By Peter Finney Jr.
As the parents of four young children, Mary-Rose and Ryan Verret of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, had been involved in Catholic marriage preparation for several years, and they were crestfallen at the high divorce rate they were seeing even among recently married couples.
They thought there had to be a more effective way to give engaged couples tools to fully appreciate marriage as a sacrament and to navigate the stressful early years of marriage, where statistics indicate many marriages fail.
Mentors are the key
Five years ago, they told Louisiana priests Sept. 20, they unveiled “Witness to Love,” a marriage preparation renewal ministry that prepares the couple for sacramental marriage and helps them transition into a Catholic faith community by pairing them with mentor couples – practicing Catholics with strong marriages – who can guide them and be there as resources when things get rocky.
“We don’t want them going to their divorced friends for advice,” Mary-Rose said.
The program pairs the engaged with couples they admire, have been married for at least five years and are actively participating in the church. The idea is that the engaged and mentor couples will attend Mass together on a regular basis and form bonds that will last far beyond the wedding day.
Amazing early success
Since Witness to Love was launched in 2012, it is now being successfully used in more than 60 dioceses in the U.S.
“The divorce rate at St. Joseph in Cecilia (Louisiana) has been zero the last five years,” Mary-Rose told the priests.
The Verrets have worked with more than 500 engaged couples in the last five years.
During their presentation to the priests, Mary-Rose used much more than a PowerPoint or a visual aid: she wrapped her 10-month-old daughter Maëlle in a snuggy sling while she held the microphone in one hand and her daughter’s pacifier in the other.
One of the outstanding fruits of the program is that it strengthens the marriages of both couples, Mary-Rose said.
“If you’re in a parish doing 30 marriages a year, you’re evangelizing 30 mentor couples and 30 engaged couples,” Ryan said. “We usually see between 70 and 90 percent of these engaged couples attending church after the wedding, and that’s a lot.”
One outcome of Witness to Love is getting more married couples involved in marriage prep so that “five or 10 of your best couples” aren’t burned out doing all the marriage preparation in a couple-to-couple program, Ryan said.
It also helps priests because they can fulfill their spiritual role and delegate much of the preparation to trusted laity. But Ryan said the priest or deacon should always be the first person from the parish an engaged couple meets – not the wedding coordinator giving a litany of wedding fees and rules.
“The No. 1 thing we heard from priests was that they would rather do 10 funerals than one wedding,” Mary-Rose said, smiling. “One priest said, ‘When I bury them, I know I won’t see them again (for marriage problems).’ We hear that all the time. We want the engaged couples to become part of the ecclesial community.
“The No. 1 challenge to evangelization is young people do not trust the church, they don’t trust institutions, they don’t trust you and they don’t trust me. So how can we evangelize? The mentor couple has to be the bridge.”
To learn more about the program, go to witnesstolove.org.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.