By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald, Bridal Registry
Engaged couples have a multitude of marriage preparations to choose from in the Catholic Church.
But, what exists for baptized Catholic couples civilly married who seek validation of their marriage in the eyes of the Catholic Church?
Married Catholic couple Ryan and Mary-Rose Verret, who founded the successful “Witness to Love” mentorship program – using married couples as examples for engaged Catholic couples to witness the life of a church parish – created an option.
They were recently in New Orleans explaining to mentor couples, marriage enthusiasts and priests how they took “Witness to Love” and fashioned a Civil Marriage Initiative, tailoring the marriage formation specifically to baptized Catholics in civil unions by embracing these couples and inviting them to become actively engaged in the Church by “convalidation.”
Through convalidation, couples consent to have their union made valid – not just blessed.
The Verrets cited how the number of Catholic couples getting married in the church is dropping dramatically while the number of marriages that are being convalidated is rising. (20% of all Catholic marriages are convalidated.)
Ryan Verret said there were 294,000 sacramental marriages in the U.S. in 1995. That dropped to 144,000 by 2017. Yet, the number of U.S. Catholics had doubled, Mary-Rose Verret added.
“We see the amount of younger people disassociating with traditional life and things we grew up with,” Ryan Verret said. “We hope with this catechumenal approach to marriage preparation (‘Witness to Love’) that we can help married couples be a part of an ecclesial community.
“This process is sparking a renewal in parishes, because God is doing something in younger people – attracting them to mentor couples in their parish – and they are coming back and rediscovering what a parish can be.”
How the program developed
The Verrets, who live in Louisiana, have had many encounters with civilly married couples through marriage prep but realized evangelization efforts for them didn’t exist.
In 2018, when a vicar general they met in Tyler, Texas, vowed to reach every baptized, civilly married Catholic in his diocese, the Verrets also were approached by the archdioceses of Philadelphia, Denver and others, including the Archdiocese of New Orleans, to draft an initiative to reach civilly married, baptized Catholics desiring to reunite with the church.
Mary-Rose Verret said they conducted a national survey asking three questions to civilly married couples:
• Why did you get married outside of the church?
• If you came to get married in the church, what drew you to come back?
• What was that process like?
They interviewed couples whose marriages were convalidated in the Catholic Church using “Witness to Love,” parish marriage preparation coordinators, canon lawyers and clergy.
In the process, they discovered that civilly married Catholic couples were ready to receive the theology, virtue and sacrament that the church has to offer.
Many couples wanted to return to the church of their birth during so-called “points of entry” – such as their children’s sacrament of baptism or first Communion or when they were seeking help for a troubled marriage or a marriage that was missing something – and they thought that something was God.
Many of the convalidated couples hadn’t realized what they missed until they were the mentor couples guiding the engaged through Witness to Love’s formation in virtue. They said the “impact of this ministry on their marriage had been profound and pivotal.”
“I think this program is extremely important because as of right now there isn’t much programing for those who are civilly married,” said Sam Pitre, the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Office of Marriage and Family Life associate director. “We know that these couples are coming because there is something in their marriage that they want more of, and that is for God to be the center.
“On a diocesan level, we have a one-day program that goes through REFOCCUS material, but we know God wants more for them. The Witness to Love program connects them with those that they look up to in the Church and prepares them for the sacrament that they truly desire.”
“Witness to Love Civil Marriage Initiative” is approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). It gives parishes and dioceses tools (workbooks, videos, training) to “seek out, support and inspire couples in civil unions to pursue transformative sacramental marriage formation.”
What the program entails
The Verrets said the initiative helps “civilly married couples understand the need for sacramental marriage and gives them a path forward to receive the sacrament of marriage.”
The initiative uses the successful Witness to Love model of active parish mentor couples sharing friendship, witnessing a virtuous holy marriage and inviting couples into the church. Special workbooks for both the mentor and mentee couple have been created, as have videos featuring convalidated couples to spark meaningful conversations about marriage. Resources are even available to promote the program in parishes.
The Verrets found the secret to the program’s success over past efforts is that couples are properly prepared and welcomed to become a part of the church before and after their marriage is convalidated.
“It renews how marriage formation should be,” Ryan Verret said. The couple chooses their mentor couple because “the Holy Spirit is leading the couple to discern what is good about sacramental marriage.”
St. Ann parishioners Linda and Marcel Gelpi, who are a long-time Archdiocese of New Orleans mentor couple and participant in Day for the Engaged, think this program is needed, saying Catholics married outside of the church have been overlooked in the church. They think the church has turned their back on them. As mentors, they felt ill-equipped, on a pastoral level, to shepherd these couples back into the church. That was before the Witness to Love Civil Marriage Initiative.
“We’re excited to see this come about along with other movements in marriage preparation. What I think this will provide is a beautiful vision to approach this situation. … I think this is a really good program if we can do this and work with couples and stay with them after they are married (in the church),” Linda Gelpi said.
“This is our best attempt to give a platform for what the nature of the sacrament of marriage should look like,” Ryan Verret said.
The program, which is being piloted in the archdiocese, will start in various parishes soon. Call the Office of Marriage and Family Life at 861-6243. For general details, visit witnesstolove.org/civilmarriage, call (337) 282-0446 or email email@example.com.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.