“Marriage Encounter, yes! You are doing such important work in our Church, especially in this world we live in.”

So said Pope Benedict XVI while meeting with the coordinators of Worldwide Marriage Encounter International in January. Enjoying the papal audience from the United States were the three leaders of the organization in this country — Mill Hill Missionary Father Emile Frische of New York City and Tony and Cathy Witczak of Wayne, Pa.

“The Pope giving recognition to us gives credence that here is a movement in our Church the clergy and public need to pay attention to,” Tony Witczak told the Register. “It’s worthwhile and it has a mission.”

Pointing out that Marriage Encounter works closely with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cathy Witczak says that, in 2007 alone, some 29,921 couples and 424 priests went on Encounter weekends presented by 6,159 couples and 1,229 priests.

The work has come a long way since 1968, when the first Marriage Encounter weekend was held in the States. Father Chuck Gallagher modeled it on the original started in Spain by Father Gabriel Calvo in the 1950s. From those inauspicious beginnings it spread beyond the Catholic faith; by now, more than seven million couples worldwide have made a Marriage Encounter.

“It’s really a miracle that never has a couple or priest been refused a Marriage Encounter weekend because they can’t afford it,” says Tom Watson of Denver, Colo. He and wife Katie are part of the national board.

The other miracles are what a Marriage Encounter weekend does to make good marriages better, revitalize struggling marriages and inflame tepid couples in the faith. The weekends, which run from Friday evening to late Sunday afternoon, encourage everyone from recently married to older couples to look deeply into their relationship with each other and with God.

One high point of the weekend is when spouses learn new communication skills during presentations led by couples and a priest. Watson calls the communication technique, plainly enough, “Dialogue.” It teaches couples how to share their deepest thoughts and feelings in a loving way that leads to mutual understanding and edification.

Powered Vows

It may sound simple, but Dick and Diane Baumbach of Merritt Island, Fla., know it works. They went on their first Marriage Encounter Weekend while living in Elmira, N.Y., in 1976. They were “sent” by a priest who was at a loss as to how to help them resolve their differences.

“Marriage Encounter brought us back into relationship with each other, brought us back to the Church and really changed our lives,” recalls Dick. So much so that, after that weekend, they immediately volunteered with Marriage Encounter to bring other couples that same joy and fulfillment they’d found.

Today the Baumbachs, along with Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Gerry Bolduc, are the Southeast United States Ecclesial Team for Worldwide Marriage Encounter.

Dialogue is what most couples need, explains Father Bolduc. “If you know how to use that you can use it for the rest of your life. It will help you communicate in a dispassionate way so you won’t be fighting. People who dialogue regularly (using Marriage Encounter techniques) can handle absolutely anything.”

What’s more, the weekend often reaches beyond the couple and into the community. The Baumbachs recount the time they offered to teach a CCD class together, as a couple. The teens, says Diane, “looked at us as if we were four-headed people. But at the end of the program the majority of kids came to us and said: We want a relationship like you have and want to do this with our wives or husbands when we get married.”

Divorce Buster

Tom Watson sees Marriage Encounter helping couples understand the sacramental nature of their relationship. “Katie and I understand this not for us but for the Church,” he says. “God has given us to each other not only for the benefit of each other but also for the benefit of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Church.”

At first Father Bolduc, also pastor of a parish in Miami, saw the Encounter as for couples only. But after he attended his first in Maine, his perspective changed. “There I really discovered how the weekend was also for priests, in the sense the priest is a spouse to the Church,” he says.

Even bishops have made the weekend, say the Watsons. Priests dialogue with another attending priest or the one on the presenting team.

Father Frische of the national secretariat had his own personal Encounter in 1998. “The two sacraments complement each other so well,” he says of marriage and holy orders, and how he’s grown in his priesthood relating with couples like the Witczaks and seeing their sacrament blossoming.

Benefits multiply. Katie Watson says the understanding of the Church and what it means to their relationship brings couples back to the Church. There are many conversions on weekends, and some non-Catholic spouses become Catholic.

“Frequently many come back to the Church through the sacrament of penance or the Eucharist itself,” says Father Bolduc. He has helped many reconnect. “It’s a powerful tool of conversion. At the end of the weekend invariably people share how it’s reawakened their faith and how they see the Church as a vital, living entity, breathing reality. That’s the most significant thing to me.”

He can’t help but notice how Marriage Encounter has helped couples stay together. For Catholics who went on weekends, the divorce rate is infinitesimally small — 2% as opposed to the overall 50% average.

As Marriage Encounter celebrates its 40th anniversary this year in June, its leaders are looking at incorporating the theology of the body into the Encounter weekends. That would be fitting, since another major supporter of Marriage Encounter was Pope John Paul II.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen

is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.

For More Info

Worldwide Marriage Encounter wwme.org

(800) 795-LOVE