Lead article from the April-May 2021 issue of the DISCIPLE newsletter, online now.
It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of planning a wedding. The joy of love, the anticipation of a new life together and the countless details of celebration itself—on top of work, school and day-to-day life—often mean the months before marriage pass in a whirlwind.
To counter this, most churches require some form of marriage preparation, which typically includes meeting with clergy, completing a marriage inventory and discussing the results, and attending a diocesan retreat.
For more than a decade now, St. Michael Catholic Church has taken it a step further: Parish couples are required to attend a day-long Joy-Filled Marriage retreat, which introduces them to the reasons behind Catholic Church teachings on marriage, sexuality, cohabitation, contraception and more. This retreat, coupled with real-world experience and guidance from married mentor couples, provides a firm foundation for holy marriages and is bearing fruit for families, the parish and the world.
Preparing for Life
Former pastor Fr. Michael Becker knows an opportunity when he sees it, so when Jeremy and Cindy Rohr and Dave and Michelle Steele approached him separately with a desire to share St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in the parish, he connected them with other husbands and wives to begin a program for engaged couples. The resulting retreat uses Christopher West’s Joy-Filled Marriage videos and book, The Good News About Sex and Marriage, to explain how marriage images God’s perfect love, why sacramental marriage is forever, and why sex is beautiful—and sacred—to the Church.
That was 13 years ago. Since then, more than 300 couples have heard God’s plan for marriage shared at the retreat and reinforced in face-to-face meetings with experienced mentors. Many parishes have mentors, but the combination of mentorship and the retreat is changing hearts and minds at St. Michael.
“Often times couples view their wedding as a ‘day,’” says Cindy Rohr. “This retreat gives them a deeper understanding of our Catholic faith as well as the beauty that God intended for their marriage—for the rest of their lives.”
“The fact that the people putting on the retreats are in the pews next to the engaged couples set this retreat apart,” Jeremy Rohr says. “We have more credibility sharing the Church’s teachings because we have something in common with them. Many couples have heard what the Church teaches, but this provides an opportunity to share the why behind the teachings and how they have benefitted us in our marriages.”
Scott and Lisa Zipp have also been involved in the retreats from the beginning. “There are so many young people that enter the dream of marriage, and at the first sign of conflict, it is done,” Scott says. “I want to be able to share what getting married really means. This retreat brings the humanness of marriage and God’s plan together and shows what it may look like.”
“Engaged couples hear candid stories from married couples,” says Julie Traynor, who witnesses at the retreats with her husband Brent. “The retreat provides time to discuss important topics that may not come up in daily conversation and is a good way to prepare for discussions with their mentor couple.”
The Struggle Is Real
The reality check that married life can be a struggle does not diminish the overall message, which is God’s plan for a joy-filled marriage. Anonymous evaluations indicate most couples benefit from the day, and mentors notice the difference in the engaged couples before and after the retreat.
Rod and Terry Moran have been a mentor couple for 16 years now and see the blessings firsthand. “The couples enjoy hearing from others about their ups and downs,” says Terry. “Some have never heard of about these things before—we have witnessed life changes once they understand the Church’s teachings.”
Jeremy Dietz, who serves with his wife Rachel, sees the benefit as well: “It’s helpful that many of the topics have been introduced before we meet with a couple. I think it would be more difficult to get through the more ‘controversial’ topics [e.g., premarital sex, contraception and living together before marriage] if it was the first time they had heard about them.”
Mentors typically meet with engaged couples several times over the course of weeks or months, first to get to know them, then to walk through a range of topics including faith, fertility, finances, parenting, temperament and more.
“Our church has couples who are coming from a wide range of backgrounds and formation, including those in which one of the two isn’t Catholic,” Casey Breen says. “To share our faith and unpack the richness of the sacraments while always praying to draw these couples more deeply into communion with the Church and her teachings can be a dance.”
“This ministry helps engaged couples realize that they are not alone,” says Casey’s wife, Angie. “We share the challenges and joys we have had in our marriage and help them learn to communicate with each other.
“So many difficulties in life or problems in marriages cannot be foreseen,” Rachel Dietz says. “We help the conversation go deeper by giving real-life experiences and sharing those times when life gets the best of you—how to shift your focus to each other and put your marriage first.”
“They cannot read each other’s minds!” says Terry Moran. “We try to reassure them; give them examples from our own lives of what we did well and not-so-well—and encourage them to always pray together!”
Life In Abundance
The fruits of these ministries are evident in the couples who embrace Church teachings and begin practicing Natural Family Planning, or move apart and choose to abstain from sexual relations until after their wedding day—but also in the joy of married life for mentor couples and those on the retreat team.
“Casey and I always tell couples we love to meet with them because we continue to learn more about each other,” Angie Breen says.
“My hope is that we can give a ‘real’ example of what married life could look like after the wedding itself,” says Casey. “As we do that, the cliché ‘we get more that we give’ plays out—we have deeper, richer conversations ourselves.”
“The retreat does several things for me,” says Scott Zipp. “In preparing for an upcoming retreat, I reflect on my own marriage and how things are going now. When I prepare a witness talk, I reflect back on my marriage and become more aware of how God has been working in our marriage over the years. And each retreat reminds me that marriage is a journey, and Lisa and I need to keep working at it.”
“It’s definitely a gut check to ask myself, ‘How am I loving my husband?’” Cindy Rohr says. “Sometimes I can say I am loving well; sometimes I need to make some improvements. It’s always a humbling reminder that I am still a work in progress.”
Often married couples are encouraged not only to love each other better, but also to be in love again.
“Like many others, we have settled into an insanely busy schedule,” says Jeremy Dietz. “When we meet with our couples, it seems like all of the outside noise goes away—it reminds me of all of the things I really love about my wife!”
Rachel agrees: “In many ways, it makes me fall in love with Jeremy all over again—to set aside the many stresses of everyday life and past challenges, and remember why we are sitting here. ‘What did I use to do for him? Am I still excited to see him get home from work? Am I still excited to serve him with love?’ That is where these engaged couples are at, and it is beautiful to see them in love!”
How Can You Help?
We are always looking for faithful Catholic married couples to help our marriage prep ministries:
- Our Joy-Filled Marriage Retreat team is looking for married couples to deliver a short, 10-minute personal witness talk one to three times a year. Contact Jeremy Rohr at [email protected] for more information, including witness topics.
- We are also always looking for new mentor couples to walk with engaged men and women in the weeks leading up to their weddings. If you are interested, contact Cindy Woitalla at [email protected] or 763-497-2745.