  They are also an excellent resource for Pornography recovery.  RECLAIM Sexual Health is their newest effort.  It’s online recovery of sexual addictions for Catholics.  When a spouse has major health issues, the other may need our care and concern.  Find a parish family willing to “adopt” them and offer to help out around the house with tasks or chores that may need to be done.  This would be true after the death of a spouse as well.  We asked a young widow what she needed now from the Church.  Her answer?  Some help with some of the things her husband would have done.  I know there are widowers who could use a homemade meal or a plate of cookies now and again, too.

A MarriageBuilding Parish does all these things, and hopefully more, to address the needs of couples and families in crisis.  We as Catholics believe in marriage as faithful, fruitful and forever….through richer and poorer, in sickness and in health.  If a couple doesn’t find the resources to assist them through the difficult times in their lives, when the going gets too tough, when sickness can take over their lives, when they lose a job or have other financial difficulties, when communication breaks down, we have to see ourselves as part of the problem.  Shouldn’t we rather be part of the solution?

FORMING Youth & Young Adults

 By Lorrie Gramer, NACFLM Region VII FORMS young people in the beliefs and virtues necessary for healthy relationships, including marriage. Forming Youth Assessment I was asked a little while back to speak to a group of Junior High and High School youth from our home parish about the Sacrament of Marriage.  I had been told […]


By Judy Clark, NACFLM Region 10

OFFERS HEALING to separated and divorced spouses and their families.

Divorce Healing Assessment

Millions of people of various faiths and backgrounds have suffered the devastating grief of a marriage that ended in divorce.  Countless children of various ages have lived with feelings of anxiety, disorientation, guilt and abandonment.  Divorce hurts.  We have experienced the pain of divorce in our families, in the lives of our friends and those we serve in ministry

The Grief of Divorce

The grief of divorce involves all the symptoms of grief we think of regarding a serious loss.  Besides denial, bargaining, depression, anger, confusion, and finally acceptance and moving on, the grief process of divorce deals with self-esteem issues in a unique way.  Rejection permeates the loss of a marriage, for adults as well as children.  Rejection feels like being shattered into a million pieces as a sheet of glass does breaking on concrete.  Feeling broken, less than whole and ashamed are common emotions that mirror low self-worth.  Children often experience feeling unloved and abandoned as their parents grapple with their own healing.  They can falsely blame themselves for causing the breakup of their parent’s marriage, prompting guilt, self accusations and reactive behaviors.  Parents experience ongoing guilt over the pain their children are experiencing.  Both children and adults can feel abandoned by God and have difficulty praying to a God who would let this divorce happen.

The Healing Process

Healing takes time.  The grief process is truly a journey.  There are dashed promises and dreams to let go of, life roles to grieve, and new roles, responsibilities and jobs to assume.  There are deep disappointments when certain friends back away, removing their emotional support.  Financial security may have greatly changed and downsizing is required.  Growing through the grief process towards healing can seem a daunting task.  Offering solace, encouragement, guidance and like-to-like understanding is a great part of helping people heal on their grief journey

Divorce Recovery Programs and Processes

As ministry persons, we can be the conduit that brings hope to those who are in need of divorce recovery.  We can help them connect regarding recovery programs, counselors, spiritual guidance and like-to-like support.  It is not so much “which” program to use as it is to provide connection versus isolation.  Being with nonjudgmental people that understand the grief of divorce brings almost immediate relief and increases confidence in believing that they can, indeed, make it through to healing and a new life.  So buy a couple of books or attend a divorce program course that will add to your own confidence in assisting our divorced families towards recovery.  Make Divorce Recovery part of your ministry planning schedule.  If you offer it, they will come.  They need the opportunity to heal.

CREATING a Culture of Life & Love in the Family

CREATING a Culture of Life & Love in the Family

By Judith Leonard, NACFLM Region IX

Affirms the gift of Children, the vocation of Parenthood, and helps build a Culture of Life and Supports parents and families in their role as a Domestic Church.

Creating a Culture of Life Assessment


During his relatively short life on earth, Jesus gave us many gifts, including words to live by.

Love – how to love God and each other – and life – how to have it abundantly – were among the themes of his teachings.  While the two topics complement each other in numerous ways, nowhere is their intersection more harmonious or central to our lives than in families.

That’s because the heart of the Church is in the home, where children receive the first proclamation of the faith.  Home is a holy place where families pray together, love and forgive one another, serve each other and affirm and celebrate life.  Most importantly, God is there, too.


Everyone in the family has a part to play – parents, children, and brothers and sisters.

As catechetical corollaries to the fourth and fifth commandments, respectively, Strengthen Your Family (Honor Your Father and Your Mother) and Promote the Culture of Life (Thou Shall Not Kill) outline our responsibilities as Catholics who embrace Christ’s teachings.

