Preparing Adolescents for Marriage

By Margaret Brogden

Recently, my ten year old son, Malik, had the honor of participating in a Christian marriage ceremony. As the ring bearer, Malik stood right next to the groom. From this position he was able to see and experience every aspect of the ceremony. He seemed to be totally absorbed by the ritual. Watching him, I began to reflect on how I could help him process the experience. This article is the result of my pondering as a parent and a professional youth minister. As a parent, I am glad that my son had this experience. It was a positive affirmation on love and marriage that he so rarely gets. He lives in a world where most of his friends are the children of a single parent, like himself.

As his parent, I recognize that I have the primary responsibility for my son’s faith formation, which includes his understanding of the sacrament of marriage. It is my responsibility to teach him that marriage is sacred and echoes Christ’s love for the Church. His experience as a member of a wedding party certainly aided my attempts to teach him about this sacred union. I try to model healthy relationships so that Malik can learn how to relate to others. Children learn from what they see and experience. Parents need to be aware that everything they do, especially how they relate to their spouse, is seen and processed by their children.

As the Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry states, “Parents need to make sure they spend time with and caring for one another, not only for the sake of their own marriage but also to model a healthy marriage relationship for their children.”

I am limited by the fact that I am a single parent, therefore, it is important that I partner with the church and, in particular, youth ministry in teaching my son about relationships and marriage. A good youth ministry program provides resources for parents that help them speak to their children about dating, love and marriage. Youth ministry should be family friendly, working with single parents, as well as married couples, to show the sacramentality of Christian marriage.

Good youth ministry encourages and supports Christian marriage in several ways:

1. By promoting Catholic sexual values and attitudes and the importance of valuing chastity and sexual restraint.

2. By helping young people recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives and discern their particular Christian vocation in the world – the workplace, in marriage or single life, in the priesthood or consecrated life, or in the permanent diaconate.

3. Modeling and teaching healthy relationships.

4. Partnering with parents in supporting Christian marriage.

Most youth ministry programs offer some sort of human sexuality or abstinence program. In these programs adolescents are taught that love and sex are not interchangeable words. They participate in discussions on love, dating and intimacy. They get the opportunity to examine their lived experiences of intimacy through the lens of the Gospel message.

A good youth ministry program clarifies the difference between true love as defined by Jesus in the Gospels and the version of love that is part of popular culture today. Challenging what young people are seeing, hearing and reading is important and helps the young person to form his or her Christian conscience.

Young people in dating relationships are in need of guidance. Not just guidance on how to deal with sexual tension; they also need help in understanding how to communicate with the opposite sex and how to handle the joys and pains of love. Working to build self esteem, youth ministers run programs that help young people come to know and love themselves better. It is especially important that the youth minister helps young people to know what Jesus meant when he said “love one another as I love you.”

“Effective ministry with young people who are in dating relationships works at encouraging young people to recognize that their own “hearts burning” experiences are mere hints of the love that God has for them.” See http:// youngchurch/tlw/whatyou- can-do.cfm for full text.

Everything that happens in youth ministry is geared to help young people love God, themselves and others. Every catechetical session, lock-in, retreat and social outing can be and should be used to teach young people how to relate to others. There is no magic formula to prepare adolescents for marriage. Everything that happens in the life of a young person can be used to teach him or her about healthy relationships.

As a parent, I will continue to use my son’s experience as a catechetical tool. This, I hope, will be just one opportunity for him to witness the joys of love. As a mother and youth minister, I pray that he will always remember and try to imitate what he experienced.


Margaret Brogden is Coordinator for Youth Ministry Formation for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and has one son.

How to Make a Counseling Referral

by Anthony J. Garascia, M.A., M.S., LCSW

Couples who are experiencing difficulties in their marriage often look to the church for help. Although most pastoral ministers are not professional marriage counselors, you may be the first person to whom a couple turns. Problems emerge in any loving relationship. Most of the time a couple takes these problems in stride. When a couple faces a problem beyond their ability to solve, however, as a helping professional you are in a unique position to make a referral to a competent marriage counselor. When a couple approaches you with questions about their marriage, they want someone who will look at both sides and serve as a mediator, coach, therapist, and offer genuine and concrete suggestions. Of course, in asking for a referral, a couple places an enormous trust in your recommendations.


Most states have some form of licensure for counselors. This means that counselors must have a degree that meets certain standards on theory, practice, and ethics. Counselors should be licensed in their particular state and have a Ph.D. or Masters degree in counseling or clinical psychology, or a Masters in Social Work from an accredited university. Here are some criteria to consider when making your list.

Experience. Couples want to know that the person they see has “been around the block” and will be comfortable talking about issues like finances, conflict, communication, sex, and just about any other issue that gets raised in the course of a marriage.

Skill. When someone approaches a counselor they assume that he/she hasthe skill necessary to help them solve their problems. The best way to find the most skilled therapists is to listen to the evaluations from people you have referred in the past. Don’t be afraid to ask a couple to let you know how the experience went. This will assist you in refining your own list of counselors.

Areas of expertise. Some therapists are great at communication and conflict, others are more helpful at dealing with anger; some won’t deal with issues like domestic violence, others will. Some counselors are great at dealing with adolescents. When a couple approaches you for a referral, it is best to know a little about the problem so you know who on your referral list can best help them solve the problem.

Faith and Spirituality.

A therapist who is “pro-marriage” will do everything possible to keep a marriage intact while at the same time recognizing that marriages do indeed fail. Many couples today want someone who views spirituality as an important part of the overall process of being successfully married.


