World Marriage Day, a celebration of enduring love, joy and faithful commitment between married couples, is observed annually on Feb. 14 in Catholic parishes all over the country. But this year it has particular importance and meaning.
“During the pandemic and lockdowns especially, marriage and family life have been stretched and challenged,” says Linda Ji, director of the Office for Family Life in the Diocese of Orange.
“Now, more than ever, we need to encourage married couples to strengthen their relationships and to highlight the blessing they are to the Church.”
World Marriage Day originated in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1981 and received the blessing of Pope John Paul II in 1993. In 2010, the secular National Marriage Week was established to encourage community efforts to strengthen marriage in the week leading up to Feb. 14.
Each parish commemorates the day and week in its own way. “Often it is through a diocesan wedding anniversary Mass with one of the bishops, where we invite couples celebrating twenty-plus years of marriage—especially milestone anniversaries—to celebrate and receive a blessing,” says Ji. “We did this last year in the new cathedral, before the pandemic.”
This year, the Diocese of Orange has created new ways to bring couples closer together with their families and friends. “We have an initiative called ‘Our Story of Love,’” explains Ji. “We are inviting married couples to share their stories to their children and loved ones.” Couples can fill out an online form, answering the prompt questions, or use their own ideas to tell their stories. These stories will be sent via email to up to five recipients of that couples’ choosing.
“This is a great way for families to discover stories they never knew about their parents,” says Ji. “It’s also an opportunity for couples to reconnect with important people from their wedding with whom they may have lost touch. The hope is that married couples will share about their experiences of sacramental marriage as faithful witnesses, conveying the love of Christ to their loved ones.”
Inspiring stories of marriage will be will be posted on the diocese website and social media channels. “We will be featuring stories from selected married couples from the Diocese of Orange in a digital campaign throughout National Marriage Week,” says Ji. Couples who’ve journeyed through a variety of life experiences will share their reflections on the sacrament of marriage amidst the challenging realities.
But couples don’t have to wait until February to strengthen their marriages. Throughout the year, Worldwide Marriage Encounter retreats provide guidance and support in a safe space with the help of a priest and experienced facilitators. These retreats were developed in 1952 by a young Spanish priest as a way for married couples to deepen their relationships, and they took hold in the U.S. in the 1960s.
For 18 years, Deacon Angelo and Cindy Giambrone—who’ve been married for 36 years—have facilitated such retreats in Orange County and Los Angeles. Held in a hotel over a long weekend or on several consecutive nights, these events feature presentations given by a priest or facilitators, who then provide topics to reflect upon. Each couple then goes to a space to talk about the topic privately between themselves. There is no public sharing, unless a couple chooses to do so.
Today, Marriage Encounter events take place over Zoom. But the goal is the same.
“The intent of a Marriage Encounter weekend is marriage enrichment,” explains Cindy Giambrone, who with her husband is a parishioner at Saint Vincent de Paul Church in Huntington Beach. “It’s really important to feed your marriage when you have kids and work, have in-laws, finances. What the Marriage Encounter can do is help you rediscover each other.”
“It also helps couples realize that marriage is a sacrament,” adds Deacon Angelo Giambrone. “Marriage is a gift of God’s love. It holds us together and lifts us together. Caring as Christ cares is a beautiful thing in a marriage. Some couples don’t tap into this as much as they can.”
In Marriage Encounter retreats, couples are given tools to bring them closer, such as the practice of writing love notes to each other every day. Another benefit: “You find there’s are people just like you with aligned values,” says Angelo. “So, it’s not just you and your spouse—you can be part of a community of like-minded couples.”
Long-lasting, happy marriages strengthen parishes and society as a whole, which helps everyone get through difficult times such as the present.
“Pope Francis describes the Church as a ‘family of families’ in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia,” explains Ji. “To have a healthy world, families need to be healthy and cared for. Likewise, the Church relies on families and faithful parents to be the first evangelizers, bringing the good news of Christ to their children, friends and neighbors.”