According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.
Unfortunately, this great sacrament of Matrimony is not always a lifetime commitment. The five-year divorce rate of marriages among Catholic couples, even those who have gone through formal marriage preparation classes, is 23%, just slightly lower than the 25% national average. But a different type of marriage preparation course based on building mentor relationships is cutting the Catholic divorce rate significantly. The Diocese of Orange is introducing “Witness to Love”, a marriage prep course that began in Louisiana and has been successfully “beta tested” at San Antonio Parish in Anaheim Hills. Led by Deacon Russ Millspaugh and his wife Jody, the program is showing great promise.
According to Jody Millspaugh, “The key difference in Witness to Love is the engaged couple chooses their mentor to walk with them through six sessions where they discuss building a virtuous marriage, communications, finances and other important topics for a successful marriage. Mentors must be married for five or more years, and active in the church in which the engaged couple plans to settle.”
Three years ago the Millspaughs were part of a marriage advisory board for the Diocese office of Faith and Family. The goal was to improve marriage preparation and make the process more streamlined through all parishes. Through the research process, they learned about the success of Witness to Love in other parts of the country and were eager to start the process locally.
Meanwhile, Bishop Freyer learned about the program through the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) and was thrilled to find out it had already started at San Antonio. In October, Ryan and Mary-Rose Verret, the founders of Witness to Love, will be in Orange County to train priests and marriage preparation leaders. The Diocese is hoping that this program will be adopted county-wide.
In the old model, engaged couples attended a retreat where they were “talked to” by retreat leaders. Sometimes a mentor was assigned to them, but generally after the course was completed, the couples did not remain close to their mentors.
“The engaged couple is asked to go to Mass and look around for couples they admire and would like to emulate,” says Jody. “If they are new to the parish or don’t know who to ask, we can give them the biographies of volunteer mentors, but the engaged couple still has to review the biographies and personally reach out to ask the mentor couple to walk with them.”
The program incorporates the teaching of Pope Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. According to Russ, “As the couples learn about the Theology of the Body, they begin to understand more about the Church’s teaching on life and contraception. They learn how these teachings enrich marriage and communication to build a stronger bond.”
As the relationship between the engaged couple and mentor couple builds, both couples become more involved in parish life. “A pleasant side effect is that the couples participate more, give more, and we are seeing more children too,” observed Russ.
Patrick Daeley, a mentor from San Antonio parish said, “This is a great program because it brings love and spiritual unity to all who participate. Through this program we learned more about God’s plan in our marriage.”
Cortney Raffety, a new bride, said, “I was a little worried when we started this program. Not being Catholic, I wondered how it was going to be, but that all changed after the first meeting with Russ and Jody. After eight months of marriage I feel this helped a lot.”
Witness to Love gives young couples a lifeline during the first challenging years of marriage. The program offers two essential components that correlate with Catholic tradition and psychological principles.
Witness to Love’s mission is “to provide local churches with the tools to transform existing programs of marriage preparation into wellsprings of dynamic marriage discipleship, fostering both parish connection and authentic accompaniment before and after the wedding day.”
The program teaches the principle of Virtue as taught by Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas for authentic human growth. In addition, the program integrates “attachment theory” to motivate and support.
The Catechism on marriage continues, “The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.” Imagine the impact on our families, our diocese, and our community if more Catholic marriages stayed together.