Once you have developed a referral list of qualified counselors, you may assist the couple in discerning a “good fit” for this particular couple. For example,

Consider age and life experience. If the couple seeking counseling has children or is middle aged, they may not have confidence in a counselor who is young and single.

Consider counselor gender. Although a good counselor should be free of gender bias, the client may not always be. Check out if either spouse would feel uncomfortable with a counselor of the same or opposite gender.

Match the couple’s presenting problem with the expertise of the counselor when possible.

How important is faith? For many couples seeking a referral from a religious source, faith is important to them and having a counselor who can draw on faith and spirituality as a resource can be helpful. On the other hand, some couples would not be receptive to a heavy handed faith approach.

Consider practicalities such as cost, location, and urgency of appointment. For those who don’t have insurance that covers counseling, marriage counseling can range from $50- 150 per hour. Short term counseling often takes the form of weekly sessions for three to six months. Some social agencies and churches offer a sliding scale adjusted according to the couple’s income. Fees may also vary according to the cost of living in your geographic area. It may be helpful to have sources available that can help with co-pays or financial assistance, especially when insurance is not available.

Always offer more than one name as a referral.



Many marriage counselors will take a short term, problem solving approach to marriage counseling. This means that a couple will be in counseling anywhere between 6 to 12 sessions. Knowing this information can also help a couple estimate how costly the counseling process will be to them. Some tips to pass on to couples seeking counseling for the first time are:

• Before the first session, spouses should ask themselves, “What is the end goal of counseling for me?” Encourage couples to be as specific as possible. In order for both to trust the counselor, both spouses should give themselves permission to ask questions.

• The counselor is there to listen to their story and will ask questions that assist in the listening process. At the end of the first session the counselor may give suggestions or homework for the next session. It is important that a couple gives the process some time to work. A couple should be realistic about instant results and be prepared to give the process some time.

• A client usually knows counseling is working when the original problem is solved or at least significantly improved. At that point the therapist may ask if there are other issues to be solved or whether the counseling process is finished. Often, a couple will move on to other significant issues.

• The most effective counseling is done when a couple fully participates by saying what they both want to see happen. The counselor guides them to solve their problem and improve their relationship satisfaction. 


Sometimes a spouse confides that there are deeply serious problems present. Perhaps there is drinking, substance abuse, or domestic violence. Here, it is important to have not only counselors who specialize in these areas but also a list of resources that offer a safe place for a spouse and children when violence is occurring; agencies that offer anger management courses, or treatment programs for substance and alcohol abuse. Your role as a Family Life minister is to help sort through the options. This can often be a moment of grace for someone who is anxious about his/her future.

In addition to counselors in private practice, several national counseling agencies that, when desired, take one’s faith into consideration are:

Diocesan Catholic Charities provides counseling to people of any faith and usually have a sliding scale according to income.

Samaritan Centers provide cost-efficient counseling emphasizing the interrelatedness of mind, body, spirit, and community.


Tony Garascia is Clinical Director, Samaritan Counseling Center, South Bend, Indiana. Adapted from “When to Seek Counseling”

The Theology of the Body

Joann Heaney-Hunter, Ph.D.

In recent years, Pope John Paul II’s collection of addresses known as the Theology of the Body (hereafter TOB) has been studied, praised and critiqued.  As a major work from a much celebrated and beloved head of the Church, TOB lays the groundwork for ongoing reflection on marriage and family life and the pastoral ministry that the Church undertakes on behalf of couples and families. As an extended treatment of the Church’s official teaching on the necessary connection between life and love, it serves as a valuable tool for scholars and ministers alike, and can be used as a foundation for current and future marriage and family ministry efforts. Some purposes of TOB are to explore the dignity of marriage and sex in a world that often devalues them, to highlight spousal love as a key ingredient of God’s plan for humanity, and to reaffirm the intrinsic connections between life and love.

How should we read and interpret TOB? To begin, we must first articulate what it is and what it is not. In terms of Church documents, catechesis to the church from the Pope carries considerable weight, and is a part of the magesterium. It must be recognized, however, that it is less weighty than a papal pronouncement made excathedra, (from the chair of Peter) for example, or a Dogmatic Constitution resulting from a Council. TOB, therefore, represents an authoritative teaching of Pope John Paul II on a subject that was dear to his heart, human love and marriage. Just as St. Paul wrote letters to specific communities and articulated theologies that addressed the needs and issues of a particular group, Pope John Paul has presented TOB to the Church as a series of addresses from the perspectives of his teaching role and his understanding of contemporary culture.

TOB also reflects John Paul’s theological and philosophical background, and must be read through those lenses as well. Just as it is not usually helpful to take Paul or other biblical texts out of their context, it is not useful to take the addresses that comprise TOB out of their context – which includes a view of the human person as the crowning achievement of God’s creation, a sense of the need to preserve the sanctity of sex, marriage and family life, and a desire to further develop the theology of sexuality presented in Humanae Vitae. (TOB 118-133) Furthermore, TOB must be read in light of John Paul’s understanding that the inseparability of love and life is a principle of natural law and an articulation of God’s divine plan for humanity. (TOB 118, 119, 121, 123, 127, 131,132).

A crucial element for understanding TOB is John Paul’s use of scripture. Throughout the addresses, he makes use of selected texts to illustrate his points about human love and sexual relationship. He does not claim to be a biblical scholar making exhaustive exegeses of every scriptural text on marriage and family life, but serves as a master teacher reflecting on deep scriptural truths about human relationships (TOB 93) and God’s plan for sex and love (TOB 25, 34, 35 among others). Like any other writer, John Paul makes choices about the scriptural texts he uses, reflecting on and interpreting texts that highlight human love as an embodiment of God’s love, and demonstrate the radically life-giving dimensions of sex.