“Parents need to be involved in educating their children,” said Judith Leonard, director of the Office of Family Life and Natural Family Planning.  “A husband and wife working together to raise their family together is essential.  They need to pray together as a family and eat meals together as a family.

Raising children in the faith is best done by example, Christine Helton said.  “The example is there from the parents,” she said.  “You can’t teach a child without showing them.”  As volunteer softball coaches, Christine and husband Chris teach their children that everyone has a role to play in parish life.  (with photo)

“Each member of the family contributes in some way, whether it’s doing chores, working or going to school.  In the family they learn about forgiveness, how to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and ‘I love you.’”

By emphasizing the fundamental elements of faith – fostering a relationship with Christ and devotion to Mary, as well as love and concern for others – parents set the example of living faith for their children.

Caring and loving for children is not only a universal occurrence, but a transgenerational one as well.  Parents’ outpouring of love for their children is one of the few things that remain constant from one generation, or age, to another.

A child is a gift from the Lord,” Leonard said.  “When a child is created through the love of the parents it takes God to make that new life come into being – when the soul enters the body.”

Bringing new life into the world can be one of the most fulfilling occasions in a married couple’s life.  By embracing new life, each husband and wife honors a basic premise of the covenant they made with each other and with God on their wedding day.  That is, to accept children lovingly from God.

As Mother Teresa said, love begins at home, and the child is God’s gift to the family.  Mother Teresa’s observation is consistent with our catechism, which states that the supreme gift of marriage is a human person, who, from the moment of conception, has the right to be respected as a person.  Pope John Paul II also saw children as a gift, not only for parents, but for brothers and sisters, too.

Jim and Shyrelle Weber’s marriage goes by the book – Theology of the Body, by Pope John Paul II.  The writing weds the physical and theological aspects of marriage and serves as the basis for God’s Plan for a JoyFilled Marriage, “God’s Plan for a JoyFilled Marriage teaches you what the sacraments mean, what your vows stand for – to enter into marriage freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully,” Shyrelle explained.  The Webers have three children: Daniel, 7; Christopher, 5; and Arianna, 17 months.  (with photo)

“Everybody needs a brother or sister,” Leonard said.  “What would we be without all our brothers and sisters?”

As the “little church” home is where people learn to build relationships with members of their own family, and encourage and nurture relationships with other members of the Church.  The Church challenges husbands and wives to adopt the notion of marital stewardship, serving each other and building new lives together, to parish life as well.

While the home is often considered the “little church,” attending Mass as a family, or as a body, is a vital part of our faith formation that encourages and nurtures relationships with other members of the Church.  (with photo)

“There are many opportunities to do things as a family, no matter how young the families are,” Leonard said.  “Going to Mass together, participating in parish activities … children learn by their parents’ example.”

There are many resources available for building a culture of life and love.

BUILDING Leadership

By Chris Codden, NACFLM Region X, Past President

BUILDS and forms a team who minister to those called to the vocation of marriage and family.

Building_Leadership Assessment

Building leadership is the first of the building blocks for a reason.  Like any other building project, if you do not a have strong foundation, the building crumbles.  Leadership is that key component.  If the leadership does not have a strong underpinning; a strong vision for marriage, the work of strengthening marriage will not last.

The first step may be obvious, but is essential.  The diocese and/or parish needs to make strengthening marriage a priority.  This means viewing each ministry of the parish from the lens of how this affects the marriage of the couple sitting in the pew which will build a culture that bears witness, in all areas of life and society, to the truth and beauty of marriage.

For any type of intentional ministry, our clergy are key.  Having our priests on board and excited about the Sacrament of Marriage is vital to the success.  That excitement and commitment needs to extend past marriage preparation and the wedding, and look at marriage from womb to tomb.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz has commented on how he used to return to the rectory after a Saturday wedding, write the couples names in the parish registry and close the book thinking, “I’m glad that’s done.”  If we treat a couple as a finished product on the day of their wedding, no wonder we don’t see them again.  Archbishop Kurtz then challenged us to look beyond the wedding and seek ways to help the marriage, throughout the lifecycle, particularly at those pivotal moments.

To assist our clergy in understanding the importance of their role and vision, a diocesan day including a variety of speakers, the local ordinary and time for discussion on key topics would be helpful.  Many dioceses have done this with great success.  Not only does this impart valuable information, but the camaraderie and solidarity can be a good source of support.  On a parish level, the first step is identifying potential leaders.  While the support and vision of the pastor is essential, he needs a team to assist him.  Drawing from those who are already working in some form of marriage ministry, such as, current Sponsor or Mentor Couples, couples who have attended a Marriage Encounter Weekend, or couples who are catechists in the parish is a good place to start.  Asking those persons mentioned above for recommendations can also be helpful.

