A few years ago I had the opportunity to give a talk at John Paul the Great Academy in Lafayette, Louisiana. While I was there I enjoyed the hospitality of Ryan and Mary-Rose Verret, a young Catholic couple with three children. It was a wonderful stay, a great experience of traditional Cajun hospitality. The Catholic homeschooling alumni circle is very small so it turned out Mary-Rose actually grew up with my cousins in Virginia.
Fast forward to last year, I was scrolling through the National Catholic Register and saw Ryan and Mary-Rose featured in an article. Since then I have been in contact with them via facebook and email, and a few weeks ago Kathleen and I FaceTimed with them for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. About half of our conversation was just visiting with some great folks, but for a good part of it we talked about the Verrets’ new project called “Witness to Love.”
Based on their experience with marriage prep in their home parish over several years they began to see a troubling trend among the young couples they were seeing through the program. Too many of the young couples were not showing up in Church after their wedding day, and the five-year divorce rate was frighteningly high. After talking with over 400 couples in their parish and diocese, they began to notice a trend that those newlywed couples who maintained a solid relationship with their parish usually did so because of a personal relationship with people, specifically other couples, in that parish.
In response they developed a new marriage prep program which centers around the engaged couple choosing a couple within the parish that they know and respect, and asking them to be their mentors as they prepare for marriage. Both couples then begin a journey of preparation, facilitated by the parish, which ideally results in closer ties to the parish community and a long term relationship between the two couples that can at need serve as a lifeline as they move through the challenges of married life.
What follows is an excerpt from an interview that Kathleen and I conducted with the Verret’s via FaceTime last Saturday. You can read the full transcript here.
Ryan K: The place to start is for readers who have never heard of it before, who have never heard of Witness to Love. In a few words, what is your bottom line take away, where did it come from, what are you trying to do with it?
(Ryan and Mary-Rose looking back and forth at each other, laughing.)
Mary-Rose: Kind of a “tag-you’re-it.” Okay. Witness to Love really came from a place of desperation and prayer. We saw couples that were getting divorced not long after the wedding, which is normal, but discouraging, especially when it is couples that you’ve worked with and tried to walk with.
Ryan K: From your parish Marriage Prep program?
Ryan V: Yeah, couples that you’ve had in your own home.
Mary-Rose: Yeah, couples that we’ve sat down with, on our sofa, and, you know, they had assigned mentors that we worked with, and they never reached out for help. It just… the frustration from dealing with those situations over and over again. I think that often people don’t actually scratch the surface enough in the parish or the diocese to find out what is going on with these couples. We’re not set up in such a way to follow-up with them, to know if they get divorced. It’s such a small percentage of people who come forward for annulments when they get divorced. We don’t know how many people in our congregation don’t actually become part of the congregation, and we don’t know how many are actually separated or divorced. So Witness to Love came from just getting involved in a community and seeing where these couples were ending up, if they were separated, if they were divorced, if they were not in church, and following up with these couples and interviewing them as to what happened? What went wrong? Why didn’t they ask for help? Why didn’t this older, assigned mentor model… why was it not working?
Ryan V: We had this very unique way of how this changed, instead of Jack and Jill going to the rectory when they had already rented the hall, and the florist, and the limo company and all these things, and they had their date. They can’t put that date on a calendar in a Witness to Love parish until they have chosen their mentors and have begun this whole process and understand how they’re going to grow. So they don’t like it.
Ryan K: That’s a fairly radical change of practice.
Ryan V: But the priests when they get on board with it, they like it because they know they aren’t just going to be a sacramental vending machine.
Ryan K: So can you talk a little bit about the mentor couple. You mentioned some of the criteria that need to be met [mentor couples must be chosen by the engaged couple, must be married more than five years, active in the parish, and have a marriage the engaged couple admires]. Are they vetted through the parish, or is there a process that the mentor couples have to go through of formation?
Mary-Rose: That’s a great question, and I think that’s the question that priests, or deacons, or anyone who is involved in marriage prep, especially if they’ve understood the traditional model, would say, “Wow, these mentors need to be vetted, trained, and this all has to work.”
Ryan V: In the traditional model, mentor couples are expected to be sort of catechists. They are expected to be theological, spiritual, kind of moral experts, whatever that means. But our starting point was, this is not step one of getting a person involved in the faith process. They need to see a witness, I wouldn’t say particularly a “relationship expert,” but if you’re going to find someone who has been married five years or more, and who has a marriage that you look up to, and that is in the church, going to Mass, that’s pretty vague.
Mary-Rose: Intentionally so.
Kathleen: Yeah, that [traditional model] is essentially the type of program we had. Ryan was going to be deployed for over half of our engagement.
Ryan K: Which of course brings in its own set of challenges, but they were a couple out of… where were they?
Ryan K: Colorado. And we never saw them face-to-face, we never heard of them before, we haven’t talked to them since. I think we got more out of a few dinners with Deacon George and his wife than we did out of all the sessions with… I don’t even remember their names.
Kathleen: I couldn’t even tell you. Our assigned mentor couple.
Mary-Rose: It was assigned?
Ryan and Kathleen: Yes.
