Witness to Love, a Catholic marriage preparation and renewal ministry, is launching a new program to prepare civilly married couples to enter into sacramental marriages in the Catholic Church.
Mary-Rose Verret, who co-founded Witness to Love with her husband, Ryan, said her ministry’s new initiative, which was announced ahead of National Marriage Week, is the first national program in the Church that is geared specifically for civilly married couples.
“The Church has never made a concerted effort in this area, which is shocking,” Verret told Our Sunday Visitor. She added that working with civilly married couples who have gone through the Witness to Love program over the last seven years has been a “highlight” of her ministry.
“They’ve changed our marriage. They’ve inspired us,” Verret said. “The civilly married couples, we do nothing for them, but they are the hidden gems in the Church.”
Over the last year, the Verrets worked with couples who were civilly married before having their marriages convalidated and several diocesan marriage preparation leaders to tweak the Witness to Love program for civilly married couples who want to prepare for sacramental marriage. The new program is being piloted in 16 parishes across the country.
“We recorded new video content where the couples tell their witness stories about how God worked in their lives, and it is very powerful,” Verret said.
Forgetting the graces
Catholic marriage preparation leaders across the United States told OSV that a new approach is needed because in recent years they have been seeing more civilly married couples in their marriage preparation programs.
“We have seen a profound difference in the makeup of the couples today than from when we began 19 years ago,” said Steve Beirne, who along with his wife coordinates his parish’s marriage preparation program in Portland, Maine.
There are many reasons why more Catholic couples are getting married first outside the Church. Young Catholics, especially those who don’t attend Mass regularly, in general do not feel the same pressure they once did to get married in the Church. Others may simply not understand the graces available to them in a sacramental marriage. Many are opting for outdoor wedding ceremonies on a beach or garden, or they decide to exchange wedding vows at the same facility where they celebrate the reception.
“The wedding industry makes you feel guilty if you make your people go to the church. They’re marketing geniuses,” said Peg Hensler, the associate director of Marriage Ministries and NFP for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.
“The truth is we have so much more to offer these couples, especially when there is a beautiful Church wedding, and what a difference a sacramental marriage makes,” Hensler told OSV.
According to statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there were 144,000 Catholic sacramental marriages in the United States in 2017. That figure is down nearly 50 percent from the 261,626 sacramental marriages in 2000. That drop occurred even as the national Catholic population grew by nearly 3 million to 74.3 million in 2017.
Rise in convalidations
Along with statistics that indicate national marriage rates as a whole have remained relatively stable since 2000, the data seems to indicate that not only are fewer Catholics getting married sacramentally, but that they are more likely to get married civilly in a non-Catholic setting.
“We have a lot more convalidations now than we did 10 years ago. People today don’t feel the same obligation to marry in the Church,” said Christian Meert, director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life in the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Meert, the cofounder of CatholicMarriagePrep.com, which offers online Catholic marriage preparation classes for Agape Catholic Ministries, told OSV that he currently has hundreds of couples in his diocese going through the convalidation process.
“One pretty common thing among them is that they don’t know at first what the Church is going to give them in a sacramental marriage,” Meert said. “They don’t know exactly what they’re looking for.”
Catholic marriage preparation leaders told OSV that they estimate about 20 percent of the couples they prepare each year for sacramental marriages are civilly married. Nearly all of those couples approach the Church on their own to have their marriages convalidated. Their reasons vary.
“Some of them are people who happened to say, ‘Hey, my kid is getting their First Communion. It’s time to get our marriage blessed,'” Verret said. “If that large a number just happens to come forward, what number would come forward if we actually invited them?”
Catholic marriage preparation for civilly married couples varies by dioceses and parishes. Some pastors will bless the couple’s wedding after a few private meetings, while some dioceses require that they complete the standard diocesan marriage preparation program, which may not have a different track for those couples.
Embracing the sacrament
Verret said some civilly married couples who went through Witness to Love in their parishes asked her and her husband to tailor the language in the program’s workbook to couples like themselves, especially those who already have children.
Also, about a year ago, Verret said Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, told her that he wanted Witness to Love to be part of a new diocesan initiative to reach out to all civilly married couples who were able to have their marriages blessed in the Church.
“We were like, ‘Wow, that is so beautifully ambitious,'” she said.
Verret added that she and her husband decided to make the new initiative a top priority after other dioceses asked them to do the same thing.
Similar to RCIA, Witness to Love links couples in its marriage preparation course with married Catholic couples that they already know who can act as sponsors. The sponsor couples have to be practicing Catholics who are active in their parishes and can help integrate those who are seeking convalidation into the parish community.
“The mentor couple is critical as a bridge of trust into the life of the Church,” Verret said.
Dioceses across the country have been increasingly using sponsor couples in their marriage preparation programs. Jaime and Alicia Ayala of El Paso, Texas, recently completed training to be a sponsor couple and are now working to prepare a young civilly married couple to be married in the Church.
“We will talk to them about their understanding of what a civil marriage is and compare that to what a sacramental marriage is,” Alicia Ayala told OSV. “They’re going to also have to take an NFP course, so that is going to be a huge difference already.”
Verret said she hopes the new initiative — which is being supported by the Our Sunday Visitor Institute — will help civilly married couples feel at home in the Church and give them a better understanding of the fullness of the sacrament for which they are preparing.
“I think many of these couples had seen their convalidation as more of a simple blessing than an actual sacrament, almost like getting your car blessed,” Verret said. “They almost didn’t understand the significance of it, and, honestly, I don’t think the Church was always clear about that.”
Brian Fraga is an Our Sunday Visitor Contributing Editor.