On a practical note, we must remember that as unified as the addresses are, TOB is a series of catechesis, delivered over the course of a number of years. Throughout, we find some repetition, which is to be expected, and careful attention to detail on every point John Paul makes. I see the repetition as a way to help readers focus on important points of previous addresses in the series, or to give them the opportunity to catch up if they missed something, similar to the way television writers sometimes synopsize a previous episode of a multi-part show. The level of detail provides much food for thought on John Paul’s key points of TOB.

Having laid out some helps for reading TOB, let’s consider some of its strengths.


1. TOB emphasizes sexuality as a gift from God and as a total gift of self. (TOB 10, 17, 59, 73, 87, 111, 114, for example). In a world where sex is all too often regarded as a commodity, TOB insists that it is a precious sharing of love and life that cannot be treated lightly. One caveat: it is important to remember that although the ideal of TOB is profoundly beautiful, sexual encounters sometimes reflect imperfect or flawed gifts. Sexual intercourse, for example, may represent the mixed motives and brokenness of individuals trying to live God’s plan for their lives. As long as the lofty vision of TOB is presented as ideal and aspiration, it can help people strive to follow its call to holiness. If people begin to see it as unrealistic and unreasonable, however, they may write it off completely or become discouraged about their inability to realize its vision.


2. TOB consistently highlights that from the beginning, each person has been created as a child of God, in God’s image (TOB 100). This message can never be forgotten, and as marriage and family ministers, we are called to share it with all who cross our paths. When we are tempted to treat some people as inferior to others, we are reminded by TOB that every person is a sacrament of God’s love. TOB also assumes that male and female have been created to share in God’s creative power as fathers and mothers. (TOB 22.6) As marriage and family ministers, however, we must be aware that while biological motherhood and fatherhood are important elements of participating in God’s creativity, they certainly are not the only ones. Part of our task in using TOB is to help those who are not biological parents explore the creative force within them. In individuality and in relationships, in biological generativity and spiritual generativity, we are called to make Christ present in the midst of the world.


3. TOB continues to remind us that the fullest image of God is found in loving human relationships (TOB 9, 10, 12, 67, 69, 71, 77 among others), and that the perfect community, the Trinity, can be embodied by the life of a loving couple. (TOB 95, 100, 103, 104, 105, for example). While we certainly do not image the Trinity perfectly, the person in loving communion stands as a symbol of the love between the persons of God and the love of God that reaches out in generosity to others.

In such a short space, one can only scratch the surface of TOB, highlight key elements of John Paul’s thought, and raise some issues about its use by marriage and family life ministers. TOB is an excellent but challenging resource for those invited to articulate the Church’s vision of love and life presented in Gaudium et Spes, expanded inHumanae Vitae, and reiterated throughout the writings on marriage and family life that spanned John Paul II’s entire papacy. If presented in a way that reduces jargon and dense philosophical constructs, it can be used effectively to educate families of all ages about the Church’s official teaching on the dignity and beauty of their sexuality. Its main points also can be employed effectively as a way to introduce teens to a positive perspective on their sexuality as a gift from God, rather than as a commodity.

Like any tool, however, TOB has limitations. One of the most daunting is its length and complexity. For use in parishes or dioceses, I strongly recommend breaking it down into shorter, more manageable segments, much as John Paul did in his weekly addresses. For local use, it might be best to focus on a few key themes of TOB such as “spousal love,” “sacramentality,” and “inseparability of life and love.” A helpful article summarizing the key points of TOB is Mary Shivanandan’s “John Paul II’s Theology of the Body,” in Living Light 37 (Spring 2001), livlghtspr2001.shtml#Shivanandan. Another balanced, scholarly, and comprehensive resource is Michael Waldstein’s Man and Woman He Created Them (Boston: Pauline Media, 2006), which provides extensive background on the philosophical and theological framework of TOB.

As did Paul’s communities in the early church, we recognize that while TOB presents an extraordinary vision of the meaning of sexuality and human relationship, its impact will continue to spread only in its use and further development. Pope John Paul addressed the pressing concerns regarding sexuality and marriage in the last 20 years of the 20th century. Since then, our challenges have grown and changed as society has moved in new (and often not so positive) directions. Theologians and pastoral ministers alike will continue to plumb the depths of TOB, extend its theological vision, and build on its solid foundation in future work with couples and families.


Joann Heaney-Hunter teaches theology at St. John’s University, New York, and works as a psychotherapist for Catholic Charities in Rockville Centre, New York..

Marriage in the Second Half of Life

By Claudia and David Arp

Soon parents all over the country will be getting ready to drop their kids off at college and head home to face a new and often risky stage of marriage – the empty nest! While some couples look at this time as a second honeymoon, just like the first honeymoon, it will end and couples will face the challenges of reinventing their marriage for the second half. For many, this can be a hard time on their marriage. Why?

First, most couples at this point are exhausted and their marriage may be on the back burner. Think about it. You’ve just survived the adolescent years. You may be emotionally drained and feel disconnected from your spouse. Without the kids around now you have time to talk and this may be uncomfortable. A quiet evening at home can become too quiet!

Second, all those things you’ve been postponing are just waiting for you, thus the tendency is to “get busy” and void facing the challenges of this new stage of marriage. If you fill up the empty spaces the kids left with other activities that do not directly relate to the marriage, the marriage is weakened even more. For many couples it can be a real time of insecurity.


