Marriage Preparation Programs Find Renewal

Ministers Engage in New Evangelization

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By Genevieve Pollock

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, SEPT. 15, 2010 ( Across the country, ministers working in marriage preparation programs are finding themselves at the forefront of the new evangelization, renewing their methods with novel yet traditional means.

ZENIT spoke with Sister Mary Elizabeth Wusinich of the Sisters of Life, who worked for a decade as director of the New York Archdiocese Family Life/Respect Life Office, and with Jake Samour, the current director of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas.

They described a common experience: Marriage preparation, as a requirement of the Church, many times brings in couples who know little about their faith. Both ministers, who gave presentations at the first National Theology of the Body Congress in Philadelphia, said that the teachings of Pope John Paul II have been key in reaching these couples.

«In the marriage preparation, you have a captive audience that does not want to be there — for the most part,» Sister Wusinich explained. «And they typically don’t have very high expectations of what they’re going to receive.»

«A turning point for us,» she said, was years ago when the ministry team decided to attend a seminar sponsored by the Theology of the Body Institute.

We had been discussing «how to engage in the new evangelization» and apply the Pope’s teaching to pastoral work in the archdiocese, the nun said.

Through the theology of the body, she noted, the staff learned «a whole new language and a new method» for their work.

Gospel teaching

«It’s actually so rooted in the Gospel and in Christ’s first method of evangelization,» Sister Wusinich observed, «because when you look at it, his method was very relational and personal.»

She continued: «He met people one-on-one and, when he was inviting people to follow him, he said, ‘Come and see; come and experience my way of life.’

«Or if you look at his encounter with the woman at the well, you see that he would pose questions to her to have her look inside, to her own experience, in order to go deeper, to question her own perception of reality, before he presented his view.

«Thus he would prepare the person’s heart to receive the truth he wanted to convey.»

The family life office team decided to implement this method in its evangelization efforts in New York, especially with the marriage preparation programs.

«We found it very effective,» the nun said.

She explained: «We actually expanded the marriage preparation program to include a second day that was infused with the theology of the body, and culminated at the end with a full presentation of natural family planning, a type of intro session.

«And we found in the evaluations that the number of couples that were open to actually taking a class of natural family planning, or were open to think about using it in their marriage, was over 50%, which was a marked change from the past.»


Sister Wusinich continued: «I think part of it lies in the genius of the method of theology of the body, because often people are expecting to have the Church’s teaching shoved down their throat.

«But instead we propose the Church’s teaching — the way that we would propose it would be as God’s plan, or God’s vision, for their marriage, in a broader context of his vision of the human person.

«We then invite them to look within their own experience and verify the truth of what we’re saying in what they have seen.»

Of course, she added, «there’s always a section of the population that isn’t going to be open to the message, or at least doesn’t seem to be.» This sometimes discouraged the ministry team, the nun observed.

Nonetheless, she reminded her team that «in marriage preparation — because most of the couples were not practicing the faith — it really wasn’t a moment for deep catechesis, but rather for evangelization, for conversion.»

Sister Wusinich continued: «You’re scattering the seeds, and if there is good soil, that seed is going to take root and grow and bear fruit.

«You’re not going to see it. Someone else is going to reap the fruit.»

The nun stated, «If we can, in the marriage preparation course, plant some seeds where people walk away saying, ‘Maybe the Church does have something to say about this,’ or ‘Maybe I should look into that,’ or open their hearts to the Church’s vision, and God’s vision, then I would say that was a successful marriage prep day.»

Joy-filled marriage

Samour reported that one of the main focuses in the San Antonio Archdiocese has been «revamping the guidelines and the services that we provide to the couples that are getting married.»

«We know they have to come,» he said. «We don’t have to rely so much on advertising. We get free advertising because the priests make people go to marriage preparation.»

Samour noted that «even the government is helping people go to some classes, because they see that when people take the time before they get married to do eight hours or a weekend of preparation, their marriages tend to last.

«They have this program in Texas called ‘Together in Texas’ where couples pay a lesser fee on the marriage license if they take a class.»

We take advantage of these programs, Samour said, but we also give the couples catechesis.

«Everybody wants a joy-filled marriage,» he affirmed. «Everybody wants a great marriage.»

Thus, the ministry team tells the couples, «We’re here as a friend, to let you know what is going to make your marriage not become a statistic.»

Samour said that the theology of the body has played «a great part» in the marriage preparation.

«We use ‘God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage,'» he said, «which provides a great outline for a retreat or for a talk, using the outline that the Pope gave us,» and teaching them about «God’s plan for marriage and how it has been distorted through sin.»

A brand new way

«Everyone can identify with that struggle in the heart to do what is right and to avoid what is wrong,» the director said. «So it turns out to be an evangelizing moment as well.»

He noted, «This is an answer to what John Paul said, how we find ourselves in a time where there is this new phenomenon of the baptized non-believer.»

«This is very true for Hispanics,» said Samour, himself an immigrant from El Salvador who now works in part with the Latino population.

«They are all Catholic,» he said. «Most of them that come from a Latin American country have been baptized in the faith, but they don’t know who Christ is; they don’t have a real relationship with the Church; they don’t know what it means to be a disciple.»

This program «is great,» he added, because «not only does it allow us to speak to them about the truth of marriage, love and sexuality, but we can in the same stroke bring them Christ, or at least introduce them, not by imposing anything but by an invitation to ‘come and see,’ and open their eyes to something new.»

«That’s what John Paul is trying to do is,» Samour affirmed, invite people to «taste and see the Church in a brand new way.»

He continued: «Not just the Church that your grandparents knew; this is not like the Model T car; it is not your grandparents’ Church.

«It is still the Gospel, still Christ coming to meet you, but in a brand new way.»

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On the Net:

Theology of the Body Institute:

God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage:

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