Solid marriage prep crucial to getting through thick and thin

| Susan Klemond | September 24, 2015 | 0 Comments
Matt and Jenna Jahnke take time for family prayer with their daughters Margaret, left, and Adeline. This is an example of a family habit that they talked about during their marriage prep. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Matt and Jenna Jahnke take time for family prayer with their daughters Margaret, left, and Adeline. This is an example of a family habit that they talked about during their marriage prep. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

As newlyweds, Matt and Jenna Jahnke faced infertility — a painful problem and source of strain even for couples who have weathered other relationship storms. Because they knew God was at the center of their marriage, the couples’ suffering drove them to him rather than away from each other.

“It was not a problem we could really fix,” Matt said. “It was just learning to suffer and being able to suffer through it together.”

Now the parents of two daughters, the couple, who attend Maternity of Mary in St. Paul, say the formation, preparation and support that started well before they began dating has given them a foundation to handle new challenges of parenting.

Preparation starts at home

Not all couples start married life like the Jahnkes. Many come to marriage preparation lacking not only relationship skills, but also an understanding of the role of God and the Church in their marriage. Then, facing the inevitable challenges of the first years of marriage, they might have trouble putting into practice what they learned through the Church’s marriage preparation program. Lacking a parish connection, some also leave the Church after their wedding and don’t return until it’s time to baptize their first child, if ever.

Those who help engaged couples to become happily married couples say getting a good start involves ongoing formation and enrichment, opportunities for healing, encouraging parish involvement and support from peers and more mature mentor couples.

But ideally, couples should learn their first lessons about marriage from their parents while growing up, according to ministry leaders and a group of European, Asian, South American and African cardinals who recently penned essays on the topic.

In “Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family,” published this month by Ignatius Press, the cardinals acknowledge the importance of marriage preparation but stress that this preparation begins in the family with real examples of love, care, self-sacrifice, sharing and celebrating together.

Dating, marriage preparation and Catholic family life are among the topics to be addressed in Philadelphia Sept. 22-27 at the World Meeting of Families, the occasion of Pope Francis’ first U.S. visit.

“Marriage preparation begins in the womb and is acted out in the home the children grow up in,” said Julie Alexander, who with her husband, Greg, is co-founder of San Antonio-based Alexander House, whose Covenant of Love education and enrichment program for engaged and married couples is being used by 100 U.S. parishes, including several in St. Cloud. The organization is in contact with retired NFL center and St. Paul native Matt Birk, which could give the program eventual roots in the Twin Cities.

When men and women come from broken families, they don’t learn as much about relationships at home, nor are they gaining communication and other skills, ministry leaders say. Brokenness is passed on to the next generation, as 20 percent of marriages end after the first five years, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

During the engagement and early in the marriage are the best times for couples to seek healing of that brokenness and past wounds, including generational problems, sexual abuse and alcoholism, Julie Alexander said. Before learning the truth about marriage, couples need to heal, she added.

Parish life, Mass key for newlyweds

Some wounds people especially protect, and they need trusting relationships to deal with them, or they might come out sideways in a relationship, said Ed Gross, co-coordinator of the Young Married Formation Program of the Community of Christ the Redeemer, a Catholic covenant community based in West St. Paul.

Healing is also found in the sacraments, but many couples aren’t attending Mass regularly after their wedding and may only find a parish after the birth of their first child. In 2011, only 25 percent of U.S. Catholics between the ages of 18-35 attended Mass weekly, according to a survey by The Catholic University of America sociologist William D’Antonio.

The Church needs to play a bigger role in eliminating the gap between the wedding and baptism of the first child, Gross said.

One way to do that is by connecting the engagement and marriage programs and by helping couples find a parish home, said Alison Kaardal, co-leader of a half day retreat for engaged and married couples at St. Mark in St. Paul, which runs monthly from September through May. “We also wanted to provide something for those who are newly married and kind of build a bridge between that process of being engaged and then preparing for marriage and then marriage itself.”

Through “radical hospitality,” which involves actively reaching out to everyone, St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove helps both engaged and newly married couples who have difficulty finding and plugging into a parish family, said Deacon John Wallin.

“When you see a community that feels like family, it’s much easier to walk through those doors,” he said. “And that, I think, is the environment we have to create in order to get young couples to return to Church in a more committed way.”

Hoping that couples will see the parish as a place of refuge and support, Deacon Wallin said he encourages them to volunteer.

Mentor couples bridge gap

It’s hard for large parishes to engage all members and visitors, and it might be hard for newly married couples to feel part of the parish, said Bill Dill, who works in marriage preparation in the Office of Marriage, Family and Life for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. But parishes should invite them to be part of small groups and other activities because they are among the most vulnerable participants, he said.

One parish relationship that begins during engagement and that could continue after the wedding is that of the mentor couple. Mentors, usually an older couple, help the engaged couple learn relationship skills such as communication and conflict resolution, and how to plan time together, said Mary and Jon Arntson, members of St. Joseph the Worker who have mentored more than 70 couples at the parish and in North Dakota for 35 years.

“What we’re doing is preparing them by going through the issues every couple goes through eventually,” Jon said. “All the couples in our generation went through them on their own during the first years of marriage. We’re giving them a head start.”

Meeting with a mentor couple is among the archdiocese’s recommendations for engaged couples, which also include completing a marriage inventory, attending a marriage preparation retreat and taking natural family planning classes. While some parishes assign engaged couples to meet with certain mentor couples, Dill recommended that couples also reach out to married couples they know and admire to talk about marriage and seek advice.

Engaged couples also need to learn about God’s plan for their marriage. “There are a lot of us wanting joy-filled marriages, but we’re trying to obtain that by deviating from the plan,” Greg Alexander said. “The sad part is not many people even know God has a plan.”

After their wedding, couples need to continue learning to grow and be inspired by that plan, Gross said.

What’s after the wedding?

The roughly 13,000 couples who have gone on the archdiocesan “Living God’s Love” marriage preparation retreat over the past 13 years will be able to take a daylong refresher retreat in fall 2016, Dill said.

“We know that with marriage prep, the shelf life so-to-speak is a few years,” he said. “We want to give them a chance to be re-inspired, to remember some of the key things about marriage, to re-engage God’s vision of marriage.”

The archdiocese also offers a retreat for newly married couples each February, he said.

More newly married couples are seeking enrichment on the Marriage Encounter weekend retreat, said Mary Jackson, executive director of Minnesota Marriage/Engaged Encounter and a parishioner at St. Michael in Stillwater.

Previously, the retreat wasn’t open to couples married fewer than five years, but this year, those couples made up almost 30 percent of retreatants, Jackson said.

At the monthly retreat at St. Mark, newly married and engaged couples have benefited from the social relationships they form, Kaardal said, noting they can connect with others who share their values.

While programs can help couples build healthy marriages, an even better way to do it is encouraging good family life, Gross said.

Even before a couple’s first date, it’s possible to lay some of the foundation for a good marriage, said Jahnke, who participated in CCR and other formation programs while single.

“I almost feel like marriage prep for me started long ago in this basic Christian formation,” she said. “If I didn’t have that, I think our marriage would be a lot harder.”

Tags: , ,

Category: Featured, Local News