We know this first hand. As marriage educators we thought this transition would be a piece of cake. When we were raising three adolescent sons we looked forward to the empty nest. But when we got there, we filled up the empty spaces with all the things we had delayed until the kids left home. We accepted too many seminars and signed too many book contacts. Before we knew it, we were just as exhausted as when we had three teenagers in the house. One morning we looked at each other over two cups of coffee and said, “This isn’t working!” We knew we needed to regroup. We had always dreamed about taking an empty nest trip to New England the fall of our empty nest. We were leading a Marriage Alive seminar in the Washington, D.C. area in a few weeks, so after the seminar we headed to Camden, Maine. The first couple of days we just slept. Then we began to take long walks together and talk about “us.” Looking back, we call that time our “Empty Nest Checkup.” We talked about what was good about our marriage – we had made it through the teenage years; we were still somewhat connected; and our common values and faith in God were important to both of us. We also talked about our liabilities – we just didn’t have the energy that we used to have and it was easy for us to get over-committed. We talked about what we needed to do to jump-start our empty nest marriage. We came home determined to slow down, reconnect, and make the second half of our marriage the best.

We decided to research this stage of marriage, put together our own national survey, and began what has become a 20-year journey to help us and other empty nest couples reinvent their marriages. Later we conducted a second survey with our colleagues at the University of Denver and co-authors of Fighting for Your Empty Nest Marriage, and came to similar conclusions. The good news from our surveys is that couples who hang together through the empty nest transition, find that martial satisfaction can begin to rise again and stay that way if you risk growing in your relationship.


If you’re facing the empty nest, here are some first aid tips to help you get off to a good start:

• Slow down and get some rest! Take a nap! Go to bed at 8 p.m. Sleep around the clock. You’ll never be able to refocus on your marriage until your life comes back into focus.

• Celebrate! You made it through the active parenting years! It’s time to celebrate. Although it is not at all uncommon to become aware of some sense of loss and regret at this time of life, you can counter any of those sentiments by promoting a strong sense of celebration for where you have come and of excitement about your future. Go out to dinner. Have some fun. Have a great date.

• Acknowledge that this is a time of transition. Say to each other, “Things are changing right now and that’s okay.” Change can bring out insecurities that are festering below the surface. Just acknowledging that things are changing can help with the transition. Transitional times can be stressful but they also give you the opportunity to redefine your relationship and to find new fulfillment, intimacy, and closeness.

• Resist making immediate decisions about your future until you have some perspective. Realize that things are changing and that you can change with them – but you need
to take it slowly. Unfortunately, some spouses who are disappointed with their marriage bolt right out of the relationship as soon as the last kid leaves home. This is a time when the divorce rate soars. Give yourself time to get to know each other again and to revitalize your relationship. Don’t accept new responsibilities for at least three months.

• Plan an empty nest getaway. Go off together. Talk about what is great about your relationship and the areas that needed work. Make a commitment to work on the weak areas and reinvent your marriage.


Once you’ve made it through the initial transition into the empty nest, you need to surmount the long term challenges of the second half of your marriage. In our Second Half of Marriage program we look at eight challenges of the empty nest years including the following:

• Let go of the past and forgive one another. Let go of past marital disappointments, missed expectations, and unrealized dreams. You need to forgive each other and choose to make the best of the rest. You may even want to make a list of things you will never do or will never do again. But then make a list of things you want to do in the future. Accept each other – with both your strengths and your weaknesses – you’re simply not going to change each other now.

• Create a partner-focused marriage. In the past you may have focused on your kids and your job. Now is your opportunity to focus on your marriage. You can build a closer more personal relationship in the second half of life. In the first half of marriage we tend to live our lives in response to circumstances such as parenting and career demands. In the second half of marriage you aren’t as controlled by your circumstances and have the freedom to reinvest in your relationship.

• Interestingly, a gender role shift often takes place at this time of life. Men become more nurturing. Women, on the other hand, who generally have been more responsible for the kids, now become more expansive and may choose to go back to school, get a real estate license, or start a new career. It can seem like you are moving in opposite directions, but on a continuum you are actually moving closer to the center. Realizing this can help you capitalize on it and refocus on each other.

• Energize your love life. Many people assume that as people grow older they loose interest in sex. Research shows otherwise. Amazingly our surveys suggest that sexual satisfaction increases rather than decreases with the number of years married. Your love life in the empty nest can be better than in the parenting years. Look for ways to romance your mate. Think of your love life as a stroll, not a sprint! Enjoy the slower pace. If medical issues arise, be willing to talk to your doctor. Often help is available.

• Adjust to changing roles with adult children and aging parents. Just as you need to release your children, you need to reconnect with them on an adult level. At the same time your parents

• Adjust to changing roles with adult children and aging parents. Just as you need to release your children, you need to reconnect with them on an adult level. At the same time your parents.

• Connect with other empty nest couples. William J. Dougherty, author of Take Back Your Marriage, in a recent Family Perspective article encouraged couples to connect with other couples and to encourage church and community- based marriage initiatives. The empty nest is a great time to get involved in encouraging other couples in their marriages. Consider starting your own empty nest group or becoming mentors for a younger couple. Volunteer to start a marriage program in your parish or community. For a wealth of great programs see

The best part of helping other couples is the positive influence it will have on your own marriage. The empty nest years of your marriage can be a time of incredible fulfillment, no matter what challenges you previously faced. You can reinvent your relationship, renew your friendship, and create a vision for the rest of your marriage. We’re convinced that Robert Browning was right when he said, Grow old along with me, the best it yet to be!

(This article is adapted by the authors from their books “The Second Half of Marriage” and “10 Great Dates for Empty Nesters.”)

