By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Margi and Ted Mountz show a video to engaged couples during marriage preparation weekend in which a priest describes marriage as being like two pieces of bread held together by peanut butter. Jesus, the priest says, is the peanut butter.
“I tell people at the end of the weekend, ‘Make sure Jesus is the peanut butter in your marriage,’” says Margi, director of adult faith formation and RCIA for St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant.
Marriage preparation involves more than analogies to comfort food, but the analogy serves as a memorable reminder that God should be at the center of every Christian marriage. Perhaps spouses will think about that when they open the jar of peanut butter.
That is, if the church can get them to the altar. Fewer Catholics choose to get married in the Catholic Church. In 2014, 436 couples married in parishes in the Davenport Diocese. A decade earlier, 541 marriages were recorded in the diocese in 2004.
The silver lining? “Couples preparing for marriage today tend to be older, more mature and committed to this lifetime vocation, this foundation of the Christian family,” observes Marianne Agnoli, coordinator of Marriage and Family Life for the Davenport Diocese. “Through marriage preparation, the church attempts to provide as many tools as possible to help engaged couples develop the skills necessary for a thriving, lifelong Christian marriage.”
In the Davenport Diocese, couples marrying in the Catholic Church are required to meet with a designated church minister, participate in a formal marriage preparation program, provide necessary documents and forms and take a pre-marital inventory (FOCCUS or Prepare Enrich).
Three choices are offered for the formal marriage preparation program: Sponsor Couple, weekend retreat or, under special circumstances and with permission of their parish, an approved online program.
Both of the in-person programs use “For Better & For Ever,” a resource authored by Father Rob Ruhnke, C.SS.R, of San Antonio, Texas. He says the biggest challenge for anyone wanting to assist couples preparing for Christian marriage is learning how to deal with engaged couples “where they are at” versus “where they are supposed to be.”
“Christian marriage is countercultural to every culture and every family of origin and we are still trying to decide how to effectively articulate the personal changes that couples will need to make to be successful at a commitment to a lifelong intimate communion of life and love. (How many grooms say they are eager to marry because they are eager to learn how to serve their wives?),” Fr. Ruhnke asks.
Lay ministers and clergy who organize marriage preparation weekends in the Davenport Diocese strive to answer that question. They bring in married couples to share their lived experiences of the sacrament. “A lot of couples go in with very idealistic expectations on what marriage really is. Not that we want to burst anyone’s bubble, because that’s not the point,” says Margi Mountz, who has been married to Ted for 43 years. “I think they need to see that couples who have been married a long time, their marriages go through phases.”
Asked what she hopes couples take away from the weekend, Mountz said: “That they can be counter-cultural and have a long marriage. I want them to know that they can be each other’s best friend. They need to learn to grow together in their marriage. … They need to have things they enjoy doing together.” Equally important, “The church and their church friends can help them get through the difficult times in their marriage.”
Deacon Daryl Fortin and his wife, Pat, facilitate two daylong marriage preparation weekends at St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, one in January and the other in February. Offering two separate sessions for 35 to 40 couples each time makes it more manageable, Deacon Fortin said.
He and Pat, who have been married 44 years, also have served as sponsor couples and are part of an engaged encounter at American Martyrs Retreat in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Sponsor couples are married couples who serve as peers to an engaged couple, meeting four to six times prior to the marriage.
Whatever difficulties and joys couples face in their marriage, all of them are opportunities to bring in the aspect of how God has played a part in that, Deacon Fortin said. “When I’m talking with couples preparing for marriage, I talk about the four ‘Cs:’ compromise, commitment, communication and Christ. And the other thing, my wife says, is respect for each other.”
They have a large team assisting them, offering a lot of different perspectives — from couples who are cradle Catholics to couples where one is a convert or one is not Catholic. “They share the different things that have happened to them and how God has helped them through … not all are crises, some are happy things – but God has been there through it all,” the deacon said.
He estimates that 50 percent of the couples arrive not wanting to be there, but “most of them, by the end of the day, have picked up certainly one or more ideas they hadn’t thought about that will help them deal what what’s going on for the rest of their lives.”
The Fortins were 19 years old when they got married after participating in a Pre-Cana marriage preparation program. The thing that stuck with them was “hearing couples talk about God in their life. It did have an impact on us. I think we realized that God needs to be a part of this.”
Newlyweds Mike and Erin Jacobsen of Iowa City participated in a marriage preparation weekend at St. Mary Parish in Williamsburg this past spring. Mike said he and his wife thought the experience was very worthwhile.
“Most of the speakers were not sugar-coating things. They added a nice dose of realism. Marriage isn’t all flowers and sunshine. It’s not a matter of if, but when (difficulties) come. That’s not a bad thing; it’s working through whatever the challenge is and becoming a stronger couple,” added Mike, who was previously married and received an annulment.
He appreciated the presenters’ emphasizing “to take time to reflect on things and to give thanks for what you have, kind of take stock of where you’re at.”
Margi Mountz sees hope for the future of the Catholic Church because of her experience with marriage preparation. “I’ve learned to trust that God has a plan for the church. He’s bringing these young couples into the church to be married in the church.”