Ryan K: I think that kind of speaks to what you’re talking about, that kind of “check-the-block” mentality. So, you kind of think of couples as falling into two categories. There’s the kind that are already going to church, they are active in the parish, and they have a firm intention to stay married and be engaged with the parish afterward. So they may feel like they don’t really need this. And then there’s the couples who have not been active before, and may not know anyone in the parish. So how do you bridge that gap, someone who may not know any couples in the parish at all?
Mary-Rose: That is a great question, and I think, frankly, that is close to half of couples, they just can’t even make that leap and that connection. So we worked with parishes, we have, really the gift and the blessing of having some of the best pastors and the best parishes in the country who are very passionate about this and are committed to figuring it out. So we, over the years, have worked with these pastors to find solutions to these problems. And in working with these parishes we’ve found the solution of what we call, sort of cheeky, but “showcase couples.” [These are] couples where the parish says, “Look, these couples are, we feel, beautiful examples and beautiful witnesses of what marriage and family life is supposed to be like. These couples, we present them to you, you can choose any one of these couples. Here’s a little bit of information about each of them. We are happy to introduce you to the couples, and we are happy to tell you which couples we think might be a good fit for you, but you still have to choose and you still have to ask.”
Ryan K: So what would you say to the other half of the couples, or probably less than half, those few couples who say, “Hey, we’ve been attending this parish right along. We don’t really talk to anybody so we don’t know anybody here, but we’ve been going to Mass, and we’re not missing the sacraments, and we’re going to stay married. I don’t feel like we really need this.” What would you say to them?
Mary-Rose: We only grow in relationships.
Ryan V: We discovered this sort of line in reality that human beings only grow in relationship. You know we develop these personal gifts only in relationships with feedback, where honest feedback and honest growth can take place. I think it’s easy to see that our culture is attempting to thrive on isolation, and young people like to be connected, but not to really be committed. Tons of friends on Facebook, but if someone is having a crisis in their life, you know, unplanned pregnancy or whatever, and everyone is giving them the wrong advice, or doesn’t even respond. I think the reality is, if you’re going to grow as people then you need this kind of extension of what’s happening in your life, which leads into the parish life.
Mary-Rose: And I think, honestly, you have to examine if someone says, basically, I don’t need a mentor. I go to the parish but there isn’t really someone that I have met in this parish that I feel that I would be comfortable going on this journey with. That speaks, honestly, to two things. Either the parish is not providing opportunities for relationships, it is not a true community; or, the engaged couple is not engaging in the community. We know many couples who have been married a similar amount of years as us, and they were formed in Theology of the Body, they were going to church regularly, but they had, in many ways, isolated themselves from feedback, especially in regard to their marriage and their relationship. You know, you basically put on a public face, but you don’t let anyone get close enough to see that your marriage is actually in shambles, and there’s domestic abuse and there’s affairs. I mean, these are good couples, from good colleges, with lots of kids and beautiful families, but sometimes when you scratch the surface it’s a mess. No one is immune from divorce, and the more we isolate ourselves, no matter where we come from or where we go to church, the more likely we are to find ourselves in a difficult situation.
Ryan K: So one of the themes that kind of stuck out to us, you were talking about growth. Someone who says, “Hey, we are going to Mass, we are doing fine,” but they are stuck in a holding pattern. They are focused on where they are but what you guys are trying to do is to call people to not stay, not stagnate. If you are standing still, there is more. That was one of the things that stuck out to us first. Then there was the idea that having someone able to look into the inner reality of your marriage, or your relationship if you are not married yet, that’s scary. That kind of vulnerability where you can say (to another guy), “I can’t stand to be around her right now,” to have that relationship where you could say that to somebody, that takes some humility and some vulnerability. I can very easily see why that would not recommend itself to most guys.
Ryan V: Yeah, and that’s why I think it’s important to know that this is all designed to be gradual. It’s over time. And I think the mentor process, that after the wedding this is not done, but we are setting you up for a lifelong relationship. So there is time to grow and grow, and for things to go deeper.
Mary-Rose: We were meeting with some couples who were going through our process recently, and I remember one of the wives saying, “As a mentor couple, honestly I thought this was going to be easier, but you are really asking us… there is no surface level option in Witness to Love. When you first read the question you are thinking, how can I answer this in a superficial way, you can’t. You have to be honest, you have to be real, you have to be open. And the vulnerability that is required of you as the mentor couple, you basically have to admit that you’re broken. And how you got from where you were to where you are now, and share that with the engaged couple. And it’s difficult.” But it’s so healing. And when the engaged couple hears that this mentor couple that they really admire and really look up to isn’t perfect, and didn’t always have it together, and is even now growing and working on their marriage and you can’t ever say it’s good enough, the power in that! … I was just on the phone with a lady who is in her seventies and she was saying as the marriage prep coordinator for her parish, she was going through all this and she said, “You know, I realized we still have a lot we need to work on.” I was just like, wow! That’s awesome.
But we’re always, always going to be working. So for an engaged couple to say, “You know, I think we have a good thing going here, I don’t think we need this.” It’s just not possible.
Please check out Ryan and Mary-Rose’s work and consider supporting them through prayer and spreading the word.