Strong Marriages – Strong Army

Winter 2011
By Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Mike Strohm and Patricia R. Johnson

The Army has come to recognize that the well-being of the soldier is inexorably linked to the well-being of the soldier’s family – a far cry from the days when the joke was “If the Army wanted you to have a spouse, they would issue you a spouse.” The Army has increasingly grown in focused support to soldiers and families, reflecting that deliberate emphasis to the point of always capitalizing the words “Soldier” and “Family” in its official

Awareness of the link between the soldier’s strength and the family’s strength, though, is not enough. Led by Army Chaplains of all different faiths, the Army Strong Bonds program addresses the importance of resilient relationships to stabilize the stressful environment
of military service. According to an Army Reserve spouse participating in one of the earlier Strong Bonds retreats in 2004, “This is the best thing the Army has ever done for us.”

Unveiled without fanfare, the Strong Division Artillery Commander at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, directed his chaplains to, “help our couples.” Since then, frequent deployments, an added stress to the Army family, have shaken the foundation of marriages. The divorce rate among enlisted families rose 53% between 2000 and 2004 and the divorce rate for officers also rose. Since more than half the soldiers are married and have children, the need for action was obvious. Commanders and chaplains formed a union against the toll of war caused by multiple deployments, failed relationships, and broken families.

Chaplains have long held an important role providing religious support in the Army, but
there is nothing more practical than the work chaplains do to equip families with the relationship tools they need to weather military life and deployments.

Chaplains are certified to conduct Strong Bonds retreats by nationally renowned
relationship trainers such as John and Jane Covey, and John Van Epp, who enhance the relationship training skills of retreat facilitators. Chaplains and Chaplain Assistants are intimately engaged in the lives of soldiers and family members who attend Strong Bonds events, ranging from couple and family events to retreats for single soldiers. Commanders in all components of the Army – Active, National Guard, and the Reserves – have planned more than 5,000 Strong Bonds retreats during this current fiscal year.

Administrators of the Strong Bonds program often receive letters of appreciation from attendees, with text such as this one:
“At the Strong Bonds retreat, I looked around the room and saw a lot of hurt in the marriages, especially with the spouses whose husbands spent a lot of time away from their family. However, towards the end of the Strong Bonds retreat, I saw something markedly different. There was hope.”

Hope was also shared in the lives of a couple who attended a Strong Bonds retreat just weeks before the husband was killed. In the middle of the tragedy of the soldier’s death, the surviving spouse publicly expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity to share her last weeks with her husband in the intimate and supportive setting of a Strong Bonds retreat. In her words, it was the best weeks of their marriage.

Military duty changes both the soldier and the family member! During deployment, the military spouse functions as a solo parent, taking on all the responsibility of decision-making, management and problem-solving. The reintegration of the soldier back into the relationship following a deployment is a huge adjustment. The challenges of role definition and role expectations sometimes feel scarier to the soldier than the deployment.

Even positive changes in the maturity of either soldier or spouse present a huge adjustment. The benefits of a greater sense of individual independence, increased problem-solving skills, confidence in decision-making skills, and increased networks of supportive resources outside the family can sometimes feel like a threat to the relationship.

Single soldiers are impacted by the stress of military service as well. The
Strong Bonds program helps single soldiers handle their unique relationships
with significant others, children, and their families of origin. The Army Suicide
Report published by Public Health Command in April 2010 produced
some startling statistics: the vast majority (82 %) of suicides from 2005 to
2009 had evidence of personal stressors, the most common being relationship
problems (56 %).

Some studies have shown this number to be even higher. At Single Soldier retreats, participants learn to better understand and handle love, forgiveness, anger, and the range of emotions involved in relationships. Currently, the University of Denver is conducting a five-year study focused on the foundational curriculum of Strong Bonds, called the Prevention Relationship Enhancement Program or (PREP), and the initial results are extremely encouraging. The divorce rate for those in the study who have received Strong Bonds training is 50% less than those who have not received the training.

The PREP curriculum, a research based program, has been used informally informally in all branches of the military for over 20 years and was the first relationship skills training curriculum used in Strong Bonds programs.

There is no silver bullet. With our best efforts we cannot save all marriages or prevent singles from making bad relationship choices. Army Strong Bonds, however, offers the best skills training design to bring soldiers and family members to the place of improved relationship resiliency.

Divorce is going to happen. Bad choices are going to be made. Men and women take their own lives because of the weariness of spirit when hope seems to disappear. But as that spouse reported about their relationship following a Strong Bonds retreat, “there was hope.”

Only 1% of the population in this country serves in the military and bears the burden of protecting all the rest of us. This small group from our neighborhoods and towns are the ones on whom we depend to assist our world in all kinds of stressful situations and who are called more often to leave loved ones behind to deploy to war.

Strong Bonds produces strong relationships which in turn support a strong Army. Army Strong Bonds has conducted thousands of events for the last thirteen years across all three components of the Army and has touched tens of thousands of soldiers and their family members.

Elizabeth Ministry – A Healing Response

Member, Mike Allen, interviews Jeannie Hannemann

Families in trauma benefit from peer ministry, in which parishioners who’ve experienced healing lend support to those enduring similar struggles. This “wounded healer” approach, to borrow a phrase of Henri Nouwen’s, is a hallmark of Elizabeth Ministry International, whose mission is to “offer hope and healing on issues related to childbearing, sexuality, and relationships.”

I recently talked with Jeannie Hannemann, co-founder of Elizabeth Ministry, which has
registered over 700 Elizabeth Ministry Chapters on six continents offering support for the joys, challenges, and sorrows of childbearing.

