Mentor couple program fosters trust, openness

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald, Bridal Registry

Ana Tolkach and Alex Roscigno met and fell in love as undergraduates at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and, later,  even as they were separated by hundreds of miles – Ana in Pennsylvania and Alex in Slidell – they knew they were going to be married.

One of their closest clergy friends was Deacon Felix Hinambona, a seminarian studying for the priesthood for the Diocese of Tororo in Uganda who had been assigned to St. Margaret Mary Parish in Slidell as part of an internship program.

When Alex and Ana began contemplating their plans for marriage preparation, they were intrigued by the idea of asking a married couple to serve as a mentor couple for them, feeling that experience would be more valuable than attending a one-day seminar or a weekend retreat together.

Mentor program encouraged

St. Margaret Mary Parish highly recommends that engaged couples make use of a mentor couple program. In some cases, the parish can recommend mentor couples who are part of the official marriage prep ministry; in other cases, the engaged couple chooses its mentor couple.

“Deacon Felix spent a couple of years at St. Margaret Mary, and we got to know him well,” Alex said. “And he was very close to Dr. (Tom) Neal at Notre Dame Seminary.”

One thing led to another, and Deacon Felix asked Neal and his wife Patti if they would be willing to serve as a mentor couple for Ana and Alex in their marriage prep program.

“I didn’t even know there was a mentor couple program in the archdiocese,” said Neal, academic dean and professor of spiritual theology at Notre Dame Seminary. “I thought the archdiocese just offered retreats. So, this was brand new to us.

“We had never done a formal mentor couple thing  just because when we had kids and they were growing up, we were so busy and we didn’t want to make that commitment. But now that our youngest is a senior in high school, we decided we were open to it for the first time.”

A surprise for the Neals

Ironically, the Neals’ youngest daughter attends Mount Carmel Academy, where Ana, who moved to New Orleans in July, serves as her theology teacher.

Alex and Ana met for six sessions with the Neals over the course of three months leading up to their Oct. 12 wedding in Philadelphia, Ana’s family’s hometown.

They instantly made a connection with the Neals and felt affirmed that they had made the right decision in their choice of marriage preparation programs.

“I think it was just getting that real experience from another couple over a very long period of time,” Ana said. “The Neals are a wonderful couple, and they are just so honest. It was the trust we were able to form, and we are continuing to meet with them after we’ve been married just because we became so close.

“They weren’t coming  from a curriculum standpoint, but they were telling us, ‘This is our experience and this is how we would advise you.’”

Time to delve deeper

Alex said meeting with the Neals six times – for about 90 minutes in each session – built a deep bond that enabled them to talk about everything in a trusting environment.

“Meeting with them multiple times allows you to develop trust and a really safe place to bring up things, both for them and for ourselves,” said Alex, 24, who works in commercial banking. “The further we got into the program, we’d get more vulnerable in our discussions and sharing what we’re excited about, what we’re nervous about, what we have fears about.

“To have that relationship built over a period of time really is valuable in formation.”

Alex said when entering a sacramental marriage and making a lifelong commitment to another person, it is important to have wise guidance from those who already have done the same thing.

“One of the big things for me is that you can’t just do it alone,” Alex said. “You don’t know what it’s like to be married until you’re married. It’s just the wisdom that comes from sitting down with another married couple who’s been doing it for 20-plus years and has that experience. It’s so invaluable. You can’t read it from a book or try to do it on your own.”

Ana said in Philadelphia, most of the marriage preparation courses involve retreats, which might last for  only a day or two. Usually, those retreats involve many engaged couples, which she  said is nice but might feel to her “a little less personal.”

“While the Neals got to share their experience with us, the other cool thing  was that it was one-on-one and we got to bring things to them – things that we were struggling with or nervous about or questions that we had – as opposed to raising your hand in a retreat center,” Ana, 25, said. “It was just a conversation that was really natural. We could bring ourselves and our questions out in a really personal way, which was really a gift to us.”

In addition to Alex and Ana, the Neals have worked with one other couple so far and found those interactions invigorating to their own marriage.

“I didn’t expect it would be so enriching for us as a couple,” Neal said. “Patti and I found great joy in watching the joy of young love, of new love. It’s just so fun to get into their worlds.

“Both of the couples we’ve worked with are devout, deeply faithful couples who really want to live out the fullness of the Catholic sacrament. That’s incredible, and they’ve been a great witness to us.”

Their love is evident

Ana said one of the great  things she learned from Patti was how she cherished her husband.

“She said something to me that clearly marks their relationship and the way she enters into marriage,” Ana said. “She said, ‘God willing, Tom will be around for awhile, but  if I have to do his funeral eulogy, I’m going to miss him, of course, but I’m going to say that we have had so much fun together. Tom and Patti  are so different – and they talk about that – but they adore one another and they champion the other. They really balance each other.”

One thing has taken a little getting used to for Ana, the Pennsylvanian.

“I love New Orleans, and it’s amazing,” she said. “I was telling my mom I got in the car the other day with Christmas decorations and Christmas music, and I had to turn on the AC. That’s a new situation.”

For more information on the mentor couple marriage preparation program, contact the archdiocesan Office of Marriage and Family Life at 861-6243. Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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