What’s the first image that pops to mind when you hear the words “Midtown Manhattan”? The bright neon lights of Broadway? Elaborate displays in upscale department-store windows?

How about a still, quiet place where engaged couples go to find rich teaching and steady encouragement to help them build solid sacramental marriages?

Those on their way to the altar can find the latter, and more, at the Church of Our Savior at Park Avenue and 38th Street. That’s where the Love & Responsibility Foundation rolls out its pre-Cana program with the full blessing of the parish’s pastor, popular writer and speaker Father George Rutler.

Love & Responsibility co-founder Peter McFadden and his wife, Anna, teach the eight-week, parish-based program they launched four years ago. Once couples from nearby parishes got wind of what was going on at Our Savior, they started showing up, too.

Father Richard Baker, pastor of St. Malachy’s Church across Midtown (affectionately known as “the Actors’ Chapel”), recommends the program without reservation.

“It’s modern, it’s updated and it shows the Church in a positive light, emphasizing that our teachings are freeing, not enslaving,” says Father Baker. He’s the New York Archdiocese’s director of sacred music and a professor at St. Joseph Seminary. “Through his program, Peter has been able to show the richness of what we believe marriage is.”

Coincidentally, St. Malachy’s hosts Love & Responsibility Foundation’s twice-monthly study groups of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, which the McFaddens also teach.

That’s why little explanation is needed when McFadden says, “My wife and I became passionate about marriage thanks to John Paul II. We have educated ourselves as to what makes marriage work.”

Rewarding ‘Rituals’

Their knowledge and zeal attracts couples like Carolyn and Gilbert Colon, married last June. The Colons examined several approved pre-Cana groups before choosing Our Savior’s. They liked the eight-week format.

“We both agreed that this was a building block for our spiritual life as a couple,” says Carolyn. “We wanted to get the most we could out of it.”

Participating couples have one-on-one sessions with McFadden after they take the “Foccus” pre-marriage inventory that’s used and encouraged by several dioceses and parishes across the country. (The word is an acronym for Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study.)

McFadden tells couples about the importance of daily “rituals,” or good habits, which he and Anna started practicing after they realized they were already taking each other for granted and declining in joy, less than a year after their 2003 marriage.

One of the million-dollar habits he learned and teaches — “Express joy at the end of the workday” — comes from a combination of John Paul’s thought and two marriage psychologists.

“I jumped up from my computer, met my wife coming home from work and said, ‘Anna, I have to dance with you,’” says McFadden. “We’ve been dancing every day since then.” Thanks to this small and simple gesture, “every day we have romance, affection and, most important, that deep emotional connection that comes from asking every day, ‘How are you doing?’

“These good habits have totally turned our marriage around,” says McFadden, “and these are things couples understand.”

From theology of the body, the McFaddens build a foundation on John Paul II’s examination of Jesus’ words on marriage, going back to what God intended from the beginning in Genesis. It all started, of course, with Adam’s joyful response at seeing Eve for the first time.

With John Paul’s teachings, McFadden incorporates the wisdom of the Church and the best in marriage psychology pointed out to him by Dr. Philip Mango, president of the St. Michael Institute for the Psychological Sciences and former professor at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

“What’s outstanding is this research totally confirms and supports the validity of our Catholic Church teaching,” says McFadden. “The theology of the body ties everything together and adds a grandeur to all these facts.”

Practical and Proven

Carolyn Colon also appreciated the speakers on all marriage and family-related topics the McFaddens make available on CDs and podcasts. “It was really intense, and not just what the ideal would be, but specifically what the Church teaches on these topics,” says Carolyn. “We even go back and listen to the CDs again, and pass them on to people.” She has sent them to her brother, who’s preparing for marriage.

One required session centers on natural family planning. Couples get the scoop from Anna, a certified teacher of natural family planning.

This is bearing fruit. Already fully one-third of these pre-Cana couples meet one-on-one with Anna over the course of a year for natural family planning instruction.

“It was something I had never known about,” says Carolyn Colon. “But this was a wonderful opportunity for us to learn that method before we had our wedding in June.”

Shanna Bowman and her fiancé, Anton Orlich, will be married in March. Both were well-formed in the faith going in, but wanted practical applications for marriage specifically. “Anton and I have done the little exercises Peter’s given to us, and we’ve talked about it afterwards,” Shanna says. “Both of us wanted to make sure those good habits are in our marriage because we’re obviously committed to making our marriage last, both in name and in function.”

“To make anything worthwhile you have to have God in the center of your life,” she continues. “Peter focused on this for one full class and throughout the course as he talked about these practical aspects. It’s been like a spiritual retreat for us as we’re preparing for marriage.”

The Colons also grew spiritually. Simultaneously, both were going through Our Savior’s RCIA program — she as a convert and he preparing for confirmation. They were confirmed together last Easter Vigil.

 After being introduced to the theology of the body in pre-Cana, the Colons got involved with McFaddens’ twice-monthly Theology of the Body Times Square group at St. Malachy’s.

“We wanted a way to continue to learn and grow together outside of devotions,” says Carolyn, “something to be involved in in our life as a couple and our vocation as a family. This has been terrific.”

No wonder Peter McFadden would like to see parishes strongly consider adopting similar small-group pre-Cana programs.

“Stretching the program over eight weeks helps the couple grow closer as couple,” he says. “And it certainly helps them grow closer to the Church.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen

writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.