Why the remarkable growth of Elizabeth Ministry?
Many areas we address, such as infertility or miscarriage, seldom get parish support. Therefore, when people discover Elizabeth Ministry, they will say “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I had to do alone.” They want to start an Elizabeth Ministry Chapter.

Clergy and Family Life ministers support formation of Elizabeth Ministry Chapters because they are aware of the need.

What makes peer ministry so effective to persons and families in this kind of trauma?
Unless you’ve had a miscarriage, for example, you don’t know the pain of someone going through that experience. You can be compassionate and caring, but you don’t really understand.It’s the difference between sympathy and empathy.

What makes peer ministry especially important in today’s parishes?
Greater mobility has added to the isolation of families; they often don’t have family nearby. So the church has to step up and provide compassion and practical help.

Say a woman is put on bed rest—what is she going to do if she has a two year old? Some of our chapters have stepped right in, providing meals, childcare etc. – to fill in for extended family.

One of the challenges in larger parishes is that people can feel isolated, especially facing a
traumatic event. With our clergy stretched so thin, how can peer ministry principles facilitate a deeper sense of community for those who are suffering?
As churches have increased in size, it is difficult to create a loving environment. Informal
support provided in small congregations can happen in a large parish when programs are
established to identify needs and response. Parishes that use our Rosebud Program are able to locate people who could use personal contact. This individual attention provides a close knit feeling even in large communities.

You have a new development within Elizabeth Ministry that you are excited about, a resource for couples and families dealing with pornography and sexual addiction. Tell us more.
Elizabeth Ministry’s primary focus was forming chapters to provide maternal mentoring. But as scientific and technological discoveries transformed experiences of fertility and pregnancy, and our promiscuous society created new medical, social, and spiritual issues, we began receiving requests for trainings and programs on sexuality and relationships.

Our newest program addresses pornography addiction. Elizabeth Ministry partnered with
Candeo, to create RECLAIM Sexual Health, a professional, science-based online Catholic
program to overcome pornography and other unhealthy sexual behaviors. Over 5,000 struggling individuals in more than 75 countries have been helped with the secular version of this behavioral change technology. Now it is available with a Catholic format!

Leading researchers, scientists and psychologists have partnered with Catholic scholars
combining The Brain Science of Change with Theology of the Body to create a different and breakthrough approach to addiction recovery.

We have developed peer-ministry aspects called St. Michael’s Men, St. Monica’s Missionaries and parish programs. For more information, visit or contact Elizabeth Ministry International at 920-766-9380 or

The Importance Of Couple Prayer

By Fr. Tom Vandenberg

Why should couples pray together? Is it to deepen their unity as a couple or to seek God’s help in dealing with problems in their family or even in their own relationship? The answer is yes to these and countless other such questions. However, the overriding motive for a couple called to the Sacrament of Matrimony to pray together is their vocation to be a living sign of Jesus’ love in the Church.

Like the Sacrament of Orders, the Sacrament of Matrimony is ultimately for the life of the
Church. That is what distinguishes sacramental marriage from all other marriages.

In addition to faith in each other, it requires faith in God and the desire to live in the Spirit
of God’s love as their way of life – not just for themselves, but also for the People of God. Because of their baptism into Christ, a sacramental couple’s vocation is to make love itself real and believable in the Church, for, where love is, God is. Sharing a relationship with God through prayer bonds the couple more closely together and supports their vocation
as a domestic church.

As a living sacrament, a couple calls the Church to that unique way of life Jesus referred to when he said, “By this will they know you are my disciples: your love for one another” (John 13:35). Not only do our sacramental couples show us what Christ-like love looks like, they actually bring Jesus’ love to the community of the Church. Sacraments confer what they signify. They make Jesus’ love real! And in so doing, they help empower others to have a real depth of love for one another as well.

The Sacrament of Matrimony exists in the dynamic power of the couple’s
relationship with each other. The home they create by their love is the most important
school for learning the ways of love that their children will ever experience. Calling on the
power of God’s love through praying together strengthens this extraordinary call from

When living in the Spirit of God’s love, rather than asking for Jesus to help them with their daily challenges, they may ask instead, “Jesus, how can we help you today? How can we make your love present in us more obvious today? What should our love look like right here, right now?” This all requires that a married couple surrender themselves to the Spirit of God’s Love who empowers them to fulfill their vocation. This begins by worshiping together at Mass when they surrender themselves as they are, in union with Jesus, to the Father. In this way, their hearts open to the transforming grace and love of God, so their hearts will more clearly reflect the heart of Jesus. United in divine love, they then can let the Spirit guide their private prayer together.

The One Necessary Thing

By Bob Ovies

The American Bishops issued their Pastoral Letter on Marriage for reasons marriage ministers are all familiar with. Marriage, whether sacramental or civil, is the choice of a shrinking percentage of couples who decide to express their love for one another by living together in an intimate committed relationship. And among those couples who do celebrate marriage, the difference in the divorce rate of Catholic couples and those of the general population is negligible.

But for all of this, there is still a “critical something” that has yet to be extensively pursued in marriage support ministries at either diocesan or parish levels, even though it’s foundational to Catholic life, it’s proven to be easy to teach, it’s been clinically demonstrated to dramatically strengthen virtually every factor known to be essential to the well-being of the marriage relationship (Rushnell and Duart, Couples Who Pray , 2007),
and, of all the collates known to contribute to happy and healthy marriages, it’s been identified by researcher Fr. Andrew Greeley as “the most powerful we have yet discovered.” (Andrew Greeley, Faithful Attraction, 1991).

That “critical something” is shared “couple prayer” – close, honest, personal prayer shared by a husband and wife on a regular basis.

