By Annette Alleva
The North Star Catholic
The sacrament of marriage is highly esteemed in the Catholic Church. It is the foundation upon which families are built and individuals are nurtured to reach their potential. As such, it is both necessary and wise for the Church to instruct, guide, and support married persons in their journey, one fraught with challenges, great joy, and immeasurable sacrifice.
The Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau is well-disposed to meet the challenges of couples at various stages in their journey. The ministries are guided by Deacon Mick Fornelli. Under his direction, six distinct ministries are coordinated for the benefit of the faithful and others: Catholic Engaged Encounter, Worldwide Marriage Encounter, Retrouvaille, Alaska Natural Family Planning, Project Rachel and an evolving ministry currently known as Missionary Families for Christ/El Shaddai Prayer Group. All are part of larger national and international organizations.
According to Deacon Fornelli, it seems appropriate in the Year of the Family, which celebrates Saint Joseph, to let people know these ministries are active in parishes in our archdiocese. “Its objective,” he added, “is to build upon the Body of Christ by promoting an authentic Catholic vision of marriage and family life. We offer programs for marriage preparation, marriage enrichment, marriage intervention, Natural Family Planning and abortion reconciliation, which reflect our vision and the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
The six ministries highlighted here further the Church’s goals for marriage and families through the work and dedication of volunteers. Without their commitment, these services could not be offered. Those who feel called to serve in these capacities are needed to bring these ministries to their local parish.
Catholic Engaged Encounter is the “premier marriage preparation program for the Catholic Church,” according to its website. It is “a community of Catholics sharing our experiences of living out the values of a sacramental marriage.” Chris and Jennifer Robertson coordinate its activities, usually conducted on a weekend at a retreat center or other facility.
Adapting to COVID-19 restrictions, it is currently conducted over six weeks via Zoom sessions. According to Jennifer Robertson, the “encounter” consists of discussions by presenter couples and a deacon on various topics such as communication, finances, natural family planning, and family of origin dynamics, to name a few. As part of a larger organization, couples—especially during COVID times—can participate in an online course that fulfills the marriage preparation requirement.
Presenter couples “give real-life experiences and share that marriage is hard work, but it is worth it,” Jennifer said. She added, “people who go through Engaged Encounter have a 70% less chance of getting divorced.” Skills learned on the weekend are helpful throughout married life.
For the Robertsons and others active in this ministry, Engaged Encounter is more than a weekend.
It is building community through potluck gatherings, inviting couples from previous weekends to present at subsequent weekends, and letting couples know “that other people are praying for them and for their marriage,” Jennifer said.
“No matter what stage they’re in, we’re here to journey with them,” Jennifer said of the work she and her husband have done for ten years. “It is a profound experience for us. We are really interested in helping.”
Worldwide Marriage Encounter ministers in over 100 countries. “The core value of WWME is the belief that marriage is a sacrament we live every day,” according to its website. Coordinated by Michelle and Doug Wachawski of Homer, a typical Marriage Encounter weekend is similar to Engaged Encounter. “It is very much couple time during the experience,” according to Michelle, who said, “It is learning about communication and putting a priority on the sacredness of marriage, and staying connected and part of a family and community.” It too, is conducted through sharing by presenter couples and a priest.
The experience is open to couples of any faith or mixed-faith expressions. “There is a lot of variety. We tend to see and are seeking people who have a healthy relationship, without major issues,” she said and added. “It’s more of a tune-up.”
As with so many other things, this experience has gone virtual but still emphasizes dialogue, communication and connecting authentically with your spouse, Michelle said. “It is not about solving problems, but getting to know each other better. It is a journey of seeing evolution in our relationships.”
Like Engaged Encounter, Marriage Encounter also conducts ongoing monthly sharing groups, date nights, and service events to build community and reinforce skills learned through the experience.
Retrouvaille (pronounced ‘retro-vi’) “is for married couples facing difficult challenges in their marriages,” according to its website. This peer ministry is coordinated by Greg and Kathleen Fast, themselves past participants in a weekend program generally held at a retreat center or hotel twice a year. According to Kathleen Fast, it is open to all couples who are in a valid marriage, regardless of religious affiliation. Divorced and separated couples seeking to heal their marriage are also welcome, she added.
