By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic
[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – Amid high divorce rates and low church attendance, it turns out what young couples need from the Catholic Church isn’t necessarily more teaching. They need good mentors.
That’s what Mary-Rose and Ryan Verret, founders of marriage mentorship program Witness to Love, found after interviewing more than 400 engaged couples over seven years.
Most marriage preparation programs “are presenting all this great information, but it’s not changing their hearts or strengthening their marriages,” said Mary-Rose.
Witness to Love is being introduced in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, the first in Canada to use the program.
Hundreds of engaged couples in the United States have attended conferences by the Verrets as part of mandatory preparation before saying “I do” in a Catholic church. But after looking around in the pews on Sundays and noticing those crowds of couples were nowhere in sight, Ryan and Mary-Rose realized even the most lively, informative lectures don’t reach soon-to-be-weds in the place that matters most.
“We were giving these great talks, and people were smiling and laughing … then running over each other in the parking lot because they couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” said Mary-Rose.
“Most of them didn’t want to be there, and for those who didn’t mind being there, if we got through to them, there was no way for us to follow through.”
That realization planted a seed. The Verrets began looking into how to give young couples a good start to their marriage and keep them coming back to Church. They found young couples were often missing good mentors.
“Mary-Rose and I grew up in the generation starting in the early 2000s that saw the breakdown of trust between young people, our peers, and the Church,” said Ryan.
Young people tend to “distrust hierarchical structures, higher authorities, and experts. What they are drawn to are witnesses, people sharing their lives, and authenticity.”
Engaged couples didn’t want just any mentor, either. Some had been paired with couples in their churches but had no real connection with them. The relationship fizzled as soon as marriage preparation requirements were fulfilled.
“Rules without relationships lead to rebellion,” said Ryan.
“Where there is a relationship first, it’s a lot easier to talk about things that are a bit more challenging or not culturally cool,” like Church teaching on divorce or birth control. “Evangelization today begins not with an argument, but with a witness.”
Their research and hard work eventually became Witness to Love, a program for engaged couples that involves talking about the real stuff of marriage with mentor couples they actually like (and choose for themselves) and will stick around for the long haul.
“A couple you admire can say really directly to you: ‘You need to appreciate each other more.’ Or, ‘Your children are turning out beautifully. Good job.’ They can be so direct and supportive and cut to the chase in a way no one else really can,” said Mary-Rose.
She said her parents were divorced and it wasn’t until she was studying at a Catholic college that she came to know adults in healthy relationships and realized, “Wow, I want a marriage like that.”
For those who don’t know any married Catholics well enough to choose them as mentors, Mary-Rose says churches should identify a few recommended couples the future brides and grooms can get to know and choose from.
The Verrets have been married for 10 years, have five children, and are excited about the enthusiasm in the Archdiocese of Vancouver for their marriage mentorship program. While various Canadian parishes have been using Witness to Love for years, they said Vancouver is the first Canadian diocese to implement the program across the board.
So far, a handful of parishes are participating in a pilot version of the program. The plan is to expand it so every couple married in a Catholic parish in the Lower Mainland can develop lasting relationships with each other, with their mentors, and with the Church.
“It’s healthy and productive for someone to walk the walk you’re going in and show you the tricks of the trade, per se,” said Ryan.
Mary-Rose added that mentor couples, who must be active Catholics married five years or more, benefit from participating in the program too.
“There are always going to be times when you feel like your tank is empty and you need community, friendship, witness, and support to fill your tank again,” she said.
“It forms a really powerful friendship when two couples are growing together.”
The Verrets will be in Vancouver Nov. 29 and Nov. 30 to offer two workshops for potential mentors and people hoping to improve marriage preparation in their parishes. Their visit marks the formal launch of Witness to Love in the archdiocese.
More information available at Archdiocese of Vancouver website.