Step two is to train those potential leaders.  Just as you wouldn’t go to a building site without the proper tools, leaders need adequate formation to do the work.  If this is a diocesan effort, regional trainings could be held to assist the parishes.  Or a parish may offer a series of Saturday or Sunday afternoons focused on the steps toward becoming a MarriageBuilding Parish.  This could include time assessing the current details already in place, developing a plan of action, gathering of potential resources, developing a timeline and budget for events and initiatives, etc.  Many of these ideas can be found in this resource guide.

As the U.S. Bishops expressed their thanks for this important role we undertake, “We are grateful, too, for all those who work with young people and engaged couples to establish good marriages, who help married couples to grow in love and strengthen their union, and who help those in crisis to resolve their problems and bring healing to their lives.  (Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan)

The Spirituality of Struggle

By Mike Allen, M. Div., D. Min.

I’m a Family Life director, not a marriage counselor, but because I sometimes write about the spirituality of marriage in our diocesan newspaper, some people view me that way. It sounds like a parody of a commercial: “Are you a trained counselor?” “No, but I did sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night.”

Mindful of my limits, then, I agreed to meet once or twice with a troubled young couple to hear their story and offer guidance toward a referral. At our initial meeting, the frustrated couple sat in my office, with each spouse lamenting a deep dissatisfaction with their marriage, talking about divorce with an air of inevitability.

As each spouse spoke, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, the explosive revelation that might explain why two Catholics (and the parents of several young children) would willingly walk away from their lifelong covenant. What was the dark secret that doomed their marriage—Infidelity? Physical abuse? Addiction?

Apparently, there was no such secret. What I heard instead was a complaint from him that he didn’t feel respected, and that he never felt supported in decisions he had made for their family. Meanwhile, her primary grievance was that she didn’t feel listened to, and that he often made financial choices without consulting her first. Their bitterness was palpable.

After a brief silence, I said to them, “I appreciate your honesty about your relationship. I can sense the hurt and frustration you are both experiencing. I want to be sensitive to your feelings, but part of me wants to say to you, ‘Welcome to marriage.’”

“What I mean,” I continued, “is that when God brought you together in marriage, you were called to grow in love. That’s what marriage is; your chosen school for learning to love – your vocation. And these difficulties you are facing in your marriage – feeling disrespected or not listened to – are not really unusual, but are, in fact, to be expected.”

I know, I know; I just revealed why I’m not qualified to be a marriage counselor, imposing my own value system on that poor couple. My mea culpa is that I just can’t help myself. It’s amazing to me how many Christian couples are surprised that marriage is, well, hard.

Perhaps their naiveté makes sense. One of the problems in the Church, after all, is that we tend to present our best faces to each other because we think an authentic Christian is always happy and confident, with no worries or doubts. Naturally, then, we present the same picture of Christian marriage. Thus, when couples face problems, as virtually all couples do, they have the mistaken notion that our marriage is the only one struggling.

And yet, the demands of marriage are intrinsic to its nature. Think about it. Two individual persons called into intimate union, both with their own backgrounds, their own wills, their own personalities, their own preferences, and their own passions. How can such a vocation not bring with it immense challenge? And yet it is these very difficulties that best serve to shape our character and teach us to love.

As Catholics, we hear often about redemptive suffering, the belief that the trials we endure are never wasted but allow us to participate intimately in the passion of Christ. Rarely, however, do we translate that idea to marriage. And yet, the context of marriage – with its sometimes petty squabbles, power plays, and unreasonable expectations – provides the most proximate opportunity that spouses have to embody the suffering that true love requires, the self-gift that calls us to lay down our lives, minute by minute, for the good of the beloved, whether that love is reciprocated or not.

In that sense, the term “struggling marriage” is redundant. For while some marital challenges may be more strenuous than others, we do a disservice in marriage ministry when we fail to communicate that learning to love can be a painful process. After all, if the cross is the quintessential expression of love, how can we think that learning to love won’t hurt?

The good news, of course, is the hope of the Paschal Mystery. It is in sharing Christ’s suffering that we pass over with him from death to life. Thus, rather than fear marital struggles, couples should embrace them; not because trials are pleasant, but because apart from the struggle, love will never mature. There can be no Easter without Good Friday.

I don’t know what will happen with the couple who sat in my office, but I do know this; their marriage can die on its own, or it can die with Jesus. If it dies on its own, it’s just dead. But if they move forward together, seeking to lay themselves down in mutual submission, their struggling marriage will bear fruit in new life and deeper love. As the Catechism declares, “It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life” (1615).

Mike Allen is the Director of Family Life Ministries for the Diocese of Lexington, Ky. See www.marriage friendlytherapists.com for a partial list of counselors who support marriage.

Praying “All Ways” with Families

By Caroljean Willie SC, Ph.D.

