In 1976, just four years after our marriage, the Jesuit priest who witnessed our wedding asked us to begin assisting him in preparing couples for marriage in the Catholic Church. We felt totally unqualified; with only four years of marriage and two children under foot, we were still “learning on the job.” But, like many faithful Catholic couples, we love our priests and hate to tell them “no.” We had no idea at the time that our openness to saying “yes” to serve would usher in a ministry for us that now spans 41 years.
The alarming rise in the number of divorces over the last few decades is a clear indication that an enduring marriage does not happen naturally – two selfish, wounded and sinful individuals have to be committed to make it work.
Good marriages don’t just happen by chance – and neither do bad ones. Our modern culture, which supports divorce as an acceptable option and focuses more on self-fulfillment than self-surrender, does not create an environment that is conducive to living out the sacramental call to matrimony. While there are multiple factors that create healthy marriages and many factors that result in marital breakdown, the bottom line is that the need for high quality marriage preparation has never been greater.
Over the first 20 years of our involvement we worked in a variety of marriage prep programs; some were large-group programs with lectures, and others were small-group meetings with discussion-group formats. There were benefits to all of these programs, but by the early 1990s, we began noticing how many couples were coming for preparation who had divorce in their family backgrounds or who had witnessed very poor role modeling for marriage.
While in the early years of our ministry, engaged couples wanted to learn from young married couples who had navigated the transition to married life and who had similar life experiences to their own, we began noticing a desire in engaged couples to learn from married couples who had survived 20 or more years of marriage because the engaged couple had little experience in witnessing successful marriages that had gone the distance.
We began meeting with engaged couples in a one-on-one setting and slowing down the preparation process to mentor the couple more so than just present information.
No one changes habits by taking an intense “cram course”; developing new habits takes sustained efforts over many weeks.
A mentor couple approach facilitates that dynamic. In 2002, the Diocese of Baton Rouge asked us to write down our approach to mentoring so it could be published and used to train and prepare other couples. “In Home Marriage Preparation” was recently updated for the fourth time since 2002 and is used in a variety of dioceses around the country and extensively in our own Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Pope Paul VI once wrote: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are also witnesses.”
The opportunity for a married presenting couple to be a living witness to an engaged couple and earn their trust as mentors is the essential dynamic of this program. In the privacy of a home setting, the engaged couple is more likely to share the recurring issues that already create conflict in their relationship or the apprehensions they may harbor privately about their upcoming marriage.
A newly married couple we had prepared sent us this note a few weeks after their wedding: “We feel fully prepared for the life that lies ahead of us and feel so blessed to have been able to share in our preparation with you both. You taught us more than you could ever know, and we are forever grateful for that. We can’t begin to explain the peace and grace we both felt on the altar that night.”
The In Home Marriage Preparation program is designed to facilitate approximately six meetings, each lasting two hours, which are spread over a two- to three-month period. While the program covers essential life-skill topics such as integrating personality differences, communication and conflict resolution skills and understanding the abiding influence of our family of origin patterns, the ultimate goal of the program is to impart a desire for sacramental marriage that is based on the sacrificial love Christ shows his church.
Sacramental marriage is a far different paradigm than a contemporary, glitzy beach wedding because Jesus Christ has to be the third partner in the marriage. This ministry is a wonderful opportunity to participate in the New Evangelization of which our recent Holy Fathers have written extensively.
Leaving its mark
The New Evangelization involves winning back to the faith many Catholics who have lapsed or who are just going through the motions. The following testimonial demonstrates the power of the Holy Spirit working through this mentor couple ministry:
“Participating in the In Home Marriage Preparation program was the single most important thing my wife and I did on our way to becoming a married couple. To be truthful, we came to the subject of marriage preparation as more of a box to be checked on our wedding preparation to-do list. However, our involvement with this program quickly evolved into a deep, spiritual exploration of the nature of marriage – its parts and practices, its rhythms and roadblocks – as well as an exploration of our spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ.
“When we first began In Home Marriage Preparation, we were not planning to be married in the Catholic Church. We had drifted from our faith and our personal relationship with God. Working with the Tates through their comprehensive and poignant program spawned a yearning for Christ within my wife and me, which resulted in us receiving the Sacrament of Matrimony. We have resolutely rekindled our Catholic faith, and we thank God for the lessons we have learned.”
In addition to the benefits to the engaged couple and the opportunity to impact their new families, married couples who serve in this ministry often tell us that they get much more than they give as they challenge themselves to truly “walk the talk.” As Vatican II reminds us, we can only find ourselves through the sincere gift of ourselves.
Jan and Lloyd Tate can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The next archdiocesan-wide mentor training is scheduled for Nov. 18 at St. Catherine Siena Parish in Metairie, coordinated by the Family Life Apostolate; email, email@example.com.