Three couples (at least one of whom has experienced infidelity in the marriage) and a priest present content to participant couples who, according to Greg Fast, “have experienced misery in their marriage, and are looking for ways to overcome that. We do not ask couples to discuss their problems; we share our problems with them.” Kathleen concurred. “Greg and I have a heart for marriage. We had a lot of our own struggles. We were desperate,” she said of her weekend experience, which helped to heal their marriage. Kathleen also stated that the program is strictly confidential. The presenting team knows only the participants’ first names. Those offering prayer support during the weekend are only given their initials. “We are very careful to respect their privacy,” she said. Follow-up is extensive, involving ten to twelve post sessions on specific topics “to take them deeper into the dynamics of marriage and help them back to a healthy place.” Community building, support, and encouragement are ongoing to those who avail themselves, and those inclined are also encouraged to offer support to other struggling couples through the weekend experience.
The past year has seen a hiatus of weekend in-person offerings, though virtual experiences are offered around the country, and post-weekend sessions are offered through Zoom. The Fasts acknowledge that there seems to be some stigma about Retrouvaille. Couples don’t want others to know of their involvement with what Kathleen described as “the best kept secret of the Catholic Church.”
Alaska Natural Family Planning Judy McCarthy has been teaching the Billings Ovulation Method to engaged couples and others at Providence Hospital for over 17 years.
NFP “teaches the beauty and science of Natural Family Planning as a morally acceptable way of creating and spacing a family,” states its website. Locally, instruction has moved to a Zoom format, and some form of the course is required for Catholic couples as part of marriage preparation.
“It teaches how to communicate regularly about difficult topics. That communication makes you a better team,” McCarthy said.
The method taught by McCarthy has been in existence since 1969, is extensively researched, and, when properly understood and followed, highly effective. Instructors are trained and engage in continuing education.
The Zoom format has enabled McCarthy and others to reach out to more people throughout the archdiocese, though there are online courses available as well. “I want to help people be in accordance with natural law and God’s law,” she said of her long involvement with the organization.
Project Rachel “is a ministry of the Catholic Church in the United States to those who have been involved in an abortion,” its website contends. “[Abortion] is a big issue for people considering marriage, not something to be kept secret,” according to Carol Szopa, who heads this ministry in Anchorage.
“A couple needs to be open to each other,” she said of the challenges that past abortions can bring to a marriage, especially in cases where women have been coerced.
Szopa, who is excited to begin working with people in Southeast Alaska, said, “Anyone who wants abortion healing, we will work with them.” Her team is expanding to meet the needs of the larger archdiocese. “A family needs to know, God’s mercy is with the person who has had an abortion. Family is important.”
Missionary Families for Christ/El Shaddai Prayer Group is an evolving marriage and family life support group that grew out of Couples for Christ, “a Catholic movement intended for the renewal and strengthening of Christian family life,” according to its website. Father Luz Flores heads up this ministry which consists primarily of Filipino families—and is part of a larger charismatic Catholic movement based in the Philippines.
Before COVID-19 restrictions, a group of 25 to 40 people would gather at Holy Family parish in Anchorage for prayer, singing, continuing education, and fellowship. Father Luz said the regular meetings include “young adults, little kids, grandmas, all family members.” They are often occasions for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, “everything from births to weddings,” he added.
Anyone is welcome to join, Father Luz emphasized, with the hopes that others—not just the Filipino community—will see the value of gathering and supporting families in faith enriching activities.
Lessons learned from innovation and adaptation to the Coronavirus pandemic have expanded the possibilities of ministering to the far-flung parishes and missions that make up the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau. Technology will continue to bring communities of believers closer and allow more folks to avail themselves of the teaching and healing ministries of the Church.
If you would like to get involved in one of the marriage ministries, please contact Deacon Mick Fornelli at firstname.lastname@example.org.