Prayer is the thread that can bind families together. The purpose of prayer is to establish a deeper relationship with God and to give us the nourishment we need to live as disciples of Jesus. Expanding prayer, beyond the traditional words and rituals to include all of our senses through creative movement, music, art, nature, and more, can enrich the lives of all family members individually and together.

Following are some suggestions inviting families to pray together in new and creative ways.

• Choose a Favorite Hymn

Quietly listen to the words. Then invite family members to stand and move their bodies in rhythm with the music or create a song prayer with actions to the words of the song.

• Pray With Clay

Invite each person to create something out of the clay that reflects his/her relationship with God. Share with each other.

• Choose a Parable

Jesus used parables with images from the people of his time to illustrate his message about the kingdom of God. However, the images that he used are often not understood in the context of the 21st century reality of our lives. As a family, choose a parable and rewrite it as Jesus might tell it today using the images and experiences that are a part of your family’s reality. Act it out if you feel dramatic.

• Keep a Family Gratitude Journal

Once a week, or whenever possible, invite family members to contribute something for which they are thankful and write it in the journal. Conclude with a prayer in thanksgiving for the many blessings in your lives. At the end of the year review the journal together to see the many ways God has been present to your family during the year.

• Pray the Calendar

Each day God invites us to live lives of love and service. The invitation is always there, but with our busy schedules we often fail to remember to acknowledge God’s call through our daily actions. The calendar prayer invites family members to sit together once a week and decide on a specific action for each day of the week that all commit themselves to. For example, on Monday each family member agrees to do a random act of kindness, on Tuesday to listen to a song that praises God, on Wednesday to take a few minutes to appreciate something beautiful in nature, etc. At the end of the day all can share what they have done to honor their commitment.

• Design a Family Prayer Quilt

Give each person a 9”x9” piece of white cardstock. Within each square draw, paint, or use a computer image or other medium to illustrate a theme you want to include in your prayer. For example, the images in a gratitude quilt should represent those things in life for which you are grateful. The images in a hope quilt should represent things for which you dream – things that give meaning and direction to your lives. Connect the squares by paper punching a hole in the four corners of each square and connect with ribbon or yarn. Hang in a special place.

• Draw a Prayer

Keep a creative Family Journal in a loose leaf binder. This can be an ongoing project. Invite each family member to make a contribution using one of the following suggestions: draw a symbol to represent your relationship with God; make a picture to represent what you think God looks like; design a holy card; choose a scene from Scripture and illustrate it; illustrate a favorite prayer. Be creative and come up with your own ideas and themes.

• Create a Musical Autobiography

A musical autobiography is the story of your relationship to God through music. To create a musical autobiography of your family, make a timeline of approximately ten events or times in the life of your family that reflect both high and low points. Find a song or piece of instrumental music that reflects how your family felt at those times. A few ideas to think about: marriage, the birth of each child, vacation memories, birthdays, etc.

• Pray With Worldly Music

Choose a country or place in the world that your family would like to pray for and find a piece of music from there. Light a candle and sit comfortably, close your eyes and listen to the music. Allow yourselves to feel your connection to the people and land that the music represents. Pray for them. Join your prayer with their prayer for a world in which all may live in peace and harmony. Feel the peace that comes with understanding.

• Observe Nature

Nature provides us with the opportunity to stop for a few minutes to see what is happening right before our eyes. It invites us to sit still and see the mysteries of the visible world – beauty, growth, change, death, new life – and, in clearly seeing the visible, to come to know that which we cannot see. Take a walk as a family in a local park, along a hiking trail, or in your own backyard. Choose a spot and sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Do nothing but look at what is happening in that one spot. Notice the colors, the grass, flowers, twigs, insects, fallen leaves which might be in that spot. At the end of the reflection period share with each other what you have observed. End with a prayer of thanksgiving for the gifts of nature. This prayer might continue another day with a contribution to the family journal or a nature prayer quilt.

• Pray the Psalms

Psalms provide a wonderful model for litanies or hymns of praise for the magnificent gifts of creation. By using the models provided by a number of psalms, we can create our own hymns of praise. Choose one of the following patterns and compose a family psalm of praise in thanksgiving for creation: O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (from Psalm 8) Use this as a refrain and invite family members to add the gifts of creation for which each is grateful in his/her own life. After each contribution repeat the refrain, O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

May these prayer suggestions lead your families to explore new ways of communing with God individually and together. Be adventuresome! Look for God in unexpected places! Look for God in the ordinary places you frequent daily! God is there – beneath you, above you, around you, and within you. Celebrate our wondrous God through words, art, dance, and music. The possibilities are endless because God is infinite!

Caroljean Willie is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati currently serving as the NGO representative at the United Nations in New York for the Sisters of Charity Federation. Her interest in different prayer styles grew out of her cross-cultural experiences in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.