Jesus tells us in his encounter with a busy Martha and attentive Mary that drawing back from the busyness of life The One Necessary Thing in order to focus on His company, to tell Him what’s in our heart and mind, and, very importantly, to listen to what He has to say to us, is the “only necessary thing.” (Lk 10:42) What an incredible revelation!

Married couples obviously have all kinds of important things to deal with, some of which are even critical. But married couples (like individuals, congregations, whole parish communities and the entire church) have only one thing that is “necessary” – prayer.

Yet most married couples are not praying together as a couple; not just the two of them coming together for that specific reason, and not with anything even remotely approaching a regular basis.

As a diaconal couple, my wife, Kathy, and I have been blessed over the past nine years to personally help some 1,400 couples embrace the “only necessary thing” more deeply and consistently as married couples. We’ve learned over that period of time that the overwhelming majority of couples – including even those who express a genuine desire to be able to pray together on a regular basis – are not in fact doing it, citing either or both of these two overriding reasons:
1. We don’t know how to go about it.
2. We wouldn’t feel safe. We’d be too vulnerable.

No other reasons come even close to being as significant as these. Think about that.

It’s been 2,000 years since Jesus walked the earth, died, rose from the dead, and sent the Holy Spirit. And yet, today most married Catholic couples (and other Christian couples, too, across the denominational board) are not praying together because of the above reasons.

There is very good news, though, and that is – both of those issues are teachable. They are learnable. They are achievable – and achievable more easily and more quickly than most couples might even imagine.

Couples can learn how to pray together in secure and successful ways. They can learn whole menus of solid ways to pray, within which they can closely and supportively pray together in their own most personally comfortable ways.

Couples can learn how to create a safe environment for themselves and their spouse, one in which sharing the intimacy of their personal relationship with God becomes an abiding comfort to them, not a threat. In fact, they can learn how to pray together comfortably in just a matter of weeks.

Here are some things we’ve learned that we hope will encourage you.
• It doesn’t take long. Couples won’t get there with just a strong homily or an evening in the parish center, but in just a few weeks they can be well on their way. Psychologists tell us that it takes approximately forty days to make or break a life-pattern, or habit, and we’ve found that that’s a very comfortable time-frame for husbands and wives to begin sharing daily couple prayer with as much faithfulness as they now brush their teeth, check their e-mail, go on the web, watch TV, or do any of the other hundred things that they now consider so important that they take time out for them each and every day.
• It’s accomplished successfully when it’s approached in gradual stages, with the first and most enduring stage being simply learning to start thanking God openly and honestly with one another. As David said, “Enter the gates of God with thanksgiving…” (Ps 100:1, 2)

Giving God thanks is not only a foundational and eternal response to God’s goodness to us, it is a wonderful starting place for any couple’s shared-prayer journey. There is little personal exposure in thanking God together,which in turn provides a greater sense of security, which in turn allows a higher degree of trust. It is trust that opens the door for intimacy and it’s intimacy – close, loving, enduring, personal intimacy with God and one another – that’s the most abiding of our longings and the highest goal of our prayers.

From that beginning point of helping couples learn to share open and honest prayers of thanks together, helping them pray comfortably together for a lifetime is simply a matter of supporting them through even more open, trusting, and intimate levels of “the only necessary thing.”

For example,
• from thanking and praising God in simple and heart-felt ways together,
• to asking God’s help together,
• to sharing personal insights and personal prayers about scripture and other resources together,
• to blessing each other and their children together,
• to sharing devotions together,
• to the deepest intimacies of forgiving and the highest intimacies of
worshiping God together –praying as a married couple may truly be the
most intimate act between husband and wife that any marriage can offer.

It is, after all, all in God’s plan, which means it’s already planted in the hearts of the next married couple we will get a chance to help, just waiting to bloom. The more we encourage prayer as a marriage support ministry of the highest importance, the more we will see marriages, and therefore families, and therefore the church herself, genuinely renewed.

Prayer Ministry With the Engaged

By Steve & Kathy Beirne

Our prayer ministry for engaged couples began about ten years ago when we started providing the UNITAS program in our parish. That program runs for seven weeks. Our intent was to involve as many parishioners as possible in preparing couples for their marriage, so that it would be apparent that the community was supporting their entry into this important sacrament. We had couples acting as sponsors, others providing a meal, and still others serving the meal. Others gathered door prizes for each evening’s meeting – but core to the entire effort was the prayer ministry.

Forms were distributed in church prior to the program asking who would be willing to pray for an engaged couple as they went through the program. Each person (or couple) was assigned one of the engaged couples to pray for. We sent a picture of the couple with their first names and wedding date, and asked that they pray for them until their wedding.

In addition, we gave names of the couples to the children in our parochial school, also with a picture. The photos were posted in each classroom, and the children prayed for the couples daily. One year the pastor had the children make placemats for the couples with their advice for marriage. The drawings and the sayings touched the couples, and the children told them, “Don’t fight.”

The prayer ministry is an important one from both sides. Knowing that they have the support of others in the parish is a comfort to the engaged. It makes them feel part of something larger than themselves. From the other side, those who are prayer partners feel involved in the important work of getting couples ready for a Catholic wedding and for the work of living out a lifelong, happy, healthy, holy marriage. The first year, we had a 100 year old woman who offered to be a prayer partner. The couple she got to pray for were getting married on her own wedding anniversary. You can imagine how meaningful it was for both parties to have that connection.

Recently we have begun asking the prayer partners to write a letter to be given to the couple on the last night of the program. This strengthens the awareness of the engaged to the love and concern that enfolds them.

