By Celine Klosterman
WASHINGTON — Participants in a new marriage-enrichment program at St. James Parish hope the ministry strengthens both relationships and the parish community.
More than a dozen couples are taking part in Covenant of Love, which aims to offer practical ways to apply Pope John Paul II’s teachings on love and sexuality – known as Theology of the Body – to married life. The program includes educational, social and enrichment activities. “We hope it helps couples grow closer to Christ, and that their union becomes more intimate and thrives,” Kelly Pence said. She and her husband, Scott, brought the ministry to St. James in February after launching the program at parishes in two Illinois dioceses.
In Covenant of Love, St. James parishioners meet monthly to pray, view a DVD on the sacrament of marriage, tackle discussion questions as a small group and as a couple, and socialize. Every three meetings, a husband and wife offer testimony about lessons learned in their marriage. Couples are encouraged to receive the sacrament of reconciliation and accept invitations to eucharistic adoration.
The Pences got involved in Covenant of Love about three years ago, when they met the ministry’s founders, Greg and Julie Alexander, at a Theology of the Body conference in Dallas. Inspired by the Alexanders’ efforts and views on marriage, the Pences began helping the couple promote and edit the program. After Scott Pence accepted a position as a food safety manager in Washington, the parents of five moved from Illinois to Iowa and started the ministry at St. James Parish.
The Alexanders formed The Alexander House, an apostolate that administers Covenant of Love, after switching focus from their careers to Church teaching — a shift that the husband and wife say saved their troubled marriage.
Covenant of Love’s website says the program isn’t designed to minister to couples experiencing serious problems, but to strengthen marriages that are relatively healthy.
Kelly Pence said that means putting God at the center of a marriage. “He’s at the top of a triangle, and the spouses are at the bottom corners. Many times spouses will try to improve their communication skills, but they need to develop their communication with God, too.”
Doing so includes receiving the sacrament of reconciliation and praying, she said. So parishioners have taken part in eucharistic adoration for couples, and during Lent, three core couples facilitating Covenant of Love prayed for dozens of parish spouses who requested prayers.
“At first in our marriage, we didn’t realize the sacramental element,” said Judy Sieren, who is helping facilitate the program with her husband of 46 years, Gary. “We’d heard about it, but didn’t understand the depth and meaning of it, and the central place God should have in a marriage.”
Parishioners Barry and Lisa McNulty, who attended their first Covenant of Love meeting earlier this spring, were impressed by the open discussion of issues such as bringing faith back into a relationship. “It’s a very open, trusting environment,” he said. “The group was very welcoming and encouraging to all couples, no matter what stage of married life they’re in.”
People who are willing to share their journeys and struggles in married life can be a witness to other couples, Judy Sieren said. Gary Sieren said the ministry is designed to help connect parish couples who have dealt with or are dealing with similar issues.
“I think there’s a realization that small groups are very effective in bringing the parish closer together… This is a program to encourage commitment not only to marriage, but to the faith community.”
Covenant of Love meetings take place the first Saturday of each month at 7 p.m. in St. James’ parish center in Washington. All married couples are welcome.
For more information or for help starting the program in your parish, contact Scott and Kelly Pence at (319) 591-8053.