After engaged couples from several parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Chicago took a marriage course at the city’s large St. Alphonsus Church — which alone sees more than 100 weddings a year — many of the spouses-to-be began attending Mass every week.
That’s how Father Thomas Aschenbrener knows that the “One in Christ” program for engaged couples is having a powerful impact.
One of the co-creators of the program, and a former associate pastor at St. Alphonsus, he recently became a Canon Regular of St. John Cantius at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, where he continues to see profound conversions and a new appreciation for marriage and the faith through the program.
“It’s not only a weekend about marriage, but a catechesis reinvigorating their faith life,” says Father Aschenbrener of “One in Christ.”
Since “One in Christ” was launched almost five years ago with the inspiration and approval of Cardinal Francis George, more than 1,000 couples in the archdiocese have taken the program, which replaced other pre-Cana courses.
“In the vast majority, we see a shift in thinking,” says Father Paul Stein, pastor of St. Sylvester’s Church, the program’s other co-creator. With this presentation, couples are surprised by the beauty and sense of Church teachings regarding marriage in all aspects as “One in Christ.”
Suddenly, it makes sense to them, he says. One of the key changes is “people have a much greater respect for Church teaching, even if they don’t agree with it.” Most, however, do end up agreeing, says Father Stein.
Rooted in Scripture, Tradition, the lives of the saints and papal encyclicals, the two-day program travels from Genesis, through salvation in Christ, to the vocation of marriage, Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) and Casti Connubii (Christian Marriage), and on to Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.
There’s even talk of money: how to see it as a means to serve God.
The course takes the Hans von Balthasar approach of presenting the truth, beauty and goodness of something to get to its core. This approach, say the co-creators, is very appealing to today’s couples, assaulted as they are by much secular negativity about marriage.
For instance, couples learn they’re to give 100% to their spouses and to seek the other’s holiness, integrity, goodness, salvation and sanctification. Says Father Aschenbrener, “That’s so new to them. They get excited and say, ‘Wow, I never thought I have that responsibility.’”
Help Toward Heaven
That responsibility captured John and Katie Costantini, both 31, who were married May 9 at St. Alphonsus. John was struck by the idea of his wife being his ticket to heaven. Now he lives it. “Katie keeps me focused on my faith,” he says, “and, hopefully, I do the same for her.”
Before this program, Katie hadn’t considered this dimension of matrimony. “But it’s so simple and how it should be,” she says. “Since then, we’ve taken an active role in encouraging each other with everything.”
Another important facet of “One in Christ” is teaching couples to pray together daily, beginning while the course is under way. While 90% never prayed together before the program, this lesson also causes great excitement for couples like the Costantinis, who immediately began praying together while engaged.
“It’s gotten to the point where it’s part of our daily life, especially before meals,” says John. “It’s not something younger people necessarily do or talk about. For Katie and me, it’s part of our life and important. It has strengthened our relationship.”
“It reinforced putting God first in our lives,” says Katie, who adds that, prior to the course, they prayed together only while attending Mass. In fact, she became a convert during their engagement.
Witnesses, both live and appearing in video presentations, are an important part of the course, together with priests and couple presenters like Mary-Louise Kurey and her husband, Brian. She is director of the Respect Life Office for the archdiocese. The Kureys talk about infertility and related issues.
“Catholic couples don’t know what treatments are acceptable and in line with God’s plan,” she explains. At first, some who might face infertility might seem angry about what the Church teaches on the unacceptability of in vitro fertilization. But it’s a different story when they learn the details of the serious moral ramifications. The same goes concerning the huge health risks of contraception. The couples get a full introduction to natural family planning (NFP).
The Kureys’ presentation is part of the second day, the whole of which is devoted to the unitive and procreative ends of marriage. The goal is to teach couples how to keep those two ends together and show how that will lead to a happy, healthy and holy marriage.
Seeing the Light
“One in Christ” stresses that children are a gift, not a right, says Father Aschenbrener. “A lot of couples say, ‘For so long we heard children are a burden or expensive, but it’s so refreshing to hear children are a good thing.’ A month after their wedding, they come to us and say, ‘We’re pregnant.’ Before, they never thought of having children right away.”
The priest adds that he knows of at least 20 couples who could not have children but who followed the teachings presented at “One in Christ” and now have adopted or are pregnant.
Even as couples see new beauty in sacramental matrimony, they also learn how contraception and premarital relations tarnish and distort the great gift God has given us in the marital union, explains Father Aschenbrener. These are things they don’t hear in our culture and don’t realize are part of a spiritual battle.
Many take these lessons to heart straightaway. While a lot of the couples are already having premarital sex — sadly, between 25% and 50% are living together when they enter the program — many participants e-mail or verbally report that they’ve seen the light and have begun living chastely.
And now “One in Christ” is available to couples outside the Chicago area. The entire course is available for a freewill donation to cover shipping and handling. Each CD comes with full PowerPoint presentations with custom graphics and speaker notes. Included are videos from the Gift Foundation, with married couples witnessing to every talk (GiftFoundation.org).
Two videos on the CD introduce couples to NFP with well-known speakers such as Martha Garza and Janet Smith. A supplemental CD has two talks, one by Kurey on reproductive technologies and infertility.
Father Aschenbrener says his great joy is “knowing couples have experienced conversion, but also experienced in a new and profound way the gift God desires to give — the whole gift of vocation, that particular call in their life.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
INFORMATION To order the “One in Christ” marriage program, e-mail Father Thomas Aschenbrener at FrAschenbrener@aol.com.