We now have one volunteer who takes charge of this aspect of ministry to the engaged, from collecting the forms with the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of the prayer partners to assigning them couples and making sure they receive the photos. We ask that the letters for the couples be left in the sacristy toward the end of the program so postage is not involved.

Having had this ministry for ten years we now see it as integral to our marriage preparation program. Many of the couples attending the program are only tangentially related to the parish – it is the parish they grew up in, or they have recently moved to the area. This program connects them in a positive way to the larger community.

Strengthening Marriages – A Pastor’s Perspective

By Fr. Britto M. Berchmans

Even though I have been a happy celibate priest for the last twenty-eight years, I consider myself a hopeless romantic. I am convinced that marriages are made in heaven. Every time I meet a couple that still has the spark after several decades of marriage, I feel vindicated in my romantic view of marriage.

In the Church we constantly encourage couples to have great marriages, but we do not always show them how. Relationships are hard work. We, as Church, must teach our
couples the necessary skills and spiritual insights so that they may be able to construct a strong, life-giving union. It is not a matter of merely passing on information. We need to accompany them on their journey.


One of the most successful initiatives that were restored in the Church after the Vatican Council was the RCIA. Over the years I have seen the quality of Catholics the program has produced. The secret of their success lies in the time and energy invested in the program. These catechumens are not alone on their journey that usually lasts several months. They are accompanied by the entire parish community. In a special way they are accompanied by their parish sponsors.

On the contrary, the preparation for marriage too often consists of simply filling out some paperwork and going through a Pre-Cana program. The couples think that the marriage celebration involves only them and no one else. In the minds of many a couple, the community is present only as guests at the ceremony, and certainly at the reception.

I wish that we could make marriage preparation more intense and more spiritual. As Church, we must demand more from our couples if they want to get married in church. By transforming the marriage preparation into a serious time of prayer and spiritual growth, we may be able to integrate the couples more fully into the life of the community.

The journey does not end with the celebration of marriage. It continues even after the wedding. The faith community should become their constant source of support through all of their challenges. If the couple should be accompanied, who should be their companions on the road? Basically there are three: the priest, the mentor couple, and the larger parish community.


The priest plays a major role in helping the couple to prepare for their big day. He is not called upon to be a functionary merely celebrating a ritual. He needs to become the link between the couple and the community. Usually he is the first person that they meet in the parish. Their experience with him may determine their experience of the Church as a whole.

The priest has to make every effort to form a personal relationship with the couple. It is not enough to meet with them for just one meeting to fill out the paperwork. We should insist on several meetings during which we discuss both spiritual and practical aspects of the marriage relationship. We should not prepare them merely for their wedding day; we must prepare them for their married life. Our conversations can cover such topics as biblical insights for a healthy marriage, the meaning of the marriage commitment, differing communication styles of men and women, and finally, wise conflict management techniques. As a result of these conversations, on the wedding day the priest is no longer a stranger who hardly knows their names. He has become a friend who is able to celebrate a very personal and meaningful wedding Mass or ceremony for the couple.

It is not enough that the priest accompanies the couple during the marriage preparation. He needs to become in some sense their priest for life. The priest should encourage the couple to call on him for any need during their married life. I do understand that taking on the role of the couple’s priest for life can bring on some extra duties. But I have found that the calls from these couples do not place an undue burden. Besides, the couples seem to draw much comfort from having a personal connection to a priest of the Church.


Many successful programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and RCIA attribute their success to the commitment of sponsors who accompany the candidates on their journey. The God of Exodus walked with the people of Israel for forty years until they made their home in the Promised Land. The journey was by no means easy and the people were not always grateful. The Lord was patient and never gave up. In the same way, the Risen Lord walked as a stranger with the two disciples who were tracing their steps away from the community in Jerusalem towards their homes in Emmaus. The Lord was patient as he explained the scriptures to them. They finally recognized Him in the breaking of the Bread. I am proposing that in order to have a proactive marriage preparation, we need to find mentor couples who will accompany engaged couples on their journey towards marriage.

The mentor couple has to win the trust of the young couple. The parish may assign a mentor couple when a young couple asks to get married in the parish. The two couples may meet in the context of a meal in the home of the mentor couple. The mentors
should encourage the engaged couple to call on them if they have any question regarding the wedding. They could meet at least a couple of times before the wedding in an informal setting. They could be in the church for the wedding calming the nerves the bride and the groom. After the wedding, the mentor couple may hold an intimate celebration for the couple in their home. Hopefully through all these meetings a bond may be created and the young couple may come to rely on the wisdom of the older couple. Especially in the case of young couples living far from their families, mentor couples may provide a sense of comfort and support in matters both spiritual and material.


We know that the celebration of every sacrament is a community event. Yet in the case of matrimony this aspect is too often lost. Somehow we have to impress on the couple, as well as the larger parish, that the two people getting married are affecting the life of the community. To that end I suggest that we hold at least two liturgical celebrations during the year. We need to bring together all the couples who got married during that year for a Parish Wedding Mass. Thus the whole parish will acknowledge the couples and they in turn will feel connected to the community. In the same way, it is helpful to hold an Anniversaries Sunday when we can recognize all those who are celebrating special milestones in their married life. Special prayers and blessings can be offered. Even a renewal of vows may take place.

The priests must be encouraged to speak on marriage and family life in their homilies all through the year. From time to time, petitions – for couples getting married or for families – must be included in the intercessions. When choosing topics for adult education or talks in the parish, every effort must be made to address relationship issues. If topics that relate to their actual life are discussed, parishioners will show up. Finally the entire parish must constantly pray for married couples and families. For